Technology whoe time has come

Imbiber Bead

 

Water transports organic chemicals. They ride piggy-back wherever water goes — and that’s one reason why they can be so dangerous.

I’m speaking here of such chemicals as benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, xylene, and MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), the gasoline additive that now contaminates groundwater in 49 of the states in the United States.

Even when we build toxic waste dumps on so-called impervious clay, and install special liners, no one can say with 100-per-cent certainty that there will never be a leak. Liners can have a weak point: a joint improperly sealed. During a long, dry period, clay can develop cracks.

Unless the chemicals are permanently immobilized by transforming them at the molecular level — or better still, unless they are prevented from being released in the first place — there’s no assurance that another generation will not have huge, and immensely costly, cleanup problems to face.

The technology to immobilize and prevent has been available for 30 years. But it has had to wait for the arrival of John Brinkman to bring it to market.

If you’ve ever played tennis, you’d recognize Brinkman as someone you wouldn’t want to play with any expectation of winning. He’s compact and fit, but most of all, there’s an intensity of focus that spells: « Highly competitive.’’

He was a ranked junior player who became a tennis pro, and then migrated to the world of the entrepreneur. At 47 years old, he no longer plays tennis — his knees aren’t what they used to be — but the competitive spirit, laid back and coiled, is still there, barely below the surface.

« I’ve been told by thousands of experts that I’d never get this (technology) off the ground,’’ he says, and it’s obvious he saw the advice as a challenge, not a deterrent.’’

The technology was invented by Richard Hall, working as a scientist for Dow Chemical Co. in Michigan. Called « imbiber beads,’’ it’s made up of granules the size of refined white sugar that absorb organic chemicals into their molecular structures, and increase their diameters by four times. Put another way, each bead will soak up 27 times its volume in chemicals.

What results is a dense, spongy material that floats on water and can be safely picked up by hand. The chemical and the imbiber beads combine to form a new, environmentally benign substance.

Dow saw the beads as a cleanup agent for spills and analyzed the market as relatively small. Brinkman saw the beads as a preventer of spills and saw the market as huge.

In 1994, Brinkman struck a deal with Dow. He bought the imbiber bead manufacturing plant in Little Rock, Arkansas, leased the primary technology for 20 years, and got Dow to agree that his new company, Imbibitive Technologies Corp., would own all scientific spinoffs developed from the primary technology. Most important of all, Hall retired from Dow and joined the new company to lead its research.

Now, after $2.5 million (U.S.) of investment, the company has a representative list of 199 chemicals that the imbiber beads can be engineered to absorb on its Web site at www.imbiberbeads.com. The company’s head office is in St. Catharines and in addition to Brinkman and Hall, there are two other Canadian partners.

Because the beads are round, they leave spaces through which water can pass. If they are placed at a drain or other outlet where a spill is possible, and one occurs, the beads will absorb the chemical, swell, and close off the drain. There are a myriad of other uses, including using them as a base around fuel tanks or buried fuel lines to protect against contaminating groundwaters.

One application for which Brinkman has great hopes is a small pad filled with beads that boaters can toss into their bilges to soak up leaking fuel or oil. They’re about 18 centimetres square and cost $14.95 for two — a lot cheaper than getting bilges pumped out at marinas. Use the Web site to find out how to get them.>

Thanks to Brinkman and Hall, imbiber beads are a technology whose time has come.

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