Oil Absorbency of Polypropylene Pads vs. Natural Products

Photo of Tensie At Mid Columbia Science FairResearched by Tensie P.


The purpose of this experiment was to compare the oil absorbency of natural items with that of polypropylene pads, the most common consumer product used for this purpose.
I became interested in this idea when my math teacher told our class about the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska. When I did more research on the Valdez, I found that they were able to remove the oil, with talc, a powder made from talcum. I also found that many animals were harmed from the oil so I decided to find out if any natural sources could absorb more oil than consumer products.
The information gained from this experiment could be useful to the consumer’s who need to clean oil from driveways, parking lots etc. It could also be helpful to store owners. It would be very useful to wildlife as well!


My hypothesis was that polypropylene absorbent pads would absorb at least 10% more oil than hay would.

My second hypothesis was that polypropylene pads would absorb at least 10% more oil than sheep wool would.

I based my hypothesis on a 2002 science project by Arianne Judy. In her results it states her hypothesis, that natural products absorb equal or more oil than consumer, should be rejected.


The constants in this study were:
•    Type of oil (40 weight motor oil)
•    Container size and type
•    The amount of natural product used
•     The amount of oil “spilled” to collect
•    The temperature of the oil.
•    The temperature of the room.
•    Size and weight of mesh bags.

The manipulated variable was the type of product used to absorb oil; in this case it was hay, sheep wool, llama wool, and polypropylene pads.

The responding variable was the mass of oil absorbed.

Using the triple beam balance I measured the amount of oil absorbed by taking the beginning mass of the material and subtracting that from the ending mass (the mass of the material plus oil). This was the mass of the oil absorbed.


75g Washed Sheep Wool
75g Hay
75g Water/oil Tray
1 Water/oil Tray
5 Polypropylene Pads (consumer products)
1800 ml Tap Water
36 Mesh Bags
Triple Beam Balance
1 quart (.946ml) 40 Weight Motor Oil


 1.Create Mesh Pouches
a)    Cut out 36 pieces of mesh fabric that are 12x20 cm.
b)    Fold them in half so they are 12x10cm.
c)    Sew along the two sides that were 20 cm. but are now folded on top of each other.  This will form 36 open pockets that are 12x10 cm.
d)    Place 4.5g. of an absorbent inside the pouch using a triple beam balance to make sure the mass is 4.5g.
                                                 •    Fill 12 mesh bags with polypropylene, 12 with hay, and 12 with fleece.
e)     Sew the tops shut.

2.Begin Experiment #1-Without Water.
a)    Place 500-ml. motor oil in the tray DO NOT PUT WATER IN.
b)    Place each absorbent in pouch into the tray of oil.
c)    Leave in oil for 20 minutes. Flip the pouches over every ten minutes.
d)    Remove from tray.
e)     Let the pouches drip for 24 hours.
f)     Place a paper plate on the scale and record it’s weight.
g)    Next, place one pouch on the plate and weigh it. Record the mass. Next, subtract the mass of the plate from the mass of the pouch and the plate, so you only have the weight of the pouch.
h)     Subtract 4.5g from the weight of the pouch minus the plate. The remaining weight is the mass of oil absorbed. Record the mass of oil that was absorbed in experiment number one.
i)    Repeat steps f-h with each oil soaked pouch.

3.Begin Experiment #2-Water Only
a) Repeat Experiment number two with WATER ONLY (No oil) Use new absorbent pouches.

4.Begin Experiment #3(with oil and water).
a) Repeat experiment number one but float 500ml. oil in 1000ml. H2O.


The original purpose of this experiment was to compare the oil absorbency of natural items with that of polypropylene pads, the most common consumer product used for this purpose.

The results:
•    For oil only sheep wool absorbed the most oil (85g).
•    For water only on average hay absorbed the most water (85g). Polypropylene absorbed the least amount (0.375g).
•    For water and oil polypropylene absorbed the most (100.175g), followed by sheep wool (90.9g) and hay (14.3g).

