A system for detecting and removing plastic contaminants from harvested cotton, developed and commercialized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and industry partners, could help to restore the financial health and reputation of the nation’s cotton industry.
American-grown cotton was once known for being some of the cleanest in the world, but that is no longer true. Much of the plastic contamination showing up in marketable, ginned cotton comes from plastic used to wrap the cylindrical bales of cotton in the field. Despite diligent efforts by cotton gin personnel to remove all traces of plastic before processing, it still finds its way into the cotton gin’s processing system 10 times more often than before the advent of cylindrical baling.
This contamination has led to significant losses for the cotton industry — more than $750 million annually. For an average cotton farmer growing 1,500 acres of the crop, the plastic-related losses would be more than $30,000 per year.
To mitigate this loss of quality and profit, ARS and industry partners have developed the Visual Inspection and Plastic Removal (VIPR) technology, which efficiently detects and removes plastic contamination during post-harvest processing of cotton. Because cotton gins have extremely low profit margins, the VIPR system was designed to be much less expensive than the detection and removal technologies used in other industries.
VIPR is a “bolt on” system, built using off-the-shelf parts such as cellphone cameras and embedded image processors. These detectors are coupled to a pneumatic ejection system, which blows plastic contamination out of the cotton processing stream. Overall, the VIPR technology prevents more than 90% of all plastic from getting into cotton bales.
The ARS Lubbock Lab took the lead in developing the detection hardware and software and in forming the strategic partnerships. The Las Cruces Lab designed and built the first prototype and in May 2018 made a proof-of-concept video showing it successfully ejecting plastic from seed cotton.
Because cotton gins have extremely low profit margins, the VIPR system was designed to be much less expensive than the detection and removal technologies used in other industries.
The new VIPR system was developed, tested and successfully transferred under Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) between ARS and industry partners. Process engineering firm Bratney Cos. became a CRADA partner in October 2018 with the goal of commercializing the technology.
Bratney and a previous ARS CRADA partner, longtime cotton gin manufacturer Lummus Corp., formed a partnership whereby Bratney would manufacture the VIPR units and Lummus would sell, help install, and service them. This partnership helped to get the system into the hands of cotton ginning professionals as quickly as possible.
The first commercial units were sold in December 2019 and were installed and tested in a cotton gin in Georgia in January 2020. Additional units were sold in 2020 despite pandemic challenges, with more sales expected in the near future.
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