September 9, 2014
Crude oil is still washing ashore more than four years after the BP Deepwater Horizon accident spilled more than 200 million gallons of this petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. Fisheries, wildlife and ecosystems could suffer for decades. Now help for cleaning up such disasters comes from a crop people have grown for thousands of years: cotton. But this material is a lot different from the fabric in your favorite tee shirt.
To work well on oil spills, the substance used to pick up the mess — a sorbent — should sop up oil but not water. Cotton in its natural form has a waxy coating. As such, it will “absorb oil and repel water,” explains Seshadri Ramkumar. He’s a materials scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.