Oil-soaked seabirds wouldn't be surprised to learn that feathers could be used to mop up marine oil spills. Researchers at the Regional Technical College at Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, have shown that feathers pick up oil better than other natural substances do--and are cheap to boot. Michael Murphy, a lecturer in analytical science and chemistry at the college, says feathers absorb 14 times their own weight in oil. Peat, the next best natural material, absorbs less than twice its weight.
The group has developed two-inch-thick "quilts" up to 20 feet long made from feathers encased in nylon mesh. These are laid on a spill then hauled aboard a boat and run through rollers, which forces the oil out for later disposal or recycling. The quilts can be used up to three times--albeit with reduced absorbency after each use--before final disposal by burning or in a landfill. And the feathers are free--from a local chicken factory that would otherwise dump them. Smaller "pillows" could mop up spills in garages, factories, and labs.