A Massachusetts company is selling a high-tech line of oil-absorbing products for cleaning up spills large and small.
OPFLEX Environmental Technologies, of West Hyannisport, MA, has developed a foam cell material that absorbs oil but not water, which makes it highly effective for ocean and river spills, according to Glenn Wattley, Director of Operations.
OPFLEX products, which include sheets, booms and squiggly strand sets known as “eelgrass,” look much like other sponge products, but they perform effectively in spills because of their unique ability to repel water while bonding with oil and refined products, according to Wattley.
Resistance to water absorption sets OPFLEX products apart, because environmental crews can remove oil effectively without removing large volumes of water that could weigh down the foam and make landfill disposal problematic, he said.
OPFLEX products have proven particularly popular in Europe and South America, he added, because environmental officials in those regions are concerned with keeping materials soaked with both oil and water out of landfills. In the United States, OPFLEX is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drive acceptance of its products.
Cleanup crews can wring the oil from OPFLEX foam and redeploy it. The company has developed a wringing system that can be used to transfer absorbed oil to a barrel or storage tank. In some cases the oil can even be recovered and sent for refining, Wattley explained.
Good for Everyday Spills Too
While many of the OPFLEX products are designed for waterborne spills that pose serious environmental threats, the company also makes products that help with the kind of everyday spills that can occur during fuel delivery. These include mitts and small sheets, which can be wrung out and reused from 10 to 30 times. “If you spill stuff, this is a good first line for the cleanup,” he said.
OPFLEX creates its foams by blending specially developed chemicals and then baking them in an oven. “The product comes out looking like bed mattresses or large pieces of bread,” Wattley said. “At the factory we call them buns.” The foam is then fabricated into different shapes for different applications, including sheets, cubes, and “eelgrass” strands. Some oil booms consist of long mesh tubes filled with small cubes of OPFLEX foam. “This creates more surface area,” Wattley said. “It’s like having crushed ice in a drink.”
OPFLEX has developed spill containment products that combine foam booms with thick fringes of “eelgrass” foam. In rough water, the combination works to absorb oil as it blows into the boom, rather allowing it to hop the barrier. “We gave it extra buffers so that when the harbor or sea gets rough, no oil from a spill goes over or under the booms,” Wattley said.
OPFLEX took its products for rigorous testing at The National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (Ohmsett) in 2014 and found that they performed well in rough weather conditions. Ohmsett has a testing basin where it mixes oil and water and simulates ocean conditions so that companies can test and improve their products.
OPFLEX founder and inventor Scott Smith told the Ohmsett Gazette, “We must use education, communications, and continued testing, like that done at Ohmsett, to help move the industry forward with more effective technologies to remove oil in all weather and sea conditions. This is the only way we are going to better protect and preserve our water ways and sensitive ecosystems.”
OPFLEX regularly puts its products to the test in oil spills. They deployed in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizons spill. They also helped with several large spills in 2015, including incidents in Dalian, China, and on the California coast. Smith even used OPFLEX products to help clean up this summer’s gold mine spill in Durango, CO. OPFLEX can capture metals in water, as well as oil.
The OPFLEX website (www.opflex.com) offers a wealth of information about the products, including videos.