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  • 12.16.16

This Special Sawdust Is Designed To Clean Up Oil Spills In The Arctic

As we start drilling in the Arctic, we’re going to spill oil in a place where it’s extra hard to clean up. This sawdust could help, but there’s one catch: how you get rid of the sawdust.

As the Arctic melts, more oil companies are likely to want to drill for some of the 90 billion barrels of unexploited oil that we know is lying beneath the ocean’s surface up there. Russia stepped up Arctic drilling this year, and Exxon may join in if sanctions against the country are lifted, something Trump’s Russia-friendly government may soon do. Norway handed out Arctic production licenses to 13 companies in May (though environmental groups are suing over this). In the U.S., President Obama postponed new drilling in the Arctic, but Trump may reopen the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

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All of this means that oil spills in the Arctic may also become more likely. As even more ice disappears, and ships pass through the Arctic as a shortcut, oil tankers could also cause spills. As we know, no matter what the safety precautions, oil seems to have a way of spilling.

A new weapon to mitigate that problem might come from an odd source: Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have modified sawdust to deal with some of the particular challenges of cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic, where ice can push oil below the water surface, and rough waves can spread the oil out.

The researchers took a super-fine sawdust, a byproduct of the wood industry called “wood flour,” and modified it with molecules from vegetable oil, making the sawdust especially good at sucking up oil and repelling water.

“The material is incredibly buoyant,” says Pacific Northwest National Laboratory microbiologist George Bonheyo. “It will float for months, in fact. That also helps keep the oil right at the surface of the water where it’s easier to treat as a consequence.”

With a thin layer of sawdust, it’s possible to quickly absorb oil in a spill. By adding microorganisms to the new product, it also becomes a bioremediation tool: the organisms eat the oil, cleaning it up.

The material could also be skimmed off the water, though that’s more challenging to do in the Arctic. In the case of a large spill, workers may use another approach–burning the oil-soaked sawdust.

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“Burning certainly produces a lot of ugly smoke, but it’s one way of getting greater than 90% of the oil out of the water in a matter of minutes,” says Bonheyo. When oil is quickly moving toward a particularly sensitive area, officials may choose to burn oil (despite the carbon pollution) to protect the shore. The sawdust helps this happen in the Arctic, where it’s harder to burn oil.

Inside an Arctic simulation lab in Washington State–a modified shipping container with temperatures as low as five degrees–researchers have tested the new material. They’ve also successfully tested it in small areas outside. After more testing and agency approvals, the sawdust could eventually be used in oil spills, both in the Arctic and elsewhere.

If a Russian oil company spills oil in the Arctic, the new material might help protect the Alaskan coast. “A spill that happens in one part of the Arctic will affect many other parts,” says Bonheyo.

[Photos: via Pacific Northwest National Laboratory]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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