Smart Cotton Fabric with CO2-Responsive Wettability for Controlled Oil/Water Separation

  • Liping Liang
  • Yanyan Dong
  • Hongfang Wang
  • Xu MengEmail author
Research Article


Stimuli-responsive materials with switchable wettability have promising practical applications in oil/water separation. A novel CO2-responsive cotton fabric for controlled oil/water separation was fabricated based on mussel-inspired reaction and polymerized with 2-(dimethylamino)ethyl methacrylate (DMAEMA). As expected, the modified fabric exhibited switchable hydrophilicity and hydrophobicity after CO2/N2 alternation, and it could be used for gravity-driven CO2-controlled oil/water separation. Water was selectively penetrated through the fabric and separated from oil after treating by CO2. A reversed wettability could be generated through simply treated with N2. It is expected that the as-prepared fabrics could be applied in smart oil/water separation due to the attractive properties of CO2-switchable system.


Bioinspired fabric Fiber CO2-responsiv Oil/water separation 


Effective separation of oil/water mixtures is regarded as a potential solution to resolve environmental pollution for oil spillages, industrial discharge of oils/organic solvents, and environmental protection [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. In recent years, the oil/water separation materials with special surface wettability have been widely studied, and there are many approaches have been developed to construct the special materials, including adsorption, biological treatment, gravity separation membrane filtration, centrifugation, and ultrasonic separation [6, 7, 8]. However, these methods are limited in practical applications due to their low efficiency, complicated instrument setup, second pollutants, and high energy usage. Moreover, these materials do not possess the switchable wettability between hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity, and they could not separate different types of oil/water mixtures.

To overcome the limitation, novel materials with switchable surface wettability in response to external stimuli have been designed, such as thermal treatment [9], pH [10], light irradiation [11], and magnetism [12], etc. However, there are some critical issues in practical applications. It still remains a challenge for developing novel stimuli-responsive membranes that can be triggered by environmentally friendly and cost-effective stimulus. Fortunately, gas stimulus has provided a great opportunity for the development of smart materials and systems since they could be added and removed easily in a large volume operation for industrial applications. CO2-responsive polymers have been investigated in the past few years due to the “green” feature, including hybrid nanoparticles [13], breathing microgels [14], latexes [15], and hydrogels [16]. Such stimuli-responsive features are attributed to the reversible reactions of CO2 with such functional groups as guanidines, amines and amidines in aqueous solution, which regulate hydrophobicity/polarity properties [17, 18, 19]. For example, Yuan et al. [20] synthesized PMMA-co-PDEAEMA copolymers by radical copolymerization reactions and prepared nanostructured electrospun polymer membranes with their surface wettability switchable by CO2/N2 alternation. Zhao et al. [21] prepared a “smart” graphene oxide (GO) based nanofiltration membrane through electrostatic and π–π interaction-driven complexation with poly(N, N-diethylaminoethyl methacrylate) bearing a pyrene end group (Py-PDEAEMA). However, applications of these materials for oil/water separation are limited with low mechanical strength, since once being mechanically destroyed they lose their behavior. So, design of separation material with CO2-responsive polymer will remain to be investigated.

Actually, oil/water separation is an interfacial phenomenon, and the surface wettability is an important factor for the separation material, which could be regulated by incorporating the surface chemical composition of functional monomers or components for substance [2, 22, 23]. So, design of separation material with high mechanical strength and stability against liquid flow and exhibit higher filtration efficiencies is a critical issue. Inspired by the strong adhesive protein in mussels, dopamine has gained a great interest as a surface modification agent in a wide range of applications, which can strongly adhere to any organic or inorganic surfaces including metals, metal oxides, alumina, silica, mica, ceramics and polymers [24, 25]. Therefore, the environmentally friendly mussel-inspired reaction paves the way for their application in oil/water separation [26]. Cotton is a kind of favorable natural plant fiber material with various excellent properties of flexibility, biodegradability, low cost and density and high mechanical stability [27, 28]. So, the fabrication of CO2-responsive cotton fabric for controlled oil/water separation could find potential applications in the oil/water separation.

