Paul Edmiston, a chemistry professor at The College of Wooster, 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 like oil with a passion.
He dubbed the new material Osorb because it can expand up to eight times its original volume, lift 20,000 times its own weight and suck oil or other hydrocarbons out of water without leaving any trace of itself in the environment. 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 its baptism by fire when it was pilot-tested during the 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 at Wooster in northcentral Ohio 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 compound. When she added acetone, a solvent used in fingernail polish remover, the glass immediately 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 itself. It’s really a nanomachine.”
Two years of research and commercial development followed, helped by additional funding from the NSF, including a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant.
In 2008, Edmiston took a chance and formed 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 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 call 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 test. Edmiston and his crew mounted two funnel-shaped vortex tanks on a trailer.
Osorb and the crude-contaminated water 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.”
When the contaminated source is fresh water, the filtered water produced is clean enough to drink, which Edmiston has demonstrated on numerous occasions.
Today, Osorb is being used in a number of advanced water treatment systems, including an Ohio Superfund site where it is being used to treat groundwater contamination around a plant that manufactured ammunition during World War II.
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, enough to fill 7 million swimming pools. 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,” Edmiston said. “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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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.