Lots of things soak up oil, but what works best?

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been looking into materials that can soak up oil during a major oil spill, as well regulations governing the use of such equipment. The effort culminated in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, which described the thousands of people donating their hair to soak up oil, and Tuesday’s story, which talks about potential uses of alternative technologies.

Frankly, I learned far more about various materials than I could fit into either story, so I’m filing away some information for future reports and discussions.

I began looking into hair booms when I saw newspaper and television reports about hair salons collecting cast-off hair. Volunteers were stuffing the hair into the legs of panty hose to create makeshift hair booms to soak up oil in the Gulf. It bothered me that none of the reporters were asking whether the hair was actually being used. Cleanup officials in the Gulf soon announced that they would not use the hair, yet organizers remained determined to carry out their plans.

I came to learn that these hair booms were more than a potential clean-up tool; they were a symbol of concern and empathy being sent from throughout the world.

Monday’s story focused on inventions using alternate materials to clean up oil and the difficulty of getting new ideas put to use. There are so many ideas that I couldn’t begin to explain them all in a news story, so I focused on a couple of Washington companies.

For some reason, many people are fascinated with the idea of using hay to clean up oil. A demonstration on YouTube by a couple of interesting characters (who also appeared on the Sean Hannity Show) has reached 1.7 million hits. I guess people are enthralled with the simplicity of using such a basic material as grass — but lots of natural materials will soak up oil. The questions are: How much oil can be captured per unit of material? How well do the materials work in the environment? And how easily can they be recovered after being soaked with oil? Other factors include cost, availability, potential reuse , etc.

Following a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Chairman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, concluded that much more research is needed on sorbents and other cleanup technologies.

When I get a chance, I will make a list of the various kinds of materials being promoted for the cleanup, including natural materials treated with chemicals to improve their performance. The list is long and varied. I’m convinced that it would be useful — either now or later — to have a research group look at all the factors and offer some observations, perhaps suggesting a “best buy.”

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