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'Use wool to mop oil spills' say luxury textile makers

Garage experiment leads to ecological breakthrough

04 April, 15:21
Textile designers with oil-mopping wool
Textile designers with oil-mopping wool
'Use wool to mop oil spills' say luxury textile makers

(ANSA) - Milan - A group of luxury textile executives have patented a new system of cleaning oil spills on the sea: mopping it up with raw wool.

The executives have designed a system to be installed on tanker ships that would enable crews to sponge up oily messes large and small, by dumping wool into the water and wringing it out like a sponge.

"Even we were stunned by the results," said Mario Ploner, CEO of Tecnomeccanica Biellese. Ploner headed the engineers who designed a 'kit' for tanker ships called Wores, based on the principle.

The executives from Biella - a district at the foot of the Alps in Piedmont famed for furnishing some of the world's finest wool textiles to luxury clothing makers - are exploiting natural qualities of wool that keep sheep warm and dry through the winter. Wool repels water, absorbs oil-like substances - like sheep's naturally occurring lanolin - and floats.

They found that wool can absorb roughly ten times its weight in oil without picking up water, and can also be wrung and reused up to ten or twelve times. Thus a kilogram of wool can be used to remove at least 100 kilograms of oil, they claim.

To demonstrate the principle, an assistant poured gooey, black, pungent motor oil into a vat of water in front of the journalists. He then scooped a handful of raw tufts of matted wool from a bag. With a few simple strokes, the globs of oil clung to the sopping wool, leaving the water limpid.

The assistant then tried a more ambitious trick of dumping a thick layer of oil on the water. The mechanical rollers for squeezing out oil from the wool began to seize up as the wool wound tightly around the rollers.

"With 10,000 kilograms of wool, we can clean up one million liters of oil in ten hours," said Luciano Donatelli, the man who came up with the idea. Donatelli heads a consortium of small and medium-sized fine-textile manufacturers as well as Biella's Union of Industrialists.

In August 2010, after news of repeated failures to abate the great black geyser spewing from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Donatelli remembered the peculiar hydrophobic properties of wool, a material he has worked with throughout his career, since an ill-fated day in his youth.

About 45 years ago, he and some buddies accidentally spilled naphtha in the family pond. Naphta is a petroleum product commonly used in camp stoves, lighter fluid, and cleaning solvents. Donatelli said they tried everything they could think of to clean it up, including paper and sand, without success.

A local mattress maker suggested they try using wool, which was also used by car mechanics for swiping away grease. The mattress maker knew the properties of wool, because it was commonly used to stuff mattresses in Italy at the time. The youths tried tackling the naphta with wool.

"It came out like a miracle," recounted Donatelli. "It cleaned up all the oil".

Remembering this event, Donatelli made a late-night call to his friend and colleague Mauro Rossetti, director of the Textile and Health Association of Biella, a group in charge of textile research and innovation, and urged him to test the idea.

Rossetti said he commandeered his wife's plastic dish basin from the kitchen to try out the idea in the garage. He recalled being dumbfounded by its effectiveness.

More tests followed in a laboratory, and Rossetti recruited Mario Ploner, CEO of Tecnomeccanica Biellese, a firm specialized in textile machinery. Ploner and his engineers set about designing a wool deployment system that could be installed on a tanker ship.

They say they can custom-build an oil cleaning kit for roughly one million euros on a 50-meter ship. They claim the cost is highly economical for ship owners, amounting to a tiny fraction of the cost of a new ship, which they say generally costs about one million euros per meter. They also say that outfitting old ships with a kit - and thus converting it into a cleaning ship - could be an effective way to redeploy ships on the verge of obsolescence.

Another advantage of the system, they say is that it works best with the lowest grade, ordinary, unprocessed wool, which is very coarse and full of greasy lanolin. This was an unexpected outcome. The executives thought light, processed wool, stripped of its lanolin would have the greatest absorbing capacity. Instead, they found that the coarser and richer in lanolin and other impurities, the more the oil clung to the wool. Such wool, which is found on sheep raised for milk, cheese, or slaughter, is normally unusable for clothing or other industrial purposes, and discarded.

"Farmers don't know what to do with the wool," said Rossetti. "This would enable them to get a small amount of revenue from it".

Rossetti says disposing of oil-tainted wool is relatively simple: it can be burned to produce heat. Oil recouped from wringing the wool could be refined and consumed at a regular refinery, further amortizing the cost of the kit.

The group, Gruppo Creativi Associati (GCA), has patented two kit designs: one for large ships and spills, and one for small ships and spot problems. Both designs are still virtual - computer-rendered - as the group has yet to build a physical prototype. They are currently searching for a large industrial partner to help them develop and commercialize their invention.

"There are not only garages in Silicon Valley," said Donatelli. "They also exist in Italy."