Low-Grade Cotton Provides Eco-friendly, Effective Oil Spill Cleanup Solution

Researchers at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, have found that unprocessed low-micronaire
cotton surpasses other, higher grades of cotton in its ability to absorb oil, making it the most
effective cotton-based solution for cleaning up crude oil spills.

The research team, led by Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., manager of the Nonwovens and Advanced
Materials Laboratory at Texas Tech’s The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH), found
that one pound of the low-grade cotton can take up more than 30 pounds of crude oil, while
repelling water owing to its natural waxiness. The team published its findings in the American
Chemical Society journal “Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.”

“In this region, about 10 percent of the cotton grown in West Texas is low micronaire,”
Ramkumar said. “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,” he added, noting that
the oil sticks to the surface and is also absorbed into the fiber.

Noting the technological shortfalls seen in the cleanup efforts following the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill in 2010, Ron Kendall, director emeritus at TIEHH and special assistant to the
president, said the research team’s findings are a “breakthrough discovery” that answers the need
to improve oil cleanup technology. “It gives us an excellent tool for cleanup of shorelines,
animals and ecologically sensitive areas as well as a new technology for booms that can stop oil
sheen moving into wetlands. And it’s biodegradable,” he said. “This is just another added bonus use
for low-end Wet texas cotton.”

“Our interest was to see how raw cotton straight from the bale picks up the crude oil as well
as determining the governing mechanism behind picking up the crude oil,” Ramkumar said. “We show
through sophisticated testing that low-micronaire cotton is much finer and can pick up more crude
oil. And crude oil is very different from refined motor oil. It’s very dense and releases toxic
vapors. It’s not as easy to get picked up. 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 cleanup.”

Texas Tech graduate student Vinitkumar Singh performed laboratory experiments using crude
oil. Cotton Incorporated, Cary, N.C., and The CH Foundation, Lubbock, provided funding for the

May 21, 2013