By SOPHIA LI
Seven years ago, Paul Edmiston was working in his laboratory on a potential way to detect the presence of explosives. By accident, he created a material that acted as a powerful sponge that could absorb small organic compounds like gasoline, motor oil, and pesticides dissolved in water.
Today Dr. Edmiston, a professor of chemistry at the College of Wooster in Ohio, is hoping that his invention, dubbed Osorb, will have a new commercial application: cleaning the wastewater created by the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing.
In fracking, a mix of water, sand and chemical additives is injected into a drilling well under heavy pressure to release natural gas from shale deposits. At the end of the process, some of the chemical-laden water returns to the surface along with salts, radioactive elements and other contaminants absorbed from the shale. Safely disposing of the waste from fracking without contaminating drinking water and waterways has been a major environmental and health concern.
The overall safety of shale-gas drilling has been a contentious issue recently in Ohio: just last month, the state legislature passed a bill imposing regulations on oil and gas drilling in the state amid criticism that the rules had not been adequately discussed or debated.
Adding to concerns, the state Department of Natural Resources reported in March that, as suspected, the injection of waste from oil and gas drilling underground was probably the cause of several earthquakes in the Youngstown, Ohio, area.
Dr. Edmiston is gambling that the swellable glass that he stumbled upon years ago could help address the wastewater challenge. “We’re offering a solution to a problem,” he says. “As a scientist, I’m saying, ‘Here’s a really good innovation that will help treat the waste.’ ”
Osorb is an organosilica material, “halfway between the silica in your window and the silicone in your tub,” he...