SU scientists test plant fibers to use in oil spill cleanup

By Keitha Nelson - bio | email

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Scientists at Southern University are concerned that even after the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is contained, the aftereffects will linger. So, the team has formulated a method it thinks will contain the oil and be eco-friendly.

Scientists Kamran Abdollahi and Yemane Ghebreiyessus have come up with a possible solution they believe is biodegradable, easy to make and inexpensive. Abdollahi said he believes a good solution to absorbing the oil that will be left behind stems from a plant, found mainly in West Africa. Fibers from a plant called Kenaf are sturdy enough to make sacks that will soak up the oil, he said.

"Eventually, we will see that this thing is going to absorb the majority of the oil that's in the water," Abdollahi said while demonstrating the technique.

Professor Ghebreiyessus took a closer look at the Kenaf plant's fibers and noticed some special qualities.

"On the inside part of the plant, the pith looks like this, just like a Styrofoam," Ghebreiyessus said. "It has the ability to absorb oil."

While floating alone, the Kenaf fibers are able to tackle the oil.

"It's been absorbing a tremendous amount of oil," Abdollahi observed.

Abdollahi suggests making the Kenaf fibers into booms to help sop up the oily mess. Another option is placing wood chips into the sacks. The scientists say this way is even faster and it soaks up quite a bit.

"As you see, it would last longer in terms of staying afloat and it's easier to remove," he said.

Abdollahi said the sacks could be dropped by air or boat. Either way, he said, it should do the trick. Unlike man-made fix-it materials, Abdollahi said the sacks filled with Kenaf fibers are biodegradable. The scientists say the sacks wouldn't have to go to waste. They could be tossed into incinerators to burn energy.

Abdollahi said in about six months, after doing some more research on the method of absorbing oil by using fibers, he believes it will be a tremendous tool. He said in two weeks, the sacks will be tested on-site in an area affected by oil.

Kenaf can be grown in south Louisiana and Southern University is working on a proposal to grow it in marginal areas affected by hurricanes. Crawfish waste would be used as fertilizer, the scientists say.

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