Herein, in this respect, we report a fabric with durable and CO2-switchable surface wettability by a simple and versatile method. The CO2-responsive cotton fabric for controlled oil/water separation was fabricated based on mussel-inspired reaction and polymerized with DMAEMA through free radical polymerization reaction. The modified fabric contained not only key chemical constituents of dopamine hydrochloride, which strongly adsorbed to fabric substrates, but also CO2-responsive groups, exhibited switchable hydrophilicity and hydrophobicity upon CO2/N2 alternation. The schematic illustrations for the preparation of modified fabric and controllable oil/water separation are presented in Fig. 1. It is expected that the as-prepared fabrics shows great promise for potential application in oil/water separation from environmental-protection perspective due to the attractive properties of CO2-switchable system.
Fig. 1

a The cotton fabric was modified with DMA and polymerized with DMAEMA through free radical polymerization reaction; b process of oil/water separation for modified cotton fabrics treated by N2 and CO2



Analytical reagent grade dopamine hydrochloride, methacryloyl chloride, sodium metabisulfite (SBS), ammonium persulfate (APS), Ethylene dimethacrylate (EGDMA), and 2-(dimethylamino)ethyl methacrylate (DMAEMA) were purchased from Aladdin Industrial Inc., Shanghai, China. Analytical reagent grade methanol, ethanol, dimethylformamide (DMF), borax (Na2B4O7∙10H2O), ethyl acetate (EtOAc), anhydrous magnesium sulfate (MgSO4), sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), and hydrochloric acid (HCl) were obtained from Sinopharm Chemical Reagent Co., Ltd, China and used as received without further purification. Deionized water was used in all preparations. Fabrics were commercially available cotton fabric.

Modification of Fabric with DMA

The dopamine methacrylamide (DMA) was synthesized based on the previously reported work [29]. The cotton fabric used as substrate was cut into about 5 cm × 5 cm pieces, and they were cleaned with ethanol and deionized water by ultrasonication. Then, a piece of clean fabric was immersed in a 1 mg/mL DMA aqueous solution for 24 h at ambient temperature in the dark. Finally, the modified cotton fabric was taken out and washed with anhydrous ethanol and deionized water to remove the residuals, and then dried at 60 °C for 12 h to obtain DMA modified fabrics.

Preparation of p(DMA-DMAEMA)-Grafted Fabric

DMAEMA was grafted on fabric surface modified with DMA through free radical polymerization reaction according to Fig. 1a. The DMA modified fabrics were placed in a 3-neck flask with a Teflon-coated stirrer with a constant stirring rate of 150 rpm. SBS (0.03 g) and APS (0.08 g) were dissolved in 10 mL of water and methanol (1: 1), and the solutions were mixed homogenously, followed by the addition of EGDMA (100 μL) and DMAEMA (2 g). In the polymerization process, the mixture was placed in a water bath at 38 °C to initiate the polymerization. The fabrics were taken out after 1 h, and washed with methanol. Finally, the polymer-grafted fabrics were further dried at 60 °C for 12 h.


The chemical structures were investigated by a Nicolet 170SX Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR, USA). Thermo gravimetric analyses were performed in TG/DTA6300 equipment (TG, Japan). SEM images were obtained on an EM-30 scanning electron microscope (SEM, Korea). Contact angles were measured by an OCA50 machine (Data-Physics, Germany) at ambient temperature. The average value of five measurements performed at different positions on the same sample was adopted as the contact angle. The abrasion durability was performed according to the GB/T 3920–2008 standard, and the specific steps were followed the same procedure reported in our previous work [29]. All the photos were taken using a Canon camera.

Results and Discussion

FTIR Spectroscopy Analysis

The functional groups that existed on the surface of cotton fabric after modification were investigated by FT-IR spectroscopy. As shown in Fig. 2, the spectrum of modified fabric showed the band associated with stretching vibration of asymmetrical bonds C–H originating from methyl and methylene groups were 2822 and 2776 cm−1. The vibration peak appeared at about 1720 cm−1, which was assigned to the C = O stretching vibrations after modification. The peak appeared at about 1465 cm−1 could likely be assigned to a benzene ring respiratory vibration peak. The vibration peak appeared at about 1155 cm−1, which was assigned to the C–O stretching vibration. These results indicating a successful modification process as expected.
Fig. 2

FTIR spectra of cotton fabrics a control; b modified with DMA; c modified with DMA and polymerized with DMAEMA

Analysis of SEM Morphology

The surface morphology images of the cotton fabrics before and after modification were directly visualized by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). As illustrated in the SEM images (Fig. 3), typical surface morphologies of cotton fabric (Fig. 3a) look similar to that of modified with DMA (Fig. 3b). The fabrics showed smooth surface of textile fibers. However, the obvious difference could be observed after DMAEMA polymerized. The polymer layer was formed on the surface, and the fiber roughness was observed as indicated in Fig. 3c. The results reflected the fiber surface was wrapped by DMAEMA polymer chains, which ensured the switchable hydrophilicity and hydrophobicity after CO2/N2 alternation.
Fig. 3

SEM images of cotton fabric: a the cotton fabric as substrates before modifying; b the cotton fabric after modifying with DMA; c DMA modified cotton fabric polymerized with DMAEMA

