The world headquarters of ABS Materials isn’t much to look at.
Located in what had been dead warehouse space in Wooster, ABS shares floor space with hundreds of pallets of high-caloric juice boxes destined, eventually, for nursing homes.
Its conference room consists of three chairs situated haphazardly in front of those juice boxes.
The main office, the one CEO Stephen Spoonamore shares with chief science officer Paul Edmiston, the other chemists, the marketing intern and just about everyone else at ABS, is a small, walled-off portion of the warehouse that sits next to the docks.
Still, it’s here that ABS hopes to change the way contaminated water is treated. It’s even helping clean the Gulf of Mexico after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The company has also welcomed Gov. Ted Strickland and other politicians here, and it’s where ABS has developed technology worthy of the 2009 MIT Clean Energy Prize and the 2009 NorTech Materials Science Innovation of the Year.
“We’re spending our money on size, not on office furniture,” says Edmiston, who is a chemistry professor at the College of Wooster. “We could burn all our money on fancy stuff, but we’re putting it into the big tanks.”
Those tanks are used to blast water through tiny granules of nanoglass, trademarked as Osorb. The largest tank can cleanse up to 40 gallons of water a minute, but the company says it will soon come close to 100 gallons.
In essence, Osorb is a sponge that absorbs nasty organic substances such as gasoline, oil, pesticides, herbicides and pharmaceuticals from water. Each molecule of Osorb can expand up to eight times its original volume.
“If you place the glass in contact with water that is contaminated, it will remove the contaminants,” Edmiston says. “And it is reversible. If you heat the glass, it’s like wringing out the sponge.”
He made the discovery quite accidentally. While working to develop systems that could detect explosives for airport security, Edmiston tested hundreds of different nano-engineered glasses.
When he put an acetone test solution on one of them — the one that would become Osorb — it expanded ”right in front of our eyes,” he says. “It was quite a serendipitous discovery.”
Edmiston spent two years trying to figure out how it worked and then improving on it. In the past year, he has developed glass that acts like a catalytic converter in a car, absorbing contaminates and breaking them down until they are no longer dangerous.
But to his dismay, when he began trying to sell its potential to large, multinational companies, nobody believed him.
At the time, Spoonamore, a self-described “professional idiot,” was the CEO of Cybrinth, a company that was building banking and credit card security systems.
One afternoon, he read a brief in the College of Wooster’s student newspaper about Edmiston’s discovery.
“It said something like, ‘While researching explosives, Dr. Edmiston found a swellable glass capable of absorbing organic compounds,’ ” Spoonammore recalls. “I thought, Shape-changing glass that can grab oil from water? My brain is like, I want to do this. This is the biggest opportunity I had ever seen.”
But he couldn’t leave Cybrinth in a lurch, and so for two years, he let Edmiston’s discovery go.
Then, on Nov. 8, 2008, not long after Spoonamore had sold Cybrinth, he was consulting on some defense contracts and boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. Edmiston was also on that plane.
“You’re the swellable glass man,” Spoonamore said. He asked how the research was going.
“Not so good,” Edmiston replied. No one would take him seriously.
“I wrote up a contract and told him I would translate what he was doing into business,” Spoonamore says.
Twelve days later, that contract was signed.
Prior to hooking up with Spoonamore, Edmiston had enlisted the help of the Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise at Lorain Community College.
“I was beginning to see this could be really useful for a number of different areas because it had such unique properties,” Edmiston says.
Edmiston received $25,000 in seed money from GLIDE, and he borrowed from his family to continue his research.
Once Spoonamore came on board, though, fundraising went through the roof, thanks, in part, to Spoonamore’s $250,000 investment.
ABS started with two employees, Edmiston and Spoonamore, and its first batch of Osorb was made using $7,000 worth of equipment that had been set up in Spoonamore’s garage.
They worked quietly for more than six months. Beginning with a mere three cups of Osorb to show off and five gallons more every two weeks, they brought in $2.9 million, partly because of an investment by Harris & Harris Group, a venture capital firm focused on companies enabled by nanotechnology.
Now, thanks to seven reactors (including one affectionately named Chester), ABS can make up to 3 tons of Osorb a month. The company has 31 employees with four new positions listed on the website and plans for seven more soon.
So what, exactly, does ABS do? For starters, the company makes that nanoglass.
Open a bucket — there are dozens in ABS’s production room that houses Chester — and you see what looks like black gravel.
It’s actually glass. Pick it up, and you can crumble it between your fingers. When you do, though, the glass absorbs all the oils off your skin. It takes hours for the oils to come back, leaving your hands feeling dry and in desperate need of moisturizer.
Most often, ABS grinds the glass into a fine powder. At some places where groundwater has been contaminated, ABS injects the glass into the ground and lets the water run through the glass particles. As the water flows through, the glass absorbs the contaminants.
This is the process going on at the site of a former munitions factory in Coshocton County, where the groundwater is contaminated with trichloroethylene. ABS has injected its glass four times, and each time, tests show the water getting cleaner.
The company also builds small units called VOC-Eaters, which companies can install to clean water. With these units, toxic waste flows into a series of chambers where it is blasted with the nanoglass.
A large trailer-mounted system that processed sludge trucked up from the Gulf of Mexico has moved on to cleaning up a spill in Wyoming. This tanker is a test run for treating oil-contaminated water elsewhere.
Spoonamore, though, isn’t nearly as excited about the Gulf project as all the other stuff ABS is doing.
“It has a big publicity impact for us,” he says. “But really it’s been a distraction for our company because at best, we’re a thimble in front of a fire hose.”
While most of ABS’s projects are profitable, the company is not yet, Spoonamore says. All money earned plus investor funds are going into capital development.
The company was projected to have $1.4 million in revenue in 2010, Spoonamore says, and is well ahead of that number.
“I’ve never had an opportunity for something like this,” he says. “If we make this a success, we will globally impact at least a dozen industries.“
For now, though, an un-air-conditioned warehouse space full of juice boxes — The Shack, as Spoonamore has christened it — will have do to.