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Using Sunflower Hulls to Absorb Oil Spills

Saturday, September 15, 2007
filed under: Utilization/Trade

A South African company is making a new product from sunflower hulls called SunsorbTM for absorbing oil spills, and is looking into the possibility of manufacturing the product somewhere in the Dakotas for distribution in North America.

Sunflower husks or hulls are the byproduct left behind after sunflower oil has been crushed from the seed. In some instances sunflower hulls are milled and used as bulk for livestock feed or bedding, or pelletized and used as an energy source. Inventors in Minnesota have even used sunflower hulls as a key ingredient for a seed treatment carrier developed for the potato industry.

Now Sunsorb Absorbents Ltd, of Cape Town, South Africa ( has developed a product made from sunflower hulls to clean up oil and other hydrocarbon (mostly petroleum and petro-chemical based) spills on land and water.

Elgon Buxton actually came upon the idea of the Sunsorb product by chance. Since 1999, Buxton has been involved in the spill clean-up business, which the trade calls ‘hazmat’ – short for hazardous material management. Buxton was experimenting with a range of potential alternatives to peat-based absorbents. The goal was an environmentally friendly, efficient absorbent that could replace the more conventional products being used locally and internationally.

He discovered that sunflower hulls are a good match for hazmat management, to make a cost-effective product for a variety of spill and spill prevention situations across a broad spectrum of industry.

Two years of extensive experimentation and testing in conjunction with one of South Africa’s leading universities and a scientific institute resulted in an international patent and registration as a hydrocarbon absorbent.

The advantage of the sun hull based material is that it is a non-toxic product with no added chemicals that will biodegrade over time. A contaminant is absorbed within the cell structure of the product, not to the surface of it, minimizing the possibility of leaching. Buxton says these properties make the product ideal for the remediation of soil contamination as well as for safe disposal on landfill sites.

Buxton says Sunsorb fits in well with a trend toward ‘bio-remediation.’ Most conventional oil spill response techniques in the past involved transport of hydrocarbons damaging a particular area, which merely relocated the problem. Bio-remediation is focused on the transformation of an area, defined as the “returning of a surface or object to a condition which is not harmful to plant, animal or human life.”

Although bio-remediation is a relatively new field, it’s one that has enormous potential, says Buxton. One example where Sunsorb would have applicability is in the ongoing oil lake remediation effort in Kuwait. The 1991 Persian Gulf War resulted in the detonation, destruction, or ignition of 798 oil wells representing about 87% of the 914 productive wells in Kuwait. The result: about 300 oil lakes amounting to about 60 million barrels of oil, an unprecedented environmental challenge exacerbated by the unique and punishing conditions of the desert ecosystem.

Manufacturing of the Sunsorb product started at the company’s processing plant south of Johannesburg in October, 2005. The company currently has distributors throughout South Africa, Angola and is proceeding with establishing distributors in Tanzania, New Zealand, Scandinavian and Baltic regions.

“Regarding North America, our aim would be to produce the product there as we have found the cost of freight excessive. We are currently considering the possibilities of manufacturing our product in North America for distribution there and its neighboring countries. Manufacturing would take place in the Dakotas, which we believe to be the major sunflower growing region.” – Tracy Sayler

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