Thermal Analysis of Fabrics

Figure 4 and Table 1 showed temperature dependence of the weight loss for the cotton fabrics before and after modification. As shown in Fig. 4, the blank sample decomposed started at 291 °C with one decomposition step which could be attributed to the decomposition of cellulose chains of cotton fabric. Furthermore, the thermal decomposition of DMAEMA modified fabric mainly occurred between the ranges of 189–526 °C with two distinguishable weight loss zones. In first decomposition step, temperature was reduced to 189 °C, which was due to the decomposition of DMAEMA polymers existed in coating layer. Furthermore, the decomposition temperature of maximum weight loss for DMAEMA polymers modified fabric was higher than the control sample’s. The results indicated DMAEMA polymers were successfully grafted onto the surface of fabric.
Fig. 4

The TG curves of cotton fabric before and after modifying a the cotton fabric as substrates before modifying; b the cotton fabric after modifying with DMA; c DMA modified cotton fabric polymerized with DMAEMA

Table 1

Thermal characteristic data

Sample code

T20 % (°C)a

Ton (°C)b

Tmax (°C)c





DMA modified




Polymerized with DMAEMA




aTemperature at 20% weight loss

bOnset decomposition temperature of main peak

cTemperature at maximum weight loss

CO2-Responsive Performances and Mechanism Analysis

The surface wettabilities of the cotton fabrics before and after modifying were investigated, and the results were shown in Fig. 5. The in-air water contact angle of the control fabric was about 0°, while oil contact angle was about 30°. The DMAEMA polymers modified fabric exhibited hydrophobic and lipophilic properties before CO2 treatment. In contrast, the surface wettabilities were transited to hydrophilic and oleophobic performances after CO2 stimulation. The WCA of modified fabric decreased from around 140°–30° (Fig. 5), which was due to the tertiary amine groups in the DMAEMA polymers were protonated upon CO2 stimulation.
Fig. 5

Images of the in-air water contact angles a and underwater oil contact angles; b for prepared cotton fabrics before and after CO2 treatment

The protonation reaction was shown in Fig. 6, the CO2-triggered hydrophobic and hydrophilic transition behavior of DMAEMA polymers modified fabric was reversible and repeatable by alternating addition and removal of CO2 to protonate and deprotonate tertiary amine groups. The tertiary amine reacted with CO2 producing bicarbonate under water environment, which accounted for why the modified fabric with DMAEMA polymers could transform from hydrophobic to hydrophilic state under stimulation of CO2. Some similar reaction of amidine and CO2 has been researched by other researchers [30].
Fig. 6

The schematic representation of fabrics with CO2-switchable surface wetting properties, and the reaction mechanism analysis

To test the CO2 response stability, the reversible wettabilities of the as-prepared surfaces for water and oil droplets triggered by CO2 and N2 alternative aeration were investigated. As shown in Fig. 7, CO2 was bubbled through the solution and the contact angle was decreased, which implied that the tertiary amine had been converted to ammonium bicarbonate, leading to the electrostatic repulsion and better hydrophilicity. Furthermore, when N2 was bubbled through the solution, CO2 would be released owing to weak chemical stability of ammonium bicarbonate, and the contact angle was increased [31]. The protonation and deprotonation of DMAEMA polymers by successively cycles of bubbling CO2 and N2 changed the property of hydrophilicity. As expected, that is leading to switchable hydrophilicity and hydrophobicity upon CO2/N2 alternation. Furthermore, the reversible shift from hydrophobic to hydrophilic state could be repeated for many times upon bubbling CO2 and N2 in the solution.
Fig. 7

Reversible wettability of the as-prepared surfaces for water (a) and oil (b) droplets triggered by CO2 and N2 alternative aeration

Durability of Abrasion and Tensile Properties

In order to further evaluate the durability performance of DMAEMA polymers on fabric surface. The typical abrasion resistance experiments were performed with a dry crocking method according to the GB/T 3920–2008 standard. As shown in Fig. 8, the contact angle had a slight change with the increase of abrasion cycles, and the modified fabric still maintained its hydrophobicity and lipophilicity after being treated with 600 cycles, indicating the modified fabric was durable to withstand mechanical abrasion.
Fig. 8

The changes of water contact angles and underwater oil contact angles after different abrasion cycles for the DMAEMA modified cotton fabrics

Generally, the mechanical property of material is one of the most significant factors that influence its reusability for practical applications. The mechanical properties of modified fabric were evaluated and tabulated in Table 2. The tensile strength and elongation of modified fabrics was 486.79 N and 6.83% respectively. Elongation was reduced and tensile strength was increased compared to that of unmodified fabrics, which might be due to the existence of DMAEMA polymers on fabric surface.
Table 2

