Scientists have created the ideal non-toxic ‘super-sponge’ for cleaning oil spills in the icy, turbulent waters of the Arctic, by chemically modifying sawdust to make it exceptionally oil-attracting and buoyant.
Containing oil spills in cold waters is especially tricky, as bobbing ice chunks push oil below the water’s surface, making it difficult to collect. The same goes for rough waters, whose tall, crashing waves disperse the oil.
The new non-toxic material absorbs up to five times its weight in oil and stays afloat for at least four months.Beyond absorbing oil, the sawdust also enhances another approach to combatting oil spills called controlled burns. If changing weather or tides swiftly move spilt oil towards a sensitive area, oil can be burned before it can cause further harm. Called in-situ burning, the practice can significantly reduce the amount of oil in water and minimise its adverse environmental effects.
Researchers looked to develop an environmentally friendly and inexpensive material that floats on rough or freezing waters and can support in-situ burning. They ultimately found their winner in a fine dust called wood flour, a woodworking byproduct often used to make wood composites.The team is also trying out adding tiny, oil-eating microbes to the powder’s surface, so any left-over material could naturally break down oil over time.