May 122011
Long and short hair wool at the South Central ...

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A golden fleece?

BIELLA, in northwest Italy, is the centre of a cluster of woollen manufacturers and the home of Ermenegildo Zegna, a luxury clothing brand. A group of the town’s businessmen have, however, come up with a scheme far from the catwalks and seasonal collections. They plan to use wool, which is good at repelling water and absorbing oil, to soak up oil spills. The idea came to them after the Deepwater Horizon disaster and it would, they reckon, have worked better than the containment booms, chemical dispersants and other methods deployed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Earlier this year, Tecnomeccanica Biellese, an engineering firm that makes machinery for the woollens industry, carried out experiments using greasy wool to see how good the fleece was at gathering oil. It turned out to be very good. Coarse wool (the cheapest sort, with a fibre diameter of between 25 and 40 microns) was able to absorb ten times its own weight of heavy fuel oil, a refinery product similar to crude. Moreover, the oil could be squeezed out and the wool reused. Indeed, even after a dozen immersions in oil, for between 15 and 20 seconds each time, the wool’s absorptive capacity did not decline.

Moving out of the laboratory and onto the water with a working oil-collection system is the next step. In March the businessmen, who have called their project Wool Recycle Eco System, obtained patents for a containerised kit that can be set up in boats to deal with small spills, and for a bigger ship-based system to tackle large ones.

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