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Cotton may offer “eco-friendly” way to clean up oil

May 15, 2013
Courtesy of the American Chemical Society
and World Science staff

With the Deep­wa­ter Ho­ri­zon oil spill dis­as­ter em­pha­siz­ing the need for bet­ter ways of clean­ing up oil spills, sci­en­tists are re­port­ing that raw cot­ton may be an ide­al, eco-friendly an­swer. 

A cheap form of raw cot­ton has an amaz­ing abil­ity to sop up more than 30 times its own weight in oil, say sci­en­tists. A new re­port on the find­ings in In­dus­t­ri­al & En­gi­neer­ing Chem­is­try Re­search, a jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal So­ci­e­ty, in­cludes what re­search­ers call some of the first sci­en­tif­ic da­ta on un­pro­cessed, raw cot­ton’s use in crude oil spills.

The re­search­ers, Se­shadri Ramku­mar of Tex­as Tech Uni­vers­ity and col­leagues, say there’s a great need for oil up­take ma­te­ri­als that are abun­dant, cheap, sus­tain­a­ble and bi­o­de­gradable. There have been ex­ten­sive stud­ies on fi­bers such as bar­ley straw, ka­pok and wool, they ad­d—but big gaps in knowl­edge about their bas­ic crude oil-up­take mech­a­nisms and no da­ta on un­pro­cessed raw cot­ton. 

Ramku­mar’s team de­cid­ed to fill those gaps with re­search on the prop­er­ties of “low mi­cron­aire” cot­ton, a rel­a­tively cheap form of un­pro­cessed cot­ton. They re­port that the cot­ton fi­bers take up oil in mul­ti­ple ways, in­clud­ing both ab­sorp­tion and ad­sorp­tion, in which oil sticks to the out­er sur­face of the cot­ton fi­ber. These up­take pro­cesses to­geth­er are known as sorp­tion.

“In con­trast to syn­thet­ic sor­bents, raw cot­ton with its high crude oil sorp­tion ca­pa­city and pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print make it an eco­logic­ally friendly sor­bent for oil spill cleanups,” the re­port con­cludes.


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With the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster emphasizing the need for better ways of cleaning up oil spills, scientists are reporting that raw cotton may be an ideal, eco-friendly answer. A cheap form of raw cotton has an amazing ability to sop up more than 30 times its own weight in oil, say scientists. A new report on the findings in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, a journal of the American Chemical Society, includes what they say is some of the first scientific data on unprocessed, raw cotton’s use in crude oil spills. The researchers, Seshadri Ramkumar of Texas Tech University and colleagues, say there’s a great need for oil uptake materials that are abundant, cheap, sustainable and biodegradable. There have been extensive studies on fibers such as barley straw, kapok and wool, they add—but big gaps in knowledge about their basic crude oil-uptake mechanisms and no data on unprocessed raw cotton. Ramkumar’s team decided to fill those gaps with research on the properties of “low micronaire” cotton, a relatively cheap form of unprocessed cotton. They report that the cotton fibers take up oil in multiple ways, including both absorption and adsorption, in which oil sticks to the outer surface of the cotton fiber. These uptake processes together are known as sorption. “In contrast to synthetic sorbents, raw cotton with its high crude oil sorption capacity and positive environmental footprint make it an ecologically friendly sorbent for oil spill cleanups,” the report concludes.