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Nonwovens' new role: Gulf Coast's lifeline: nonwovens industry rises to the incredible challenge of saving the Gulf Coast.

It didn't take long for the nonwovens community to respond to the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April. As its continued efforts to plug the leak fail, absorbent nonwovens booms are being deployed by the thousands to keep oil offshore. A boom is a five-foot-long nonwoven tube made in an eight to 12-inch diameter which is stuffed with various polypropylene materials, including meltblown nonwovens, and covered with netting.

At the end of May the total length of boom deployed as part of efforts to prevent oil reaching the coast was nearly 2.5 million feet, including over 730,000 feet of sorbent boom.


More Booms Needed

Despite the availability of booms, one month after the spill began, rescue efforts criticized for not using enough boom, for not positioning the material in the right places and for not having it installed as quickly as possible to preserve the coastline. For example, in Terrebonne Parish, west of the Mississippi River along the coast, booms reportedly sat waiting to be installed for more than a day.

On May 22, Florida Governor Charlie Crist sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano requesting more boom stating, "First, Florida must acquire adequate amounts of containment boom needed to protect our shores, beaches and estuaries. I ask you to take the urgent steps needed to ensure Florida has sufficient boom to respond to the new development of oil being present in the loop current. We must make the protection of Florida's coastline one of our highest priorities by ensuring Florida receives the boom our state needs and deserves."

According to a report published on Governor Crist's website on May 27, so far 259,950 feet of boom had been deployed and 12,600 feet were staged.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal also sharply criticized Washington and BP's response to the crisis in the Gulf. Mr. Jindal said that boom, skimmers, vacuums and jack-up barges were all in short supply. "Every day oil sits and waits for clean up more of our marsh dies," he said.

Emphasizing that he and other local officials met with parish leaders, emergency professionals and levee district officials to discuss strategies to fill the void in response efforts to stop the oil before it reached the marsh, Mr. Jindal said that while the state requested three million feet of absorbent boom, five million feet of hard boom and 30 'jack up' barges on May 2, on May 24 a total of 815,569 feet of hard boom had been received. Noting that 680,249 feet of this total had been deployed, Mr. Jindal said that 135,320 feet of hard boom was sitting and waiting to be deployed."In the last 24 hours, we have received only 5040 feet of hard boom. We need more boom, we need more resources, we need the materials we have requested to fight this oil and keep it out of our marsh and off of our coast," he said.

Nonwovens to the Rescue

As criticism of the federal response intensified, nonwovens companies were already rallying to the cause. One such company is Tipton, PA-based New Pig Corporation, a leading manufacturer of absorbents. The company, which has a facility not far from the disaster in Mobile, AL, is supplying five-to eight-inch diameter by 20 feet polypropylene booms to the effort. Polypropylene offers several advantages in oil containment.

"Polypropylene is advantageous because it has a natural affinity for attracting and absorbing oil products and repelling water. What's unique is the hydrophobic properties make it buoyant in water and also ideal for situations where you have oil on water. You don't want to put an absorbent in the water that is going to soak up all the water because it doesn't do any good for the oil," said Karen Hamel, New Pig's technical education manager.

Pointing out that absorbent booms can be produced more rapidly than containment booms, which are also being deployed in the Gulf, Ms. Hamel said, "Two or three operators can make a truckload of absorbent booms in one to two days. The shortest lead time we have seen for containment booms is 12 weeks. Absorbent booms are a great second line of defense. They can definitely be used as a primary defense. The difference is when they become saturated, they do need to be changed out."

The price of polypropylene scrap has escalated 30 to 80 cents per pound from the past couple of years because of the increased demand. "Everyone wants it and there's not enough to go around," Ms. Hamel said.

While New Pig has a supply of polypropylene the company is not taking any chances. It has created a boom that incorporates cellulose products. Dubbed Gulf Oil Spill Boom, it has a polypropylene skin and a hydrophobic cellulose filler. "We have tons of sources for that material and it doesn't deplete that already shallow pool of polypropylene out there. It can be made exactly the same way as the traditional polypropylene- filled boom. We have the skin outside, the netting and the rope to deploy and retrieve it. The only difference is we substitute the hydrophobic cellulose filler for the traditional polypropylene. The cost is actually a little lower than the polypropylene booms," said Ms. Hamer.

