“Sticky” isn’t the first word people normally associate with cotton. In fact, cotton clothing is comfortable precisely because it’s not sticky. When you’re working out on a sweltering summer day, that cotton T-shirt is as light and breathable as ever. You might feel sticky as you sweat it out on the field, track, or court, but you can thank your cotton clothing for doing its part to regulate your internal temperature and keep your body in balance.
But cotton isn’t just used for clothing anymore. New research suggests that another part of the cotton plant — the cottonseed — could play an integral role in the creation of a powerful, natural adhesive that does pretty much the exact opposite of your trusty cotton T-shirt. What can we expect from this potentially groundbreaking new substance, and when is it going to be on store shelves?
The Longstanding Disadvantage of Cottonseed Meal
Historically, cottonseed meal has been a low-value byproduct of the cottonseed oil refining process. The meal is typically either ground up and fed to cattle or incorporated into natural fertilizer production, as its nutrient-rich chemical profile makes it an ideal addition to commercial soils.
The problem is that cottonseed meal has poor water tolerance. In it’s natural state, cottonseed meal lacks the attributes that are needed to make a superior plant-based adhesive. Without further modification and processing it simply doesn’t have much use as a value-added consumer or industrial adhesive product.
That’s about to change.
A New Use for Cottonseed Meal
Recently, a research team at the ARS Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans devised an innovative seed-washing procedure that could eliminate cottonseed meal’s negative attributes. According to Zhongqi He, the team’s lead researcher, this new process washes cottonseed meal of certain compounds that contribute to poor moisture repellence without stripping the seeds of a protein that’s proven wildly effective at binding objects together.
In initial tests, an adhesive made from cottonseed meal washed using this method proved to be as effective — and, by some measures, more effective — than petroleum- or formaldehyde-based formulations. According to the team’s paper, the cottonseed formulation achieves optimal binding power when heated to a temperature of 230 degrees. It’s ideal for binding semiporous materials, such as wood veneers, together. In addition to carpentry, this cottonseed-derived adhesive may find other industrial, commercial, and hobby uses as well.
If further tests pan out, He’s innovation could revolutionize the adhesive industry and reduce society’s reliance on toxic, nonrenewable binding media. It could also boost the market for America’s cotton growers, who produce more than 1 million tons of cottonseed meal annually. This would set up a classic win-win-win: consumers and commercial users get a cheap, safe alternative to petroleum adhesives, growers find new markets for a low-value byproduct, and the environment gets a renewable, natural replacement for an often hazardous industrial chemical.
There’s More to Cotton Than Meets the Eye
If the idea of a cottonseed adhesive is enough to blow your mind, you might want to stop reading now. It turns out that the cotton plant is chock full of unorthodox uses (some already commercialized, some coming down the pipeline) that the plant’s original prehistoric users could scarcely conceive. From the basis of shrimp aquaculture to a potential replacement for peanut butter, cotton and cottonseed oil are steadily working their way into the fabric of society. And that’s great news for all of us.