Bananas Can Save the World from Oil-Tainted Waters

Danielle Rennard, Staff Writer

The solution to cleaning up devastating oil spills might be closer than everyone had expected. It might even be so close that you could find it on your kitchen counter. According to a new study, bananas may be the answer to cleaning up oil spills that pollute oceans and endanger marine life. Could this be possible? Could something so simple fix such a massive and complicated problem? Scientists are hoping that they have discovered the most efficient way to safely clean up oil and save oceans after terrible accidents.    
Indian researchers have conducted a study that has concluded that fibre from the stem of the banana plant can actually absorb oil from spills. Carbohydrate Polymers, an online journal published last month, announced that scientists have found that when treated with certain chemicals, the banana fibre can absorb up to 18 times their weight in oil. Scientists that carried out the study at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) in Mumbai, India stated that they knew the absorptive aspects of the banana fibre. The downfall was that the fibre absorbed both water and oil. This greatly reduced its effectiveness and made scientists question if the banana could still be a successful and plausible way to clean up oil spills. 

This banana fibre study was led by Mangesh D. Teli, who is a professor of fibre and textile at the ICT. As a result of the discovery that the fibre also absorbed water, the researchers created a way to treat banana fibres with chemicals. These chemicals would result in the fibres repelling water while absorbing oil, a fossil fuel.  The experiments showed that the fibres’ oil absorption capacity improved tremendously after they were acetylated, the addition of a molecule or compound, with acetic anhydride. The catalyst, a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction, used for the acetylation process was N-Bromosuccinimide.  
Teli told, “Banana fibre’s water absorbing property is because of the hydroxyl groups in the chemical structure of cellulose. When treated with acetic anhydride, the hydroxyl groups get converted into acetates, which do not attract water.”
Bhaskar Rao, a natural fibre scientist at ICT, told that not only was the absorption capacity of the banana fibre improved, but its durability was as well. However, Rao stated that the fibres might not be effective with oil spills that contain certain chemical pollutants. He explained that certain chemicals have a corrosive effect that the banana fibres would not be able to withstand. Prashant Kumar Bhattacharya, professor of chemical engineering at ICT, also said that another issue was that there is organized collection of the banana fibre. 
Currently, organic compounds such as polypropylene and polyurethane are what mainly make up the large sponges used to clean up oil spills.  

The problem with this is that these synthetic materials are non-biodegradable and aren’t safely disposed. However, if sponges were made of acetylated banana fibre, the environment would not be harmed and the oil could be safely absorbed. If scientists can find a way to chemically enhance the fibre even more and allow it to not be effected by certain corrosive chemicals, the banana might be the answer to cleaning up horrendous oil spills.  

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