As oil continues to spill onto the coast, absorbent booms will be even more effective in marshy areas or along coastlines than in the ocean where there is a lot of turbulence. "The oil is on top of the water. Turbulence can easily get over a hard boom or an absorbent boom. When you get closer to the shore lines and the water isn't as choppy, booms are an excellent way to guard those areas," said Ms. Hamer.

Ms. Hamer said that New Pig has received some frantic calls from local municipalities as well as from marina and hotels owners since April 21. "People who make their livelihood from vacationers and tourism traffic are extremely anxious to get booms in place and get those preventative measures in place to preserve their livelihoods. These people are concerned (the spillage) will come their way and they want to do whatever they can before it gets there," she said.

Turkish spunmelt producer Mogul has been making boom material on its meltblown lines in Turkey for years. U.S. agent William Krupka has seen a strong increase in demand for its material, os much so that instead of using scrap, the company is now dedicating virgin material to its boom production.

Mr. Krupka, who recently visited the Gulf to see the devastation noted that absorbent booms are more effective in some waters than others. "The absorbent boom can be ripped apart by strong ocean currents. It's better suited to be used around swampy areas where water is more stable. There are a lot of inlets, mouths of rivers, creeks and streams around this area. The citizens are up in arms. They need a defense too. As this migrates from the ocean into those areas, you have slower moving water. It's more stable water so it will start to get 'stinky." That's where we come in with absorbent booms and other solutions."

Also lending its product to the efforts is Polyester Fibers, a manufacturer and distributor of high-loft nonwoven material. Through through its partnership with GeoHay, the company is offering a line of barrier filtration products made from recycled fibers. GeoHay can act as a filter along the coast line absorbing the oil and allowing the filtered water to flow back out freely, thus reducing the amount of exposure to oil contamination on the shoreline. Polyester Fibers, a supplier to a diverse set of markets including filtration, produces the recycled textile material which is integral to the construction of GeoHay.

"We are proud to be partnered with GeoHay and to be a part of minimizing the effects of the current disaster in the Gulf," said Shannon Marshall, CEO of Polyester Fibers.

Booming With Cotton

While polypropylene has been touted for its ability to soak up oil, Seshadri Ramkumar, associate professor at Texas Tech University's The Institute of Environmental and Human Health believes that cotton may do a better job to absorb the oil spill than the booms made of synthetic material.

Mr. Ramkumar developed Fibertect, a three-layer flexible, inert, nonwoven, non-particulate decontamination system that has been proven to be successful in absorbing and adsorbing chemical warfare agents, which may now prove useful in recovery efforts in the Deepwater Horizon disaster and other oil spills of similar size and severity.

Fibertect is manufactured by Hobbs Bonded Fibers for First Line Technology.

The three layers of material consist of a top and bottom fabric with a center layer of fibrous activated carbon that is needlepunched into a composite fabric. The top and bottom layers provide structural coherence, improving mechanical strength and abrasion resistance while the center layer holds volatile compounds, like oil.

Mr. Ramkumar said, "According to documented research published by many scientists, raw cotton can absorb up to 20 times its weight. But, when chemically modified, the material can hold more than two to three times that amount. And unlike synthetic materials like polypropylene that are currently used in many oil containment booms, Fibertect, made from raw cotton and carbon, is biodegradable."

First Line has submitted information on the Fibertect technology as an alternate response technology. In addition, several other oil companies are working to take precautionary measures in light of recent events and some are researching the benefits of keeping a cache of Fibertect on board rigs in order to start immediate clean-up in case of future spills.

"Fibertect has already proven to be effective in the bulk decontamination of chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals, but our proposal here is to use it to aid in the clean-up efforts in the Gulf," said First Line Technology president Amit Kapoor. "Fibertect allows for a green, environmentally safe, biodegradable technology that is perfect for the expanding effort to protect and decontaminate coastal lands and wildlife. We welcome the opportunity to work with the government, BP, or other oil companies in a joint effort to defend and preserve our planet."

