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Sawdust Reinvented As Super Sponge To Soak Up Oil Spills

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Sawdust, the waste from wood working, used mainly in motor garages for soaking up oil is going to have a bigger use — checking oil spills at Arctic ocean.

In a new initiative, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory — under the energy ministry — chemically modified sawdust for improving its oil-attracting and buoyancy properties. This is for curing oil spills in the waters of the Arctic which are icy and turbulent.

As a nontoxic material, sawdust can absorb five times oil than others and still stay afloat for an average 120 days.

Smart Oil Remediation Material

"Most of today's oil remediation materials are designed for warm water use," said PNNL microbiologist George Bonheyo, who is heading the project at PNNL's Marine Sciences Laboratory.

There is a sense of urgency too, as ice retreats in the Arctic Sea, energy explorers are waiting to enter the Arctic energy sector and oil spill response in extreme conditions will be in demand.

Arctic is estimated to contain 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and more oil developers are expected to enter the region as ice retreats in the Arctic Sea.

The threat of Arctic oil spill is very vivid. To pre-empt the 2010 Deepwater Horizon-like fiasco, many researchers are working on new oil spill technologies for icy waters.

The development team at PNNL includes Bonheyo, Jiyeon Park, Robert Jeters, Yongsoon Shin, Maren Symes and Andrew Avila.

How the Innovation Works?

In Arctic region, oil spills may see ice chunks pushing the oil to the water's surface and making recovery difficult.

To make the saw dust an efficient oil mopper, components of the vegetable oil have been added to hike the material's oil-absorbing capacity. After modifications, the final product becomes a light and bleached powder. Upcoming modifications include adding oil-eating microbes so that any left-over material is broken down.

The usage is simple, all that is required is a mere sprinkling of a thin layer of sawdust on the water's surface. The material soaks up oil and heavy slick stays afloat thanks to the buoyant nature. The oil-soaked material can be burned or retrieved.

The testing done at PNNL's lab in Sequim was in icy waters where the cooling goes down to even 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Burning Test Successful

The modified sawdust has a double objective-ensuring absorption of oil and does controlled burns. During adverse weather, spilled oil moving to sensitive areas will be a possibility. That can be checked by burning the oil before more harm happens. On-site, burning will also reduce the oil content in water and check negative environmental effects as well.

Bonheyo and his team tried many natural materials such as silica and rice hulls before finalizing sawdust or wood flour as the best.

The material's performance in burns was tested at the U.S. Coast Guard Facility in Alabama. The tests indicated that a small amount can burn up layers of the spilled oil. More testing will follow before winning the approval of different agencies for use in actual oil spills.

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