How to you make oil on the surface of water more manageable? Spread a fine layer of sawdust. This may be really wacky as far as ideas go, but sawdust is a readily available organic material that composts, adding nutrients, but moderating the effects of excess nitrogen. I have been a woodworker for 30+ years, having written a number of woodworking books and over 60 articles in woodworking magazines. You can find out about my woodworking at DougStowe.com or hands on learning at my blog.
Ironically, my first published article was for Mother Earth News in the early 80's on using sawdust to neutralize and deodorize urine from human waste.
Recently, I had a brief article in Fine Woodworking about using sawdust to wash you hands of oil resulting from the application of oil based finishes. It is an absolutely amazing thing, even removing the smell of the Danish oil from the hands... something that soap and water alone could never do.
Fortunately, oil and water don't mix, so oil spreads out on the surface of water, and does so quite rapidly. Sailors used to carry oil to calm the seas when conditions got bad. But how do you capture oil and remove it? The current strategy is to use absorbent booms to contain and gradually gather and remove oil.
Now I realize that the oil companies seem to know less than one would hope about what they are doing to contain the spill, and perhaps the observations of a woodworker, can help.
So today, I've done an experiment with a plastic bucket full of water, a few ounces of motor oil, and a couple hand fulls of common hardwood sawdust. It looks like a mess at the tail end of my experiment, as I need a better way to remove the contaminated sawdust than my kitchen strainer. And I have no way of knowing how long the sunken sawdust will sequester the oil. But in my experiment, it seems much of the oily film on the surface of the water has been removed.
Not having a laboratory in which to analyze the results I realize this may just be a wacky notion, and I would hope it might stimulate some research by others. But I am convinced that as we get more and more academic in our approach to problem solving, we are losing the common sense every day problem solving capacity that is stimulated by craftsmanship. The early fathers and mothers of science were craftsmen in that they had to make their own instruments for discovery. We don't teach real world problem solving in schools anymore. And kids are spending their every waking hour connected to the internet and hand-held digital devices instead of engaging in the real world.
Anyway, since BP, Halliburton, and Trans Ocean seem to have little idea what to do next (with the exception of pointing fingers at each other), perhaps a bit of sawdust could help clear the waters. It certainly costs less than manufacturing containment booms.