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John Brinkman is president and CEO of Imbibitive Technologies, maker of tiny plastic spheres that can absorb chemicals, such as during a spill. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)
John Brinkman is president and CEO of Imbibitive Technologies, maker of tiny plastic spheres that can absorb chemicals, such as during a spill. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)

Challenge Contest semi-finalist

Semi-finalist: Tiny beads soak up big chemical spills Add to ...

Imbibitive Technologies Inc. is one of the four semi-finalists in The Globe and Mail’s Small Business Challenge Contest. The 2014 contest drew more than 1,000 entries, and a panel of judges selected the semi-finalists. The winner of the $100,000 business grant - and a suite of secondary prizes - will be announced in September.

Baby diapers rarely figure in discussions about the best way to clean up oil and chemical spills. But for the layperson trying to understand how Imbibitive Technologies Inc.’s “imbiber beads” work, the little spheres packed inside the lining of disposable diapers provide an easy-to-grasp comparison.

“When a baby pees, the super-absorbent polymers in the retaining fabric of the diaper quickly absorb and retain the liquid, and within minutes the retaining fabric is dry,” explains John Brinkman, president and chief executive officer of Imbibitive Technologies in Welland, Ont. “Imbiber beads work on a similar principle but are completely unaffected by water, and will selectively take pollutants out of water.”

Certified as super absorbent polymers, imbiber beads are plastic spheres the size of salt grains that can absorb more than 1,000 varieties of organic chemicals, swelling up to 27 times their original volume. Once a chemical liquid is absorbed by the beads, it stays absorbed even if you squeeze or cut the beads, says Mr. Brinkman, whose 20-year-old company employs a dozen workers. Imbiber beads also reduce chemical vapours by as much as 600 per cent.

These characteristics make imbiber beads ideal for cleaning up oil and hazardous chemical spills, Mr. Brinkman says. The beads were used, albeit to a limited degree, in the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Japan’s maritime authorities have also purchased a substantial volume of imbiber beads for use in 23 major seaports.

But, more broadly, persuading customers to buy imbiber beads as the first line of attack in an oil spill or pollution prevention project has been a tough sell, especially given the competition: sand or clay.

“I can’t compete with dirt,” Mr. Brinkman says. “On a price per pound, obviously something that’s getting dug out of the ground versus something being produced in a manufacturing facility, there’s no comparison.”

But when it comes to performance, the beads win hands down, he says. Like sponges, sand and clay granules can capture oil and chemicals but they also release liquid easily, which could cause secondary contamination.

Mr. Brinkman says oil spill cleanups typically recover less than 10 per cent of the liquid. Imbiber beads, on the other hand, can capture virtually all the spilled oil in a covered area. What’s more, this captured oil can be recovered and put to commercial use – a benefit that easily bolsters the business case for using imbiber beads in place of sand or clay.

What the company needs

Winning the Small Business Challenge contest will help Imbibitive Technologies cover the cost of product demonstrations and trials for prospective government and industry customers. These demos and trials are a critical part of the company’s drive to make imbiber beads the gold standard in chemical spill cleanups, Mr. Brinkman says.

“We have proposed for the last 20 years that imbiber beads could change the game with respect to oil and chemical spills,” he says. “We’re going to keep pushing this message.”

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