Mechanical properties of the cotton fabric before and after modifying

Sample code

Elongation (%)

Tensile strength (N)


10.26 ± 0.49

401.35 ± 19.23


10.21 ± 0.52

411.58 ± 22.26


6.83 ± 0.56

486.79 ± 26.19

(a) The cotton fabric as substrates before modifying; (b) the cotton fabric after modifying with DMA; (c) DMA modified cotton fabric polymerized with DMAEMA

CO2/N2-Responsive Performance and Separation of Oil/Water

The switch selective oil/water separation experiment between CO2 and N2 was carried out, and the separation procedure was performed as shown in Fig. 9. It showed that the modified fabric was set between two tubes, when mixtures of vegetable oil and neutral water (dyed by dyestuff) were poured into the upper one, water couldn’t permeate through the fabric due to the hydrophobic surfaces. By contrast, when CO2 was bubbled through the solution, the tertiary amine groups in DMAEMA polymers could react with CO2 in water, exhibiting an extended hydrophilic chain conformation. The complete opposite separation process could be observed, water passed through the fiber into one beaker while oil was retained above the fiber. Interestingly, surface wettability of the modified fabric was reversible after removal of CO2 from the solution upon exposure to N2. It could be prevent the water from permeating through the fiber again. Oil could pass through the fiber while water could not, due to the hydrophobic/oleophilic surfaces. These results demonstrate that using the modified fabric, the selective oil/water separation was realized by bubbling and removing CO2 (Video1 in Supporting Information).
Fig. 9

The process of oil/water separation: the modified cotton fabric was fixed in the middle of the two tubes, when pouring the mixture of vegetable oil and water (dyed by dyestuff) after bubbling CO2, water passed through the fiber into one beaker while oil was repelled

A series of oil/water mixtures were prepared to test the separation performance of modified fiber and the separation efficiency was shown in Fig. 10. Four kinds oil/water mixtures including vegetable oil, n-hexane, cyclohexane, and toluene were successfully separated. The separation efficiency of the modified fabric after CO2 treatment for different oil/water mixture was calculated by the following equation: \( R\left( {\text{\%}} \right)\; = \;\frac{M}{{M_{0} }}\; \times\;100\%\). Where, R (%) is the separation efficiency, M and M0 are the weight of the water collected after separation and the water before separation, respectively. Meanwhile, the separation efficiency of the modified fabric with CO2 treatment removed by exposure to N2 was calculated according to \(R\left( {\text{\%}} \right) = \left( {1 - \frac{{C_{\text{m}} - C_{\text{n}} }}{{C_{0} }}} \right)\; \times \;100{\text{\% }}\). Where, R (%) is the separation efficiency of oil, C0, Cn and Cm are the concentration of the original oil/water mixture, the concentration of the collected water after separation, and the concentration of water before separation, respectively. As presented in Fig. 10, the separation efficiency was higher than 90% on average with various types of oils used in the oil/water mixtures. Such smart fabric used for CO2 controlled oil/water on–off switch had the excellent high separation efficiencies. It implies that the modified cotton fabric is a prospective candidate for industrial oil spill cleanup and oil-polluted water disposal.
Fig. 10

The separation efficiency of the modified cotton fabric for different oil/water mixture, one modified fabric was after CO2 treatment, and another one was after removal of CO2 from the solution upon exposure to N2


In summary, a novel CO2-responsive cotton fabric for controlled oil/water separation was fabricated, based on mussel-inspired reaction. The fabric was synthesized by free radical polymerization process with DMAEMA. The modified fabric exhibited switchable hydrophilicity and hydrophobicity upon CO2/N2 alternation. During the process of separation, using CO2 as driving force, no external force was used except their own weight. The separation efficiency was > 90% on average with various types of oils used in the oil/water mixtures. Therefore, this modified fabric shows a great potential to be applied in oil/water separation.



The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant no. 51703130), Zhejiang Provincial Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant no. LY18E080018), Shaoxing Public Welfare Project (Grant no. 2017B70042), and the International Science and Technology Cooperation Project of Shaoxing University (Grant no. 2019LGGH1004).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

Supplementary material 1 (MP4 6978 kb)


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Copyright information

© Donghua University, Shanghai, China 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Liping Liang
    • 1
  • Yanyan Dong
    • 1
  • Hongfang Wang
    • 1
  • Xu Meng
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.College of Textile and Garment, College of Life ScienceShaoxing UniversityShaoxingChina
  2. 2.Key Laboratory of Clean Dyeing and Finishing Technology of Zhejiang ProvinceShaoxing UniversityShaoxingChina
  3. 3.Zhejiang Sub-center of National Carbon Fiber Engineering Technology Research CenterShaoxingChina

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