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Mopping up oil spills

Human hair, wool and corn cobs have been used to mop up oil spills. Now waste paper joins the list, thanks to a new project.

Mopping up oil spills

Eco-symbiosis is en vogue. Indeed, this approach consists in using waste from one industry as raw material for another. It appears like an ideal solution for one of the most challenging type of pollution: oil spills.

“We very quickly made the connection between oil and fuel sorption and waste from the paper industry, which then started us thinking of papermill sludge as treasure rather than waste,” says Marko Likon, former CEO of the Koper, Slovenia-based Technological, Environmental and Logistical Centre (TOC). He was originally spearheading a EU funded project called CAPS.

In this project, papermill sludge is transformed into an absorbent capable of cleaning up oil, fat and chemical spills. Prime candidate for its use are ports, marinas, petrol stations, oil refineries, garages and even restaurants.

After separating and compacting, the paper waste becomes an absorbent that can be scattered on a hard surface spill, or over oil floating on the surface of water. In the latter case, the scattered material can then be encircled with a rope, which lassoes the pollution. When the calorific value of the absorbed substance is high, the material can be used as a secondary fuel source.

A first assembly line has already been tested in Slovenia.  “There are plans to expand our operation with a new production line within the Slovenian papermill and later on with another production line in Finland,” says Franc Cernec, Project Leader at TOC. The goal is to handle a quarter of the papermill waste produced in Europe, which currently represents over four million tonnes per year.

“Clearly, to put such waste material to the benefits as described has merit,” comments Grahame Mackenzie from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Hull, UK, who is testing the use of plant spore shells to mop up oil. The spore shells are made of the polymer sporopollenin which can be recycled. He adds: “On the face of it, the project seems to have been well thought through in terms of materials, costs and end use of product once recovered.”

However, some are more cautious on the value of such approach. “I would question whether this project brings value for money,” says Sudipta Seal, Director of the Advanced Materials Processing and Analysis Center at the University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA. His own project is looking to turn fly ash, one of the residues generated in combustion from power plants, into a cleaning agent. By comparison to the €1.5 million overall budget of the EU project, he claims he only spent $67,000 (€53,000) in US National Science Foundation funding for his project’s proof of concept.

By Jenny Gimpel

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement No 6419747th FWP