Monarch Butterflies

Some of technology’s most elegant solutions come from emulating Mother Nature. One of the latest examples involves using the unique characteristics of milkweed fiber to engineer cost-effective absorbent tubes used for cleaning oil spills. And there’s an added environmental benefit from growing industrial milkweed crops – saving monarch butterflies.

Milkweed has long been considered a pest plant that has been irradiated by pesticides, but it’s also the only plant on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Once they hatch, butterfly caterpillars feed on the milkweed. Monarch populations have been declining and scientists believe a decline in the number of milkweed plants is a major contributing factor.

It turns out, however, that hollow milkweed fibers are particularly absorptive and repel water, which makes them ideal for cleaning spilled oil.

“You can leave an absorbent [milkweed] sock in water and it will only absorb the oil. It’s very unique in nature to have fibres like that,” said Franç​ois Simard, creator of Protec-Stylein, the company manufacturing the absorbent socks. – CBC News

“It’s less expensive to use milkweed to collect the oil that was spilled in nature because you have more capacity, you need less absorbent, therefore there is less of a cost of disposal,” Simard said in the same interview.

Protec-Stylein has a contract with Canada’s national park system to use the absorbent socks in areas like park vehicle fueling facilities where petroleum products could be be accidentally released.

It seems like a win-win, unless there is a little-known anti-butterfly group that champions oil spills.