Osorb: the nemesis of water pollutants?

Sensemaking / Osorb: the nemesis of water pollutants?

A high-tech chemical sponge that separates oil and other pollutants from water has enormous market potential.

25 Jan 2012

A high-tech chemical sponge that separates oil and other pollutants from water has enormous market potential.

It’s often said that oil and water don’t mix – but all too often they do, like in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, a high-tech chemical sponge has been developed that soaks up oil and other pollutants, separating them from water.

Marketed by ABSMaterials as Osorb, this organically modified silica attracts small organic toxins into its matrix, swelling up to eight times its initial size – but repels water. It can be cleaned for re-use up to 100 times, and generates no solid waste. Chemist Paul Edmiston, who created Osorb and founded ABS, has been known to prove its efficacy by spiking a glass of water with oil, adding Osorb, and then drinking the water.

The US Department of Energy carried out field tests and declared it highly effective, removing more than 99% of oil and grease from water and over 90% of poisonous volatile organic compounds.

ABSMaterials is on a fast track towards success. It was recently listed by Forbes as one of the most promising companies in the US, ranking 67/100. Investment has been raised to the tune of $15 million, and the product is already selling into the US, Canada, the EU, Korea and India.

Needless to say, challenges remain. The main ones, according to Taylor Lamborn, Head of Marketing at ABS, are getting the commercial price right and developing machinery compatible with a radical material. But the potential is massive. The most promising applications for Osorb are environmental remediation (following an oil spill, for instance), and cleaning up water used in drilling and mining for oil and gas. These are enormous global markets: an estimated $80 billion or more, according to ABS. Smaller-scale solutions include a soil blend that can capture and break down common pollutants in stormwater runoff, such as pesticides and harsh fertilisers. – Carl Frankel

Photos: thinkstock

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