Milkweed seed’s fibers more effective at cleaning up oil than traditional products

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

A Canadian company called Protec-Style is growing the first industrial crop of milkweed in Quebec in order to manufacture absorbent socks to absorb oil from oil spills.  A division of the company called Encore-3 is taking advantage of unique properties of common milkweed seeds to develop this product.

Milkweed fruits are called follicles, and they look like an inflated, puffy case that naturally splits open when it is mature to release hundreds of small seeds. Common milkweed, a species native to the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, produces large, bumpy follicles.

All of the photos in this entry were taken by me.

Unopened follicles on a common milkweed plant that has lost its leaves at the end of the season.
Common milkweed follicles that have opened at maturity (when the follicle turns brown and dry) and released their seeds.
The small brown seeds inside the follicles have white, silky hairs attached that are called the coma (but are commonly called fibers, floss, or silk). These hairs allow the lightweight seeds to float in the wind and be dispersed to other areas, where, if successful, they will germinate into new milkweed plants.

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Common milkweed seeds lined up neatly in the follicle with their hairs attached before the wind releases them.

A single milkweed seed with its hairs fluffed up after being blown by the wind.

The fibers on the milkweed seeds are hollow and repel water yet absorb four times more oil than the current synthetic material used to absorb oil spills (polypropylene). This means that after the fiber is separated from the seeds, it can be stuffed into “socks” that can be deployed for an oil spill on land or in the water. Encore-3 is assembling the socks into kits that can absorb 200 liters of oil.  The company has a contract with Canada’s national parks, and will supply 50 parks with the absorbent socks to use at their gas stations or areas with petroleum products nearby.

Growing large fields of common milkweed has another environmentally-friendly benefit – it supplies host plants for monarch butterflies!  The product’s creator said after growing this year’s milkweed crop, “There were so many butterflies in the field that people on the road … had to stop,” he says. “They were wondering what was happening.”  I checked out the company’s website, and was happy to see that they do not use insecticide on their milkweed, and they harvest the seeds after monarchs have migrated south, so that no monarch eggs or caterpillars were harmed.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/milkweed-touted-as-oil-spill-super-sucker-with-butterfly-benefits-1.2856029

Here is Encore-3’s website, with data sheets for their products, and a page about the benefits to monarchs on the right sidebar:

http://www.encore3.com/en/products/

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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.