See the table and graph below.


My hypothesis was that polypropylene absorbent pads would absorb at least 10% more oil than hay would.

The results indicate that this hypothesis should be accepted because the polypropylene pads absorbed about seven times as much as hay did, far more than the 10% required.

My second hypothesis was that polypropylene pads would absorb at least 10% more oil than sheep fleece would.

The results are inconclusive for this hypothesis.  When absorbing oil only (no water), sheep wool absorbed more than polypropylene. When absorbing oil floating on water, the polypropylene did absorb 10% more than the wool did. I rejected this hypothesis but realized that more experimentation should be done.

After thinking about the results of this experiment, I wonder if the kind/weight of the oil would affect the amount that is absorbed. My oil was refined, but how would crude oil affect the results?

If I were to conduct this project again I would test more types of materials, and do many more trials with each material. I did have a couple of strange outliers and doing more trials would help dilute the effect of unusual weights in the final average.



On May 24, 1989 one of the biggest oil spills in the history of the U.S occurred. A 987-foot tanker, the Exxon Valdez, piloted by Captain Hazelwood, and 3rd mate Gregory Cousins, spilled millions of gallons of oil into Coral Reef, Alaska.  Mourners cried openly and/or wore black armbands to show their sorrow. It caused 21 billion dollars in damage, Many people affected lost their jobs, and money. Many animals lost their lives as well.


Oil Spills affect us in many ways. For example a large amount of the people who worked in the fish industry lost their jobs and money when the Valdez struck the reef of Prince William Sound. The fish died and/or were contaminated with oil.

Oil spills can also contaminate our drinking water. Oceans cover over 70% of the earth’s surface, and although that may seem like a lot, only 3% is fresh, safe, and clean for human needs. About 75% of that quite small amount is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps, so really only about 1% of the water on earth is clean and available for use as irrigation, drinking water, and other uses.


Sea otters
The Valdez spill killed 2,800 sea otters. When sea otters’ bodies are covered with oil, the air bubbles located in their fur fills with oil. They can no longer survive the cold, and once the oil enters the air pockets they are no longer kept warm due to the insulating air, and die of cold.

Sea birds

Thousands of seabirds were killed, some drowned, and some ingested oil which caused lung damage. About 2,800 seabirds were killed.

Small organisms
Oil spills affect more animals than most people expect. Even small organisms such as clams, oysters, seaweed, larval fish, are affected which affects other animals as well. Only off-shore oil spills really cause the deaths of these small sea creatures. If plankton dies because of oil, then, fish won’t have food so they will die and then larger animals, such as whales, dolphins and sharks will also die. Not only does this affect the food chain, but also many people lose their jobs due to the contamination of the animals. 

Killer Whales

Killer whales are affected by oil spills as well. When whales go up for air and there is oil in the water they ingest a bunch of oil and water through their blowholes, so they either drown or die from ingesting the oil. They can also die from eating a fish that has been swimming around in the oil, and then when whales eat the fish they eat the oil along with it. The whales then get sick and almost always die.


Cuyahoga River

In 1969 Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire from oil, chemicals and trash. It burned down two bridges with five story high flames.

“The First Oil Spill”

The first known oil spill reported in North America occurred in 1818 when two men, who were drilling for salt at the mouth of the Cumberland River in Kentucky, drilled a hole 536 feet deep and approximately 5 inches wide. The hole started leaking oil. The oil came gushing out and even filling the hole with sand did not stop the flow. The river caught on fire soon after, but nobody knows exactly what happened.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s spill occurred around January 28, 1969, about 20 years before the Valdez spill. For about 75 years offshore drilling had been a problem but this time it had caused a spill. An oil drilling platform spilled 3 million gallons of oil into the water of Santa Barbara. A drill had cut a hole into the ocean’s floor where the pressure deposit of oil and gasoline was. The platform crew shoved a 500 ft. long drilling pipe into the hole and the underground pressure pushed up the oil and gasoline in 5 different places, thirty men worked with various types of mud to plug the five holes. They also used a pipeline to try to drain the holes. The cleanup crew spread talcum over the slick hoping that it would make oil thicken into large clumps and be easy to remove from the ocean. Twenty miles of California’s coastline was “fouled”. The leaking eventually stopped but not before it spilt three million gallons of oil into the ocean.

