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Science and Technology




Exploradio - Swellable Glass
Wooster chemist takes accidental invention out of the lab and into production, and cleans up.
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Paul Edmiston adds acetone to a batch of Osorb in his College of Wooster lab. The reusable glass removes organic pollutants from industrial waste water. Edmiston discovered the material by accident.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair, WKSU
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In science, an accidental discovery can quickly take you into unchartered territory, where sometimes it’s best to follow along and see where it leads you.   

This week on Exploradio, a Wooster chemist follows up on an experiment gone wrong, and is now ‘cleaning up’.

Exploradio - Swellable Glass

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Lab Accident

“You hear that crackling…?”

Paul Edmiston still gets a thrill out of the way his invention works –

“Sounds like Rice Krispies in the morning…”

Granules of Osorb, his patented glass compound, swell and crackle as he squirts acetone onto a petrie dish full of the stuff.

“It never gets old…  especially when you think a coffee can  full of this will lift your car as it’s doing this process…it’s like watching a flower blossom in about a second.”

 Edmiston describes what we’re watching as a mechanical, rather than a chemical process, as the glass molecules unfold on the nanoscale  –

“There’s a toy on the market that’s this expanding sphere.  Well, all the little nodules on that, those are the Osorb particles, and when it’s shrunken down in that collapsed state, it’s under an incredible amount of tension and it wants to boing up to the enlarged state. And that’s what causes the absorption process to occur.”

Osorb is an organo-silicate, a type of glass he says is midway between a pane of glass and the silicone caulk in your bathtub. 

Edmiston came upon the material by accident in 2005 while testing glass compounds that bind to explosive particles  for use in airport detectors.

But something went wrong in one of the experiments.  His student called him in…

“So I come reluctantly down to the lab, and she added the TNT test solution and it swelled.  And at that point I believe I said, ‘That’s a little unusual.’”

Swellable glass is unusual, and the discovery led Edmiston in a completely different direction - 

“Here we were going down the street one way but it was taking us to a whole new continent of materials.”


From Discovery to Start-up 

He began exploring that new continent.  Edmiston soon found that Osorb could pick out oils and hydrocarbons from water and hold them tightly until heated, then release them and recharge for another round of filtration.

He discovered an ideal use for his invention -  the purification of polluted waste water from the oil and gas industry. 

After two years of experimenting, he realized it was time to scale up production.

“The first batches were made commercially with me and my mother.  We would come in with one of the early employees, Laura Underwood, and we would take turns. ‘Who has the 4 a.m. shift? Who has the 9 a.m. shift?’  This is the kind of backbreaking work you had to do in the early stages to get it going. ”

Taylor Lamborn, marketing director for Edmiston’s company, ABS Materials, points to where industrial batches of Osorb are made in a factory on Wooster’s south side…

“You can can see trash cans full of it, gallons of Osorb…”

Lamborn describes a chance meeting that catalyzed the business venture.   Edmiston met fellow Woosterite Stephen Spoonamore while traveling. They began talking…

“And in this 50 minute plane ride, they had a conversation that ended with Mr. Spoonamore investing in Dr. Edmiston’s technology saying, ‘We’re making a business out of this.’  They wrote up a business plan and a couple of months later, the company was founded.”

Paul Edmiston says his first move was to go back to the lab bench.

“I’m really good at chemistry, and really sub-par at business.”


Expanding Uses 

His job, in addition to teaching chemistry at the College of Wooster, is to develop new types of materials to deal with the flood of pollutants that are biproducts of industrial production.

“We’re taking these whole new types of chemistries that are developing out of 21st century material science that’s going on in Ohio and the world, and turning it back to try and treat these problems that are legacies of the 20th century.”

With investors, and grants from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, his company has quickly grown to about 40 employees.

Parent company ABS makes Osorb to clean  polluted ground water. A spin-off specializes in purifying drilling waste, and a third venture recovers valuable oils or pharmaceuticals from process solutions.

Edmiston credits the mistake made in the lab for opening up the  possibilities.

“That’s actually what normally happens in science rather than the direct, ‘I’m going to work on this and make this breakthrough.’”

He says accidents are often the key to discovery.

 

Exploradio, exploring science and innovation in Northeast Ohio.


Related Links & Resources
ABS Materials website


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