Oil spills are environmental disasters that should avoided at all costs, but at least when they do occur, nature has developed a better way of cleaning them up. Surprisingly, that solution is a material you may already wear every day: cotton.
Laboratory research has uncovered that a single pound of low-grade cotton can absorb 30 pounds of oil, making it an efficient tool in sopping up oil that has leaked where it was never intended. The cotton not only absorbs some of the oil, but the oil also naturally clings to the surface of cotton.
But why the cheap stuff? Shouldn’t we be allocating the best cotton available to such an important task? As it turns out, high-grade cotton cannot do the job nearly as well. Experiments found that top quality cotton absorbs less of the oil, meaning that the inferior cotton that is usually rejected for consumer use suddenly holds a lot of value for this specific purpose.
That means the discovery of cotton is not only a boon for wildlife, environmentalists and oil companies, but also cotton farmers with typically less desirable crops. This type of cotton is particularly common in Western Texas.
Because of this lower quality cotton’s waxy texture, it does not absorb water, meaning it will be especially suitable for cleaning up oil spills in oceans, rivers and lakes. Experts hope to also use the cotton to create technology that can prevent oil sheen from seeping into wetlands.
Dr. Kater Hake, coauthor of the research, says, “The use of low-micronaire cotton to combat crude oil spills is another example of how the industry is eliminating waste and maximizing the environmental value of cotton.” He points to other cotton research in recent decades that has allowed farmers to decrease the amount of pesticides and water necessary to raise the crop as additional ways that cotton has become more environmentally friendly.
In the past, scientists have explored other types of fibers’ usefulness in cleaning oil, including barley straw, wool and kapok. However, none of them proved as effective as cotton.
At the least, cotton will be a welcome alternative to the toxic chemicals that oil companies have used to “clean” their mistakes after previous spills. The “Corexit” material BP used to clean oil in the Gulf Coast may have helped to remove the oil, but not without doing some additional damage to the wildlife population residing there.
Obviously, reducing our dependency on oil or preventing the spills from occurring in the first place would be far preferable to cleaning up oil more efficiently. Until we successfully halt pipeline construction, however, having an improved solution for handling the countless spills that happen on a regular basis is a great way to mitigate the damage.