A crop that’s been around for thousands of years might just hold the key to cleaning up after the next disastrous oil spill (and unfortunately there will likely be one). A team of Texas Tech materials scientists has discovered that low-grade combed cotton, or raw cotton batting, can absorb 50 times its weight in oil, according to an article from The Society for Science. That beats what most plastics can do and, unlike plastic materials, cotton decomposes naturally when it’s no longer of use.
In its natural form, cotton has a waxy coating that will absorb oil and repel water, according to the article. Low-grade cotton absorbs even more than high quality, mature cotton because it has more wax and finer fibers, which offer a larger surface area for absorption. The Texas Tech findings may also offer hope to farmers whose crops don’t mature due to drought or other problems. While fabric mills typically don’t want to purchase low-grade cotton because it doesn’t handle dyes well, other agencies may welcome the product for its oil absorption properties.