The milkweed plant has a super power that we're just discovering. The fibers of the seed pods of the plant have a hollow shape and are naturally hydrophobic, meaning they repel water, which helps them to protect and spread the seeds of the plant. But the surprising thing is that the fibers are also really great at absorbing oil.
With those attributes, the milkweed fiber becomes a new tool in cleaning up oil spills because it can absorb the oil, while repelling the water it is spilled in. In fact, the fibers can absorb more than four times the amount of oil that the polypropylene materials currently used in oil clean up can.
The Canadian company Encore3 has starting manufacturing oil clean-up kits using the milkweed fibers. The technology is made by mechanically removing the fibers from the pods and seeds and then stuffed into polypropylene tubes that can be laid on oil slicks on land or water. Each kit can absorb 53 gallons of oil at a rate of 0.06 gallons per minute, which is twice as fast as conventional oil clean-up products.
Once saturated, the kit is removed from the site and new ones can be applied if needed.
The company is already supplying the kits to Parks Canada where they're taken on boats and vehicles and used wherever petroleum products are found, like fueling areas.
Encore3 has partnered with Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture and Agriculture Canada to set up a cooperative of 20 farmers in the province to grow milkweed on 800 acres of land. Another 35 farmers are on a waiting list to grow the plant. The plant is indigenous to the region, but the farms will make the world's first industrial crop of milkweed and it will be grown without pesticides or fertilizers.
Each hectare (2.4 acres) will produce enough milkweed fiber to produce 125 kits, which can clean up 6,600 gallons of oil. And all of those acres of milkweed will have another great purpose: supporting the endangered monarch butterflies that take up residence in Southern Canada during the summer before starting their migration south to Mexico for the colder months. The butterfly lays eggs on the plant which is the main food source for the monarch caterpillar.