Vegetable oil-coated sawdust could solve Arctic oil spill dilemna

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In Washington, researchers at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have turned sawdust into a “super sponge” for oil spills.

The researchers were able to chemically treat the wood waste to absorb up to five times its weight in oil. The treated sawdust was also very buoyant, staying afloat for up to five months in icy, rough waters—where oil disperses especially fast.

“Most of today’s oil remediation materials are designed for warm water use,” says PNNL microbiologist George Bonheyo, who led the project at PNNL’s Marine Sciences Laboratory. “But as ice retreats in the Arctic Sea, fossil fuel developers are looking north, and we need new oil spill response methods that perform well in extreme conditions.”

The researchers found a way to attach vegetable oil onto the surface of the material. This made the modified sawdust “oil-grabbing and water-shunning.” The oil-drenched material can then be scooped up or burned. Further work is being done at PNNL’s Arctic simulation lab.