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Researchers Turn to Cottonseed Oil to Replace Toxic Chemicals in Textiles, Paper Products

Cotton is one of the world’s most important crops. Its white, fluffy fibers have been spun and woven into nearly every type of textile — from shirts and pants to towels and sheets — for centuries. Now its seeds could be key to replacing the toxic chemicals used to produce wrinkle-free fabrics and water-resistant paper products. 

With a $294,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NC State professors Richard Venditti and Sunkyu Park are exploring the potential of using cottonseed oil to create non-allergenic, biodegradable products that can be used as finishing agents for cotton apparel and wet-strength agents for paper. 

“By developing these bio-based textile finishing agents and wet strength additives, we hope to provide more environmentally sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based products used in the textile and paper industries,” said Venditti, the Elis-Signe Olsson Professor of Pulp and Paper Science and Engineering at the College of Natural Resources. 

Finishing agents are chemicals applied to fabrics to reduce or eliminate wrinkles and to improve the quality and durability of fabrics, while wet-strength agents are chemicals applied to paper towels, toilet paper and other paper products to improve their resistance to moisture and other fluids.

Textile manufacturers often use finishing agents that contain formaldehyde to produce wrinkle-resistant fabrics. Formaldehyde, at certain levels, can have harmful effects on plants, animals and humans. 

Paper manufacturers use synthetic resins that contain polyaminoamide-epichlorohydrin or glyoxalated polyacrylamide to produce water-resistant filter paper, toilet paper and paper towels. When paper is recycled or flushed, the chemicals can enter into wastewater streams and negatively impact the environment. 

“The introduction of these chemicals and pollutants into the environment is an incredibly difficult challenge for remediation and cleanup efforts and are most likely only solved by replacement of these chemicals with environmentally benign additives,” Venditti said. 

Since 2022, Venditti and Park have worked alongside Cotton Incorporated, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that conducts research and promotion to increase the demand for and profitability of cotton, and HeiQ ChemTex, which develops and manufactures specialty chemicals, to prepare the modified cottonseed oil and test it.  

The researchers, with assistance from Cotton Incorporated and HeiQ ChemTex, have already converted the cottonseed oil into a water-resistant coating for paper products. They’ve also created an emulsion — a mixture of cottonseed oil and water — for application on textiles and paper products.

“We’ve done some preliminary work on fabrics and noticed some changes to properties like texture and softness,” Venditti said. “Right now we’re looking at better defining its wrinkle-resistance, water-resistance and oil-resistance. But it shows a lot of potential.” 

Cottonseed oil has several advantages over soybean oil and other vegetable oils for developing finishing agents and wet strength additives, according to Venditti. It’s not only less likely to cause allergic reactions, unlike soybean and peanut oils, but it’s also less likely to impact global food prices and supplies. 

While cottonseed oil is used by the food service industry, it’s not as prevalent as soybean and canola oils due to its higher price. Venditti and Park hope to eventually commercialize the process of utilizing modified cottonseed oil for finishing agents and wet strength additives to help increase the demand for cottonseed oil.