Scientists have reinvented sawdust as an oil spill cleanup tool.

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As long as we continue to rely on oil for fuel, we’re going to have to deal with oil spills. While there are several ways to clean up oil spills, they were designed for use in warm water, not the cold and sometimes rough seas of far northern latitudes.

But scientists working for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a way to clean up potential Arctic oil spills: sawdust.

“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,” says PNNL microbiologist George Bonheyo, who leads the modified sawdust’s development.

Mechanics have been using sawdust to clean up oil spills in garages for many years, but at PNNL, they’ve developed a specially treated form of very fine sawdust called wood flour. It can soak up oil, doesn’t freeze, and can float on the water’s surface for up to four months. Wood flour is a by-product of woodworking, and is generally used to make wood composites.

The researchers treated the wood flour with vegetable oil so that it repels water, but it soaks up oil very efficiently. This means that the wood flour can be sprinkled on a spill and then cleaned up.

The wood flour is also flammable, which helps when controlled burns are used to get rid of oil and prevent it from spreading too far, too fast. Early results from testing by the U.S. Coast Guard and Naval Research Laboratory indicate that even a small amount of it enables both thick and thin layers of oil to burn.

In the coming months, PNNL will further evaluate the capacity of the wood flour to contain oil spills. The material will need additional testing and approval by multiple agencies before it can be used at actual oil spills.