TTU Researchers Develop Super-absorbent Nonwoven Cotton Mat For Oil Spills

Researchers at Lubbock, Texas-based Texas Tech University (TTU) have engineered a absorbent mat using low-grade cotton that can collect up to 50 times its own weight in oil. Seshadri Ramkumar, professor, Department of Environmental Toxicology, TTU, and creator of Fibertect® nonwoven decontamination wipes, led the research project. He was assisted by doctoral student Vinitkumar Singh, who performed the experiments during the four-year project. The multidisciplinary research included scientists from Cary, N.C.-based Cotton Incorporated as well as researchers from TTU’s Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Environmental Toxicology. The team tried to develop a fundamental understanding behind the effect of fiber structure and basic cotton characteristics on oil sorption capacity of unprocessed raw cotton, as well as examine the basic mechanisms behind oil sorption by nonwoven cotton webs.
Findings were published in the American Chemical Society’s journal “Industry & Engineering Chemistry Research.”
“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,” said Ramkumar. “This incident triggered our interest in developing environmentally sustainable materials for environmental remediation.”
Ramkumar added: “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.”
The research team now is working with the Texas Tech Office of Technology Commercialization to bring the cotton batts to market within 12 months. Ramkumar reports there has been active interest in evaluating the product for further commercial development. 
“Our research shows cotton as a high-performance fiber that can be deployed to clean up toxic oil spills,” Ramkumar said. “More importantly, the oil 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.”
August 5, 2014