Sponges come in all shapes and sizes; a new material could vastly expand to clean up toxic water. The hydrophobic material, called Obsorb, can mop up messes and grow to eight times its weight. It’s a comprised of a nano-matrix of pieces of glass, making it perfect to absorb gasoline or other toxic messes. When it comes in contact with a volatile organic compound in water—like fuel oils or solvents—the glass absorbs the volatile molecules within the compound without reacting with the water. When it’s full, the material floats to the surface, where it can be recovered and then be heated or rinsed out and reused hundreds of times.
The material was developed by Paul Edmiston of the College of Wooster, who formed a new company, Absorbent Materials, to market the new glass under the trademark Obsorb. A number of pilot sites are being tested in the United States, and industrialized countries are not the only ones that stand to gain: The company says that Obsorb’s unique properties make it ideal for low-tech, low-budget cleanups in developing areas as well. They are currently working on three variations of the material for firms and government agencies contracted to clean up or remediate toxic groundwater contamination sites.
Cleaning up from Hurricane Sandy may take a heroic effort. Raw sewage, industrial chemicals, and petroleum have combined in the receding waters to make a uniquely dangerous goo. This would be a perfect use for Obsorb: cleaning up in storm runoff. Another area of interest for the Obsorb team is cleaning the water that comes with oil drilling or fracking. For each barrel of oil that comes out of the ground, around 10 times that amount of dirty water is extracted. Being able to clean it up would remove one part of the environmental dangers of the practice.
Edmiston didn’t always plan to make a toxic-substance-busting material. He started out looking for new materials to detect explosives at airports, and ended up creating a glass that could bind with vapors. Obsorb is "like the sponge in your kitchen, a nano-mechanical sponge."