While Mr. Ramkumar has not done any testing on the coast yet, he and his team are proposing to use discounted low micronaire raw cotton that attracts oil to develop oil-absorbent pads that could be used to soak up oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fibertect is currently used primarily by the military, first re-sponders and receivers, hospitals, hazmat teams and firefighters during decontamination, but the professor said it can absorb oil and hold volatile gases, making the material an obvious choice for cleaning up crude oil.

Commenting on the use of cotton in the Gulf, Rory Holmes, president of INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry said,"Raw cotton is waxy and it floats. It is also oil absorbent and can hold a lot of oil. The polypropylene might release the oil easier, but cotton should hold more."

Weighing in on the use of cotton, Ms. Hamer cautioned, "Cotton is a cellulose product. The catch with cotton is that, depending on what they blend it with, it can sometimes, not always, cause a boom to sink because it loses some buoyancy in water. It might have some land applications."

Lessons Learned

No one knows exactly how long the clean up will take. While mistakes may have been made and there may be plenty of blame to go around, there are lessons to be learned that may be helpful in preventing an unfortunate catastrophe in the future.

Douglas Brown, president of Biax-Fiberfilm Corporation, which manufactures machines for sorbents as well as other applications said that his customers are supplying more than 50% of the sorbents for the booms." On the news they show that they have one six or eight-inch boom lying across the shore. It should be 50 feet wide to prevent oil from coming in. That's one way of prevention that should have happened, but it didn't. It should be a huge wake -up call to everybody that they need to get this stuff deployed and catch it before it comes ashore," said Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown believes he has a solution in the event a spill occurs again. He envisions mounting a meltblown machine onto a large boat that could carry resin in pellet form. "They could probably carry 100,000 pounds of pellets on the boat and actually have a meltblown machine that blows it right into the water at the time of the spill or a day or two after. If they could contain it quicker it wouldn't spread around so fast. Our technology is advanced now to the point where we could do something like this. It probably wouldn't be any good to help with this one (spill) but if anything like this happened again it could be ready," said Mr. Brown.

Looking Ahead

Nonwovens experts foresee that the BP spill will undoubtedly present many environmental challenges for the marshes along the coast. They also envision nonwovens booms will be useful in getting things back to normal as quickly as possible.

"Nonwovens companies are producing the products that are proving most successful in adsorbing the oil that is flowing out of the BP well," said Mr. Holmes, adding, "Many have stepped up production to meet this incredible, unforeseen demand for meltblown nonwovens."

Ms. Hamer said, "As this starts to hit shore, it's hard to predict what's going to happen. I would predict a lot more absorbent use as it gets closer to shore lines. Now a lot of places have the boom. As the spill continues you may see them needing to restock over time. With absorbent booms, as they become saturated, they would need to be changed out. Depending on the size of the boom, booms can absorb with a 20-foot boom from eight to 20 gallons depending on their diameter, and the filler inside and the type of oil."

Mr. Krupka said the oil coming ashore is thick and syrupy. "The question is, How effective will the absorbent boom be for absorbing oils? It can be used for containment, but it's really for absorption. The oil is thick. If it gets too syrupy, there is the concern if this can wick it up fast. You also want to polish the water. There's going to be a sheen on the water. When this starts to become a sheen that's going into slower moving water, you have a mess on your hands. Now we're in the slower moving water going into the communities wreaking havoc on everybody. The spill is coming. Everybody is getting ready. The boom has been used for over 20 years. The basic concept of using polypropylene in a sock with a net is approved by the coast guard, and coast guards all over the world to be safe for use in the waterways."

by Sandra Levy * Associate Editor


According to the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration, oil spilled at sea begins to move and spread into very thin layers. The main purpose of booms is to protect shores or to corral the oil on the water to enhance recovery effectiveness of skimmers or other response techniques.

There are several types of boom, including hard boom, sorbent boom, and fire boom. All booms need to be placed and maintained in a coordinated strategy with other response alternatives to ensure their effectiveness.

- Hard boom is used to contain, deflect or exclude oil from shorelines. Hard boom is typically made of a durable PVC type material and comes in various sizes. These booms have inflated chamber above the water and a skirt below the water level. Ocean boom is designed for high seas and harbor boom is designed for sheltered waters. The primary difference is the strength of the material, size of the floatation chamber, and depth of the skirt.

Hard boom can be towed behind boats and concentrate oil in the apex of the boom to allow for skimmers to recover it.

