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Making Cotton Cleaning More Eco-friendly

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Cleaning cotton after harvest is a dirty job that requires hot, caustic chemicals and large amounts of rinse water. The chemicals strip away waxes, pectins, and other fiber components that can interfere with subsequent dyeing steps and diminish the quality of finished cotton products.

However, the cleaning process generates considerable waste. So, ARS researchers in New Orleans, LA, looked for a more environmentally friendly, biobased alternative.

They decided to replace the chemical cleaning agents now used with natural plant enzymes, like cellulase and pectinase used in making fruit jam. They agitated the enzymes in solution with mechanical energy generated by ultrasound equipment similar to a jewelry cleaner.

In scale-up trials, the biobased system cut operating costs from water, energy, and chemicals by 20 percent and alleviated worker safety concerns associated with using harsh chemicals.

The researchers also designed and tested custom-built rollers that continuously feed cotton fabric into the biobased cleaning system, which is now being evaluated for commercialization.