Paul Edmiston, a chemistry professor at Wooster College in Northcentral Ohio, started out looking for a compound that would help detect explosives at airports. What he found instead was a material that hates water but loves hydrocarbons such as oil with a passion.
He dubbed the new material Osorb because it can expand up to eight times its original volume like a sponge, lift 20,000 times its own weight and suck oil or other hydrocarbon pollutants out of water without leaving any trace of itself in the environment. It and the hydrocarbons it removes can also be reused. “A thermos full can lift your car,” he told BusinessNewsDaily.
The discovery and commercial development came just in time for it to get its baptism by fire when it was pilot-tested during the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. It worked. And a potential game-changing technology was born.
Edmiston knew it would. The Eureka moment came in 2005 when Edmiston and his students were conducting research to develop an optical sensor for explosives under a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Colleen Burkett, one his students, was testing a batch of ground-up, nanoengineered glass made from a silicon and benzene polymer. When she added acetone, a solvent commonly used in fingernail polish remover, the glass immediately changed shape and swelled up as it absorbed the acetone, a hydrocarbon. She ran to Edmiston.
“Dr. Edmiston, you’ve got to come to see this,” she said.
When they looked at the results, she asked Edmiston, “Did I mess up?”
The answer was a resounding, “No.”
“It was a sort of Eureka moment,” Edmiston recalled. “Like a lot of inventions it was serendipitous. It’s halfway between window glass in your car and the caulk in your bathtub. It’s a mechanical process, not chemical. It’s a sponge that doesn’t give off anything of its self. It’s really a nanomachine.”
Two years of further research and commercial development followed, helped by additional funding from NSF, including a NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant.
In 2008 Edmiston rolled the dice to form a company to manufacture and market Osorb, Absorbent Materials Co. (ABSMaterials). The company was profitable by its second year and now has 20 full-time employees and is exploring additional uses for this revolutionary new manufactured material.
“With patents in hand, the IP and a little bit of seed money from my own personal finances and money from the state of Ohio, I founded the company,” he said.” As an inventor and a scientist, you have to make a leap. It involved a phone to my parents to ask them if they could lend me money and looking at my mortgage to see how much money I could get out of it and form a company.”
Unlike the chemical dispersants that are spread on oil spills, Osorb is not a toxic chemical that remains in the water; it works better when the oil-contaminated water is brought to it and processed in a contained environment. For the Gulf spill pilot test. Edmiston and his crew mounted two funnel-shaped vortex tanks on a trailer.
Osorb and the crude-contaminated oil were mixed in the first tank and the resulting filtered water was returned to the environment. The oil-soaked Osorb was then transferred to the second tank where it was treated to separate the petroleum for reuse or disposal. The Osorb was then rinsed and ready for reuse.
“It’s a sponge that doesn’t give off anything of itself,” Edmiston said. “You reuse the Osorb over and over again. The original stuff that Colleen synthesized is still fine today.”
Today, Osorb is being used in a number of advanced water-treatment systems, including a Superfund site where Osorb is being used to treat groundwater contamination around an Ohio plant that manufactured ammunition during World War II.
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A catalytic version of Osorb combined with iron is being injected into the ground where it breaks down trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent that is a significant cause of groundwater pollution, and dechlorinates it to produce ethane gas — colorless, odorless, nontoxic, but flammable.
But the largest opportunity for Osorb is produced water, Edmiston believes. Produced water is the water that is co-extracted from wells with petroleum and natural gas and is estimated to be 800 billion gallons in volume per year. Often saturated with hydrocarbons, produced water is one of the most vexing pollution problems because effective treatment is difficult.
With onshore wells, the produced water is injected into the ground; offshore, it is returned to the ocean.
“Oil and gas wells are a major source of contaminated water,” said Edmiston. “One of the largest waste streams in the world is produced water.”
Osorb can change that calculus, Edmiston believes, and become the game-changer in water remediation that an environmentally challenged planet needs.
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