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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 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.

Originally posted to Woodworker on Wed May 12, 2010 at 11:26 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Food grade polymers (0+ / 0-)

    so they say.

    What is the flamibility factor on that stuff you tried (p.s. kudos to you for trying something)?

    I'm just seeing one leg of the fire triangle get bigger with the mixture of sawdust and oil.

    "We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope."

    by mydailydrunk on Wed May 12, 2010 at 11:38:19 AM PDT

  •  Does the sawdust still absorb oil once it's wet, (0+ / 0-)

    or does it need to be dry to work effectively?

    They only call it Class War when we fight back.

    by lineatus on Wed May 12, 2010 at 11:49:21 AM PDT

    •  I think dry is best... (0+ / 0-)

      I think dry sawdust would be more effective. I use dry sawdust when cleaning oil off my hands. And wet sawdust would be more difficult to disperse over a wide area.

      •  I would guess as much. The reason why I ask is (0+ / 0-)

        that a certain amount of the sawdust is going to land on open water, especially at the fringes of the slick, and that it will also get tossed around by wave action.  So it would need to be targeted to the right kind of area to do the most good.

        They only call it Class War when we fight back.

        by lineatus on Wed May 12, 2010 at 12:21:10 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It's cheap (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          If a bit of sawdust were to miss the main area of the spill, it wouldn't hurt as much as the oil that gets away. And it is inexpensive. Free in some places like here in my wood shop. Paper mills could turn it out in massive quantities.

  •  now all we need is 4000 sq. mi. of sawdust (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    What's most pathetic is that the US consumes 370 million gallons of gas every single day. This huge spill is only a drop in that bucket.

    In a democracy, everyone is a politician. ~ Ehren Watada

    by Lefty Mama on Wed May 12, 2010 at 11:59:54 AM PDT

  •  i work on wood floors & have a fondness (0+ / 0-)

    for oil based finishes, so this could be helpful to me. do you use dust from saws (the course stuff) or sanding dust for your hand clean up? ever had the oil/dust combo flash on you? thanks for the tip.

    Everybody takes me too seriously. Nobody believes anything I say. - Philip Whalen, The Madness of Saul

    by rasbobbo on Wed May 12, 2010 at 12:11:56 PM PDT

    •  to clean hands (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I always have sawdust from under the table saw, router table or jointer. Each will work. You simply scrub your hands with it like you would with water. The wood is amazingly effective at removal. The thing that made me think of this idea for oil was seeing a link to an article on Huff Post showing oil covered hands and telling about hair brained spill recovery notions. the connection was right there. I thought, if my hands were that oily, I would scrub them with sawdust.

  •  This is a more likely solution that much of (0+ / 0-)

    what BP has tried or suggested so far.

    •  maybe so. (0+ / 0-)

      Getting the well shut off has to be the main priority. Thousands of tons of sawdust spread on the surface of the gulf is not what we would want on our best days. I would be pleased it the idea could contribute something to the cleanup, but as one who sweeps the woodshop each day, we have to recognize that the sawdust, while it may moderate the effects of oil, isn't a cure.

      I'm hoping someone will sue BP on behalf of each and every sea turtle they have killed through their negligence.

    •  other ideas... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lefty Mama, marina

      Interestingly, many local Louisianans have suggested many similar ideas, none of which BP or the Coast Guard have accepted or agreed to use. Two very promising, already scientifically tested methods in particular: bagass (by product of sugar cane - very plentiful down here) and peat. Both would be infused with microbes that consume oil. As the microbes literally eat the oil, the peat and the bagass would slowly biodegrade. Any remaining material - not decomposed - would contribute to rebuilding the damaged marshes and wetlands. Such a win win proposal, but BP won't respond to the those that have proposed it. It's interesting to continue to think of safe, effective and novel ways to clean up this mess, but until BP agrees to use some of these methods, we might as well keep spitting into the wind.

      Frustrated in NOLA.

      •  Even engineers are often lacking in ... (0+ / 0-)

        hands-on experience. You can go to a university and get a degree in financial engineering, which will put you in charge of big operations with little or no understanding of physical reality.

        So, I guess we should be prepared to see more and more goof-ups as the engineers attempt to find a solution.

        The problem with sawdust and the other absorbent materials you mention is that they look messy. You can lay out brightly colored booms (inefficiently as all get out) and it coveys the impression you are making an effort. Sawdust and peat and bagass will look messy like you've made a mess of things.

        The BP approach is, I suspect, all about putting a BP happy face on the disaster.

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