Swelling Glass ‘Sponge’ Can Remove Pollutants from Water

A new invention called Osorb can quickly and cheaply remove contaminants from water.

When boats and shipping vessels leak oil, fuel, and other contaminants into our waterways the results can be devastating—not just for the fish and other wildlife that reside in the habitat, or for the plants and trees in the area, but also for humans, since the toxic elements can get into their food and drinking water supply and cause disease and death.

Scientists have been working for decades to make it easier, cheaper, and more efficient to clean up contaminated sites—and a cool new innovation called Osorb hailing from the College of Wooster could prove to be a technological breakthrough.

The Osorb is a “smart sponge” made of glass that can swell up to eight times its original size and soak up pollutants like gasoline. But unlike a regular sponge, the Osorb is hydrophobic, and doesn’t absorb water.

The new technology can prove especially effective in sites where a toxic compound called TCE are involved. TCE is notoriously difficult to clean up with traditional means, so the areas around such spills are often completely shut down for decades at a time until the toxic fumes naturally dissipate. With the Osorb, such spills could be cleaned up easily and quickly.

While you might think the Osorb sponges would be expensive to produce, the technology is actually pretty cheap: each sponge can be reused hundreds of times. Once each sponge has collected the pollutants from a water body, it floats to the water’s surface, and the hazardous material can be carefully skimmed off, using small bits of iron to convert TCE or the also-dangerous PCE into harmless waste.

The Osorb isn’t commercially available yet, but it’s just received a $250,000 investment from venture group JumpStart Inc.—so hopefully, we’ll be able to count on these smart sponges for cleaner, safer waterways in the near future.

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