Friday, May 14, 2010

sawdust and oil do mix part 2

Today, out of endless curiosity, I have continued my experiment mixing oil, water and sawdust. Did you know you could remove oil from water by using a teaspoon? Did you know that the application of fine sawdust could help to contain the spread of oil on the surface of water? The photos taken in my kitchen tell the story. The wood dust is basswood, collected from my orbital sander. The oil used is common motor oil. Wood dust sprinkled on water sinks as it gradually absorbs water. The wood dust that has absorbed oil coagulates and floats for easy removal of both sawdust and oil. Excess sawdust floats harmlessly to the bottom. I gave the glass some side to side wave action to simulate ocean conditions and the glass shown at the end of the experiment has some wood dust still clouding the water, but it is ten times better than oil.



In the meantime, British Petroleum engineers have used over 400,000 gallons of dispersant to attempt to control the multimillion gallon oil gusher. We have no idea what the ecological impact of the combined oil and dispersant will be... what kind of toxicological effects? You can get your degree in financial engineering, become head of a multinational corporation and know less about materials properties than what one might learn in the kitchen or woodshop. I am frightened for the health and safety of our planet.

18 comments:

Robin Edgar said...

What a terrible thing to do to a Guinness glass. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Have you considered the experiment using salt water?

Doug Stowe said...

Robin, the Guinness glass came from the British Isles, so it seemed most appropriate.

No, I have not as yet done the experiment using salt water. I guess that should be next, but I really don't think the addition of salt in solution would have any effect except to make the oil/sawdust mix more buoyant.

Anonymous said...

I can't even begin to explain how different crude oil is from motor oil (refined from crude - very different products!). Regardless, you've essentially sped up the emulsification process (those engineers that don't know much about materials have looked at wood products for the same reason: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a777979423). Congrats, now how do you clean it up? You can't use the normal & easy method of separating the oil and water, you essentially need some way to economically scoop millions of gallons of goo from the water. Find that and you can retire with millions of dollars. You're over reaching again...
- NickN

Doug Stowe said...

"you essentially need some way to economically scoop millions of gallons of goo from the water. Find that and you can retire with millions of dollars. You're over reaching again..."

You can scoop goo pretty easily. I may be "over reaching again", but in a harmless manner. BP and it's many engineers from two major corporations were obviously over reaching and look at the consequences. That they seem to remain over their heads and demonstrating their lack of competence is a clear invitation to others to propose solutions.

The article you referenced had nothing to do with clean up activities. It talked about moving oil, wood by-products and water through a pipeline, which I assume means that they had some way to remove the oil at the other end.

Doug Stowe said...

The idea of an emulsion is to distribute one material in another, but in this case one material is coagulated in another, not emulsified.

Check out the following link.
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/emulsify

So, I would not call what I've done in my mixing oil, sawdust and water, an emulsion.

It would be nice to retire with millions, but I would rather retire to a clean planet.

They have all kinds of devices designed to remove coagulated materials from water. For instance, boats with scoops for removing algae from lakes and rivers.

Doug Stowe said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emulsion

Just a bit of further clarification. What the oil company has been doing by spreading dispersants is to create an emulsion. Dispersants and surfactants don't take the oil out of the water, they just spread it out turning the oil and water mix into an emulsion where you don't see it. That does not necessarily mean that it no longer has chemical effect on the environment.

You could say that water and oil remain two immiscible materials when sawdust is added. But I believe the adding of sawdust can make the oil easier to handle with very simple technology.

Jim said...

Doug, it was fun discovering your blog & website.

As already noted in comments, your sawdust demonstration achieves a very different result than dispersants.

The real tool/ally for oil spill clean-up is biological. Dispersants vastly increase the surface area of the oil, allowing bacterial attack to consume it rapidly. A layman's reference:
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispersant].

Consolidation of oil might not be desirable. It is desirable to the extent that consolidated material can be recovered. The 3-dimensional search & intercept required to do so is illustrated by the difficult deployments of booms. Booms are, depending upon geographic extent of the oil plume(s) and wave action, sometimes inappropriate. Hence, aircraft are used to spray dispersants that can cover wide areas.

An example of the trickiness of even knowing whether a treatment is effective: 'A White Paper on Oil Spill Dispersant Effectiveness Testing in Large Tanks'
[www.pwsrcac.org/docs/d0001700.pdf].

Thanks for being thoughtful about this problem. I hope that you continue to consider solutions.

Doug Stowe said...

