Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions (GC/CS)

Our Sustainable Future: Cotton offers a new ecologically friendly way to clean up oil spills

July 29, 2013

Cotton oil
Texas Tech University

Summary

With the Deepwater Horizon disaster emphasizing the need for better ways of cleaning up oil spills, scientists are reporting that unprocessed, raw cotton may be an ideal, ecologically friendly answer, with an amazing ability to sop up oil. Their report, which includes some of the first scientific data on unprocessed, raw cotton’s use in crude oil spills, appears in the ACS journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster emphasized the need for better ways of cleaning up oil spills. And today’s solution addresses this need. It is based on the finding that unprocessed, raw cotton may be an ideal, ecologically friendly answer, with an amazing ability to sop up oil.

The report, which includes some of the first scientific data on unprocessed, raw cotton’s use in crude oil spills, appears in ACS’ journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., explains that a particular need exists for oil-spill sorbents that are abundantly available at relatively low cost, and are sustainable and biodegradable. There have been extensive studies on fibers such as barley straw, kapok and wool — but there are also big gaps in knowledge about their basic crude oil-uptake mechanisms and no data on unprocessed raw cotton.

Here’s Ramkumar, who is at Texas Tech University, and is the lead author of the paper.

“My team decided to fill those gaps with research on the oil sorption properties of low micronaire cotton, a form of unprocessed cotton with relatively less commercial value.”

They report that each pound of the material has the ability to sop up and hold more than 30 pounds of crude oil.

“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).”

In the paper, the scientists say that in contrast to synthetic sorbents, raw cotton has a high crude oil sorption capacity and a positive environmental footprint. That makes it an ecologically friendly sorbent for oil spill cleanups.

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st century. Please check out more of our full-length podcasts on wide-ranging issues facing chemistry and science, such as promoting public health, developing new fuels and confronting climate change, at www.acs.org/GlobalChallenges. Today’s podcast was written by Katie Cottingham—that’s me—and I’m at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

Seshadri-Ramkumar-Ph.D.
Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D. Texas Tech University