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Unique sponge system contains water contaminants in storm drains

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SmartSponge technology captures oil and hydrocarbons from stormwater runoff, preventing its discharge into receiving waters.

Water quality is being bolstered in dozens of locations around the United States through the use of a rather simple system. The concept is simple – a polymer “sponge” that removes contaminants from water before it winds up passing through catch basins and storm drains and back into the environment. In fact, both local officials and community groups have caught on to the importance of clean water, helping to propel more installations of the technology developed by a company originally intending to tidy up offshore oil spills.

AbTech Industries has been seeing a growth in use of its SmartSponge technology in numerous parts of the United States, most recently in Norwalk, Connecticut. The company's President and CEO, Glenn Rink, feels the growth of the product's use could lead into even more water-related sectors. “The name of the company actually stands for ‘absorption technology,' and we originally developed this technology to go after ocean-based oil spills where it could be air-deployed anywhere in the world, land on the spill, and when it hit the contaminant turned it into a solid. Then you could remove it out of the water with very basic technology … and recycle it,” Rink described. “The company was called by a lot of cities, regions and regulators to help with compliance requirements cities were facing in the U.S., Canada and internationally dealing with runoff pollution.”

Runoff pollution is a particularly problematic issue all over the world, thanks to the contributions of virtually every human being and Mother Nature, Rink explained. “The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. determined that they had done so much to clean up water, wastewater treatment plants, and illegal dumping, but they couldn't figure out why contaminants were getting in the water,” he explained. “They figured out it was from car emissions – tires, brake dust, all those things that come out of the atmosphere and land on roads. The first time it rains, that buildup … washes into our storm drains.”

AbTech determined that the SmartSponge technology used to soak up oil spills could also be used for cleaning contaminants, even including bacteria, out of water by being placed into storm drains or other places where contaminants might be washed into. That is the role of the company's Ultra-Urban Filter system. “We determined the technology for cleaning up oil spills could fit in any drain of any shape or size, and as soon as it comes into contact with those contaminants, they're removed and turned into a solid,” he said.

An oil-absorbing polymer is the basis of the SmartSponge system; these polymers are formed into a porous structure that provides for long-lasting absorption of hydrocarbons and other materials as well as an effectiveness of up to 95 percent. Water passes through the material while hydrocarbons are drawn out and held, with no potential to be released once absorbed. The SmartSponge Plus product has an added antimicrobial agent bonded to the absorbent material, making it possible to both capture hydrocarbons and oil derivatives as well as eliminating a number of disease-causing micro-organisms.
In fact, one of the most popular uses of the product has been to counteract repeated beach closures due to fecal coliform levels in the water. Tests done in Rhode Island indicated that between 89 and nearly 100 percent of fecal coliform was removed from water moving through outfall pipes with SmartSponge Plus installed.

A cross-section of the Ultra-Urban Filter system.

The Ultra-Urban filter is installed in corrugated plastic boxes that can be placed into storm drains with relative ease. Other usages have seen pipes filled with the product placed underground and other techniques, Rink said. Replacement can be done easily, and disposal once the product has reached the end of its useful life is relatively simple. “Our average life in catch-basins is about two or three years; we've seen it go in a year when there's a very agitated, active area, or in residential areas where it can go for up to four years,” Rink said. “When it's removed from the storm drain, it can go to a waste energy facility – it has a BTU value of 12,000, so it's a very good fuel source.” In October, AbTech engaged in its largest project, a 275-location installation plan in Norwalk that received substantial funding from the U.S. federal government supported by well-known Senator Joseph Lieberman. The $500,000 U.S. project is intended to clean up water quality in Long Island Sound, and is supported by advocacy groups in the region.

A clean and dirty sample of the SmartSponge.

Response to the product has been substantial and positive, with more than 15,000 installed locations around the U.S. “The statements are that it's non-invasive, simple and easy and doesn't require construction, it doesn't require electricity, it can go into a storm drain right down the street from you or in a third-world country, and you can make a measurable difference in minutes,” Rink said. “Competing solutions seem to be going towards ripping up streets and directing things to wastewater treatment plants or putting in large mechanical devices. Those can be effective, it's just the cost of digging up the ground and putting them in.”

With growing interest in the filter system, AbTech is now looking at the possibility of moving into the wastewater treatment industry, with studies ongoing to determine whether SmartSponge uses could reduce the amount of chlorine used in wastewater processing, Rink described. He said he hopes the technology can expand into other uses as well, including drinking water treatment.

Ultra-Urban Filter system installed.

“If you can imagine contaminants around your house, having to deal with them – this could be used as a consumable product, where you have used motor oil from your car and you can solidify it and dispose of it very easily or it could be used in wastewater treatment plants,” he said. “I truly believe that with this technology, we will be the Microsoft of the environmental space. There are so many places where this can be used.”

AbTech Industries Inc.

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