Jim,
When I first got involved in water quality issues in the 1970s, the old engineers loudly proclaimed, "Dilution is the solution to pollution." Since then we have become a bit more knowledgeable of the consequences of that strategy. We have dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs), and all kinds of other compounds we have distributed through dilution into the environment with serious toxic effects. Thanks for the links. And for adding some thought to the stew.

Jim said...

Doug, I would describe the goal of oil dispersal to be magnification rather than dilution. Since the miscibility of oil in water is low, oil cannot be truly diluted. Increasing its surface area allows relatively rapid bacterial attack.

Industrial chemicals such as dioxins, PCBs, & many more are typically little affected by bacterial action. They are somewhat unnatural chemicals (although some natural fires produce dioxins) that are mostly amenable to attack only by comparably artificial means (high-temperature incineration, genetically engineered bacteria). Dilution was a default 'treatment' that made low levels of such contaminants ubiquitous.

I was reminded today of a good application for consolidation of spilled oil. Gulf barrier islands are having flood channels into their wetlands blocked (Corps of Engineers + lotsa rocks) to keep oil from getting further than beaches. Consolidation (whether by sawdust or ?) at these focus points could be helpful.

Doug Stowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug Stowe said...

Scientists have determined that the leak of oil is several times larger than admitted earlier, and were wondering where all the oil went. I turns out that there is at least one and possibly several plumes of underwater oil 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and hundreds of feet thick. The plumes have been hidden and possibly prevented from rising to the surface by dispersants injected underwater. Read about it here...

As I had stated earlier, the dispersants make it seem to go away... the principle if you don't see it it isn't there. Booms are put out to make it look like the oil company is doing something. In the meantime, the combination of the oil and dispersants are creating a toxic soup. An expert on NPR today from the University of Louisiana said that the effects of dispersants at the surface of water are well known and used to encourage biological action. The effects below the surface are unknown and quite likely dangerous.

The Daily Complaint said...

I found your experiment and articles very interesting. I thought of the sawdust solution back in the Valdez days. It's natural, non-toxic, absorbent, and easily re-collectable. My idea has been to drop sawdust from choppers and shoot from 'sawdust cannons' from boats to absorb the oil, re-collect it, put it through a heated drying process to remove the water, mix with a wax mixture to make it bind wll, form it into bricks, and wah-lah... you have a burnable fuel. Possible?? (If a middle aged mom like me can figure this out, why can't the big guns at the oil companies?)

The Daily Complaint said...

I found your experiment and articles very interesting. I thought of the sawdust solution back in the Valdez days. It's natural, non-toxic, absorbent, and easily re-collectable. My idea has been to drop sawdust from choppers and shoot from 'sawdust cannons' from boats to absorb the oil, re-collect it, put it through a heated drying process to remove the water, mix with a wax mixture to make it bind wll, form it into bricks, and wah-lah... you have a burnable fuel. Possible?? (If a middle aged mom like me can figure this out, why can't the big guns at the oil companies?)

Anonymous said...

When I saw how much oil was spilling into the gulf, I thought with a little oil it makes sense to disperse, but with that much it would be better if they could consolidate, or clump. I didn't realize it could be so simple and non toxic to do so.

JM

Doug Stowe said...

The effects of the dispersants are, besides dispersing oil, to cause bacterial action breaking down the oil. Bacterial activity uses the oxygen available in the water. Consequently, the oxygen required for other marine life is gone where the dispersants are used. There will be dead zones in the gulf for some time to come. Do you think that BP will be willing to accept responsibility for this catastrophe?

Marc said...

Doug,

Your solution is brilliant in its simplicity. I agree that chemical dispersants aren't a viable solution. If oil were spilled on dry land, you wouldn't throw sand over it to hide it, would you? With chemical spills on land, the contaminated soil is moved to a location where the contaminate won't migrate into the ground water. How long until what's in the Gulf (oil and toxic dispersants) ends up in our food chain.

It is obvious that using Doug's idea, the coagulated oil and sawdust could be scooped up using existing technology algae skimmers, hauled to shore and used as some sort of bio-fuel.

But, corporations don't like common-sense solutions they always turn to something dreamed in a lab by someone in a white labcoat. Why do chemicals always have to trump common sense solutions?

Case in point, if you want to get rid of wasps, do you use chemical insecticides or wasp traps?

Doug Stowe said...

Someone had asked where we could possibly get enough sawdust, but I just returned from the Furniture Society Conference and one of the presenters showed a mound of chipped trees urban trees ready for the landfill that was easily 20 feet high and 50' x 200'. We throw away and amazing amount of forest products. But then other agricultural wastes could also be used with little or no toxic effect.

You get the oil people hanging out with chemical engineers and the only solutions they will find will be chemical.