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Indian-origin scientist has solution for oil spill

As BP struggles to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an Indian-origin scientist from Texas University has created a special cotton fabric that can clean up crude oil up to 40 times its weight and help in cleaning efforts.

world Updated: Jun 14, 2010 16:04 IST

As BP struggles to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an Indian-origin scientist from Texas University has created a special cotton fabric that can clean up crude oil up to 40 times its weight and help in cleaning efforts.

Seshadri Ramkumar, associate professor of the Texas Tech Institute of Environmental and Human Health, has created a non-woven environment-friendly cotton carbon absorbent wipes, Fibertect.

"Cotton fibre contains 0.5 per cent wax, which enables it to soak up 40 times its weight," Ramkumar said.

"The chemistry of cotton makes it the ideal material for oil absorption with its waxiness, strength when wet, absorption capacity and ability to biodegrade," explained Professor Ramkumar, who described his discovery as "a blessing in an ironic situation."

"The synthetic booms soak up only a third of what cotton absorbs and are not biodegradable. You take those plastics and where do you put them? In landfills. They will stay put forever," he added.

"Add chemicals and it could absorb up to 70 times its weight," he said.

Through his research with nonwoven cotton, Ramkumar may have found an all-natural way to absorb oil from spills.

Rather than spending money and effort on containment structures and synthetic materials, he recommends utilising cotton.

Ramkumar is surprised that why cotton had not been considered earlier, reported the A-J's Alyssa Dizon.

"We are the only ones..to my knowledge...focused on taking cotton to oil absorption using nonwoven technology," he said.

Unlike apparel production, there is no need to go through the expensive processes of dyeing, bleaching and weaving the cotton.

Since the explosion of an offshore rig more than a month ago, scientists and London-based BP oil company have been trying various methods to contain or soak up as much oil as possible, largely with limited or no success.

One cotton product Professor Ramkumar invented last year was Fibertect, a commercially sold nonwoven decontamination wipe that absorbs toxic chemical substances.

This is significant because now that the oil has reached the coastline, the nonwoven cotton technologies potentially could be doubly beneficial.

"Any wildlife rehabilitation that will occur we believe could be assisted with the Fibertect invention as well as other nonwoven applications from his lab," said Ronald Kendall, founding director of Tech's environmental institute.

"There are just so many applications of Dr Ramkumar's technology to take cotton and turn into products that we never even thought of before," he added.

The potential benefits of Dr Ramkumar's research stretch far beyond helping preserve the environment from natural and man-made disasters and raising Texas Tech's reputation in the higher education community nationally and internationally.

New opportunities for cotton are always good news for producers, especially if it will help them sell low-quality cotton, said Shawn Wade, director of communications for Plains Cotton Growers.