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‘Super sponge’ seen as absorbent next step in oil spill mitigation

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Engineers at the University of Calgary say they’ve come up with a fresh and effective new technique in the global hunt for a better way to clean up oil spills. 

The process uses a material they call a « super sponge. » It’s non-toxic and biodegradable, to boot.

To demonstrate, Nashaat Nassar puts bitumen into a two-litre glass container filled with water and then flicks a switch. The mixture is shaken and stirred.

The chemical engineer and associate professor then sprinkles on it a dark powder — a magnetic chemical compound of boron nitride.

« They are hydrophobic. So, they don’t like water. They like oil, » Nassar says.

Nashaat Nassar, a chemical engineer and associate professor at the University of Calgary, is part of the ‘super sponge’ research project. They hope to test it on a larger scale. (Dave Rae/CBC)

At a microscopic level, the material is extremely porous, kind of like a sponge, says Nassar as he demonstrates by hovering a magnet wrapped in foil over the oil and sucks it right out of the water.

« With this material, we can minimize the spread of the oil, » he says. 

The « sponge » also has the benefits of being non-toxic and inexpensive to produce, Nassar says.

The innovative project is part of a burgeoning area of research in oil spill cleanup.

Seth Darling is a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where work is ongoing on another possible sponge solution to oil spill cleanup. (Submitted by Seth Darling)

Similar research in the U.S.

Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory just outside Chicago are working on another spongy solution. Theirs uses specially treated sheets of polyurethane foam that can soak up oil.

« You can pick it up, squeeze it like a kitchen sponge, and the oil will come out, » said laboratory scientist Seth Darling.

« We went out there and demonstrated very clearly that you could pick up oil slicks off the surface of the ocean, out there in the real world, deployed from a boat. »

Darling says the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 — when millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico — prompted many scientists to rethink cleanup technologies.

The explosion at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig on April 20, 2010, killed 11 workers. (U.S. Coast Guard/Associated Press)

« Everyone saw the catastrophic effects it was having on the environment and the monetary burden it also created for the company and the whole local economy there. So, lots of researchers thought, there’s got to be a better way to deal with this than what’s out there. Lots of folks started working on this idea of asorbents. »

Typically, oil spill cleanup involves skimming and burning the crude off the water’s surface, or breaking it down with chemical dispersants.

The powdered boron nitride developed at the University of Calgary, when added to oil, allows the oil to be drawn out of the water with a foil-wrapped magnet. (Dave Rae/CBC)

‘Far from perfect’

The oil recovery rate, though, is far from perfect, says a science historian at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

« Nobody would dispute that our track record is not very good, » Ian Stewart says.

« It’s a very, very complex, deeply challenging thing to deal with. »

The size and location of a spill are also factors in recovery, he says.

Ian Stewart, a science historian at the University of King’s College in Halifax, says the oil recovery rate after a spill is far from perfect. (Submitted by Ian Stewart)

« Five to 15 per cent is what’s said. But it really depends. If you’re in a very calm, secluded bay and you’ve got the right technologies on hand, then a lot more can be recovered. It does vary. The big spills that have happened throughout history, they have typically been in places that were very hard to recover. »

But, he cautions, real world testing of the new cleanup technologies is yet another challenge.

« It’s all promising stuff. The problem, as these researchers will tell you, is that they’re far away from being operational. »

Back at the University of Calgary, researchers recognize that a lab demonstration is one thing. The open ocean is another.

« We are always trying to look at efficient techniques to go beyond the lab and try to have more real solutions to what the industry is facing these days, » Nassar says.

The next step is testing the « super sponge » on a larger scale, he says.

Engineers at the University of Calgary hope to expand the research to larger projects. (Dave Rae/CBC)

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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