Researchers discover low-grade nonwoven cotton picks up 50 times own weight of oil

Jul 31, 2014

Texas Tech University researchers recently discovered that low-grade cotton made into an absorbent nonwoven mat can collect up to 50 times its own weight in oil.

The results strengthen the use of as a natural sorbent for oil, said Seshadri Ramkumar, professor in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at Texas Tech who led the research. The results were published in the American Chemical Society's journal Industry & Engineering Chemistry Research.

Ramkumar is a creator of Fibertect, a nonwoven decontamination wipe developed by researchers at Texas Tech capable of cleaning chemical and biological agents. Vinitkumar Singh, a doctoral candidate working under Ramkumar, performed the experiments in this study. This multidisciplinary project involved scientists from Cotton Incorporated and Texas Tech's Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Environmental Toxicology.

"With the 2010 crude oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which resulted in the major spill of about 4.9 million barrels of oil, it became apparent that we needed new clean-up technologies that did not add stress to the environment," Ramkumar said. "This incident triggered our interest in developing environmentally sustainable materials for environmental remediation."

In the four-year project, scientists tried to create a fundamental understanding of the effect of fiber structure and basic characteristics of cotton on oil sorption capacity of unprocessed raw cotton. The work also examined the basic mechanisms behind oil sorption by nonwoven cotton webs.

"We believe nonwoven cotton webs as an oil sorbent have tremendous potential for application in real-time oil spill scenarios along with environmental sustainability and commercial acceptability," Ramkumar said. "In this study, we have used low-grade cotton as well as mature cotton, and it was observed that low-grade cotton performs better than regular mature cotton in the oil sorption capacity. Nonwoven cotton batts consisting of immature and finer cotton fibers showed 7 percent higher oil sorption capacity than cotton batts developed using mature and coarser fibers. Cotton batts could be used to clean up oil spills on land as well as any oil-water system."

Ramkumar and his researchers are working with Texas Tech's Office of Technology Commercialization to take this new technology into commercial space within a span of 12 months. Recently, there have been some active interests to evaluate our product for further consideration, he said.

"Our research shows cotton as a high-performance fiber that can be deployed to clean up toxic oil spills," Ramkumar said. "More importantly, the sorption by environmentally friendly and natural sorbents like aligned nonwoven cotton made from raw unprocessed cotton and correlation with its characteristics, such as cotton quality, fineness and maturity, are not reported at all to our best knowledge."

Explore further: A more earth-friendly way to make bright white cotton fabrics

More information: Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., 2014, 53 (30), pp 11954–11961. DOI: 10.1021/ie5019436

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