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Although it is painful to think about the potential for future oil spills, the reality is that disasters like Deepwater Horizon can still occur. Prevention of oil leeching into our rivers and oceans should of course be first priority, but in recognizing that is a high potential to for future post-disaster remediation, research was recently conducted at Texas Tech University to look at the best materials to do the job. Through the study, Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar, manager of the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory at Texas Tech, found that raw cotton is an abundant, low cost, and highly absorbent material able to sop up 30 times its own weight in oil.
Ramkumar’s study found specifically that low micronaire cotton, which is low cost and farmed extensively in nearby West Texas, was very effective as an oil absorbent. Micronaire is a fiber industry measurement of air permeability, meaning that low micronaire cotton is very fine and has thin cell walls. “In this region, about 10 percent of the cotton grown in West Texas is low micronaire,” says Ramkumar. “It doesn’t take a dye well, so it gets discounted. However, because low-micronaire cotton is less mature, it shrinks, and you are able to pack more fiber into a given area. The strength here is that the low-micronaire cotton absorbs the most crude oil. The oil is not only stuck to surface, the oil gets absorbed into the fiber.” Low micronaire cotton also has a natural waxiness that makes it water repellent, so it sucks in oil, but not sea water. The study is getting a lot of attention in particular for its economic potential for West Texas, because it shows that cotton that was thought of as relatively useless, may now be a huge help for oil disaster relief.
The study also helps point out just how difficult clean up of a crude oil spill can be. Ramkumar’s research team explains how crude oil is very different from the refined motor oil consumers are familiar with. “It’s very dense and releases toxic vapors. It’s not as easy to get picked up.” The team found that the raw cotton’s absorption of the oil was well higher than synthetic sorbents. Because the cotton tested was in the raw form, direct from a bale that a farmer would harvest, this makes it a much better option than a manufactured synthetic requiring a lot of energy to produce.
With the advent of the Deepwater Horizon spill have come innovative and experimental solutions to bioremediation, such as oil eating bacteria, absorbent mushroom caps, and even thoughtful pet owners donating dog hair to be used as oil sopping pads. This new research proves that raw cotton is an extremely promising addition that could lead this growing list of clean up solutions.