Hurricane Katrina Damage

Surprisingly hurricane Katrina caused 595 spills across four states, and over 9 million gallons of crude oil was spilt. It also “unleashed” one million.

Nantucket Island, Massachusetts

On December 15, 1976 Nantucket island, an island just off of the coast of Cape Cod poured 7.5 million gallons of heavy industrial fuel into the ocean. The ship was called Argo Merchant a 640 ft. tanker that had a history of going off course and getting stuck in shallow water. The Argo’s captain was Georgios Papadopoulos. “This man had all sorts of equipment he didn’t use,” said Coast Guard Commandant Owen W. Silver. Papadopoulos had gone an estimated ten miles off course. Five days later, December 20th, a storm hit the Argo and destroyed it spilling 7.5 million gallons of water into the water. Oil slicks covered over 120 miles of the island’s shore line.

Recovery Efforts

Oil spills may be cleaned up with:
•    Booms: a floating beam that contains oil spills.
•    Skimmers: boats that “skim” spilled oil from the water’s surface.
•    Sorbents: big sponges that are used to absorb oil.
•    Chemical dispersants: a chemical that breaks down the oil into its chemical constitutes.
•    High pressure and low pressure hoses.
•    Vacuum trucks: vacuum trucks vacuum oil off beaches and/or the sea
•    Polypropylene pads: absorbent pads that absorb only oil and not water along with it.
•    Talcum powder: a type of powder that is designed to make oil clump up so it is easier to remove.


Oil spills are tragic, and they affect many people’s lives dramatically. They take fisherman’s job by polluting the water that the fish swim, and the fish die, then the fisherman cannot work, and lose lots of money. The spills don’t only take the fish industry’s money it takes the cleanup crew’s money as well. It can take up to 3 million dollars to clean up a single oil spill. Sometimes even more.

In addition to the economic consequences, there are many environmental consequences as well. When an oil spill occurs it is nearly impossible to collect all the oil from atop the water, so it damages the aesthetic value as well as the economic value. The Prince William Sound Spill occurred and the Sound still has not recovered entirely. Many animals die, since once an animal is caught in the spill their chance of survival is very slim.  If oil spills continue to occur many animals can go extinct, including the killer whale.


Barss, Karen Clean Water Philadelphia: 1992, Chelsea House Publishers
 “Clean Water- Report Shows Progress, Challenges in Protecting the Gulf of Mexico” November 16th, 2005.  <http://api-ec.api.org/environ/index.cfm?bitmask=1CA3F8FB-56C8-11D5-BC6800B0D0E15BFC >
Cozic, Charles P. “Pollution” David l. Bender Publishers: 1992, Pgs. 10,11

Judy, Arianne “Can Natural Products Pick Up Oil as Effectively as Polypropylene?” November 9th, 2005.  http://www.selah.k12.wa.us/SOAR/SciProj2002/ArianneJ.html>
“Oil Spills”, November 16th, 2005. <http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0215471/oil_spills.htm>

Rozens, Aleksandrs Environmental Destruction   Fitzhenry and Whiteside Ltd 1994, Pgs. 5-21

 “Spills from Hurricane Hurting the Coast” November 16, 2005.  http://www.sciencedaily.com/upi/?feed=TopNews&article=UPI-1-20051113-20421400-bc-us-oilspills.xml
What is the story on oil spills?



I would like to thank the following people for helping make my project possible:
•    My mom for providing transportation and getting my materials.
•    Mr. Newkirk for supplying the polypropylene pads and helping me complete my project.
•    Cindy Lucky for getting me sheep wool.
•    Mrs. Viernes for all the help.
•    My sister for letting me use her old display board.

Thank you all so much!!

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