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TAMPA, Fla. — A University of South Florida engineering professor and a team of researchers have found that mucilage from the common and easily grown prickly pear cactus — already known to clean toxic compounds from drinking water — also works as a natural, non-toxic dispersant for oil spills.
In research stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, Norma Alcantar, an associate professor of chemical engineering, said a powdered form of the cactus mucilage absorbs the oil and breaks it into smaller droplets, allowing the oil to degrade faster.
Alcantar and the research group have spent nearly two years investigating the use of the cactus mucilage and is part of a nationwide project looking for natural alternatives to harsh chemical dispersants.
Unlike chemical dispersants, the cactus mucilage is not toxic and is harmless in an ocean environment, Alcantar said. In the plant, mucilage helps hold water in the cactus leaves but can be extracted from the leaves through simple processing. The leaves themselves are consumed as a vegetable throughout Latin America.
“If you have an alternative from natural material, I think it’s better for the environment,” Alcantar said. “There is nothing toxic about this product. It’s edible by humans. In Mexico, it’s part of the daily diet. It’s delicious.”