Hard boom can also be anchored offshore of sensitive areas and exclude oil from reaching those locations. In this scenario, no oil is collected and oil is deflected to other locations.

Because booms can fail in winds and strong currents, often multiple rings of booms are placed to protect highly sensitive areas. Thus the linear miles of shoreline is not a good proxy for the amount of boom needed.

- Sorbent booms are made of materials that attracts oil but repel water. These materials are placed in fabric socks and look like a long sausage. Sorbent booms don't have the "skirt" that hard booms have; once saturated, the sorbents need to be removed.

- Fire booms are similar to hard booms, but designed to withstand the heat of the burning that can exceed 2000[degrees]F.

- Shoreline booming strategies are implemented to protect sensitive habitats and minimize the consequences of an oil spill reaching shore. There are tradeoffs in deciding where/when to place booms. Once deployed they are time consuming to tend and relocate. One strategy is to stage booms so that ready for deployment, but to wait to deploy until the oil approaches the area. That will ensure boom is in the optimal spot for the oil whether that was the original site or a secondary one.

Once the boom is in the water, it is difficult to move. Booming operations are sensitive to wind, wave and currents and need to be tethered and secured to keep from moving; they cannot be put out and forgotten. Rough seas can tear, capsize and shred booms. Currents over 1.5 knots or even a wake from a passing ship can also send oil over or under the boom.

Untended booms can be a barricade to wildlife. For example, booms can strand on shorelines and become a barrier to sea turtles adults and hatchlings. Boom anchors can damage corals and sea grass beds.

Booms also can be a barrier to ship traffic. Marinas and navigation channels need to remain open for response vessels and other commercial traffic.

Commercially available sorbent booms are a stark contrast to the recent reports of a need for human/pet hair and nylon stockings. Sorbent booms are the preferred method by response professionals because they are specifically designed to collect oil. Recent reports of a need for hair are exaggerated and not helpful to the response effort.

RELATED ARTICLE: Haircuts For A Cause

A hair raising effort to contain the flow of oil comes from San Francisco-based Matter of Trust, an environmental non-profit that has been creating highly absorbent booms to help clean up oil spills in the San Francisco Bay Area and other areas since 1998. Matter of Trust reuses donated hair clippings from hair salons, barber shops, pet groomers and wool farmers. The booms are made by stuffing hair clippings into recycled nylon stockings and covered in mesh to make booms or woven into hair mats.

Phil McCrory, a hairstylist from Alabama first discovered how hair could help soak up oil and aid in disaster relief. He observed the fur on Alaskan otters was completely soaked with oil during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. He began testing how much oil he could collect with the hair clippings from his salon and invented the "hairmat" to help clean up oil contaminated waters.

Matter of Trust has been collecting hair clippings, sorting them and shipping the fibers off to nonwoven needlepunch factories to make batches of hairmats to use for oil spill relief. Matter of Trust also creates booms from loose hair that is stuffed into nylon stockings which are then doubled up and tied together to surround and soak up oil.

Matter of Trust is currently fundraising to purchase its own needlepunch machine to make hairmats in their California-based headquarters. Not only will this help provide jobs and training for California community members, but it will also help assist in producing hairmats and booms at a higher rate.

According to Matter of Trust, "The U.S. has more than 300,000 hair salons and each one cuts an average of a pound of hair per day. By joining our relief effort and signing up for our donor program, your salon will help us make a difference in the ecosystem and to help prevent further damage from oil spills that continue to aggressively destroy coastal water ways."

It takes about a pound of recycled hair to make a hair mat that's a foot square and half an inch thick, according to Craig Gautier, who established Matter of Trust.

Lisa Gautier, executive director of Matter of Trust said, "We put shampoo because hair collects oil. It soaks up skin oils, grabs oil from the pollution in the air, and it can soak up petroleum in oil spills."

Matter of Trust has temporarily donated warehouses of various sites strategically placed along the Gulf Coast.

Renowned Paul Mitchell Salons has stepped up to the plate to help stop the flow of oil. From April 20-24, the nearly 100 Paul Mitchell Schools in the U.S. offered $10-15 haircuts and donated the hair clippings to Matter of Trust.
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Author:Levy, Sandra
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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