Local invention deployed to gulf oil-cleanup effort
June 22, 2010
By Ari Cetron
Jerry Brownstein was puttering around his vintage clothing shop in Los Angeles about 30 years ago, wondering what would become of all the polyester.
The answer to that question led the Sammamish resident to create a fabric that sops up oil from water — a fabric that’s seen its demand skyrocket over the past few weeks, as its been deployed to the Gulf of Mexico to clean up the BP oil spill.“We didn’t realize what we were holding when we first started this,” he said.
Brownstein owned a shop called The Junk Store on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., and in between catering to the sartorial needs of the stars, he wondered what would happen to the mounds and mounds of man-made fabric that doesn’t biodegrade.
“What I was concerned about was, there’s all this waste,” he said.
Not just the shirts and pants that crowded his store. Brownstein was also wondering about the factory scrap, bits left over after the machines cut what they need as they manufacture polyester textiles or bits that get caught in machines.
Brownstein estimates that there are 100 million pounds of polyester fabric made each year, and about 10 percent of that ends up on cutting room floors.
The scrap, as it happened, is easier to use than clothing that’s been worn, since clothing will absorb oils and sweat and other things too icky to contemplate, loading it with myriad unknown chemicals. So, Brownstein began collecting bits of the scrap materials.
“That’s clean, we know what’s in it, we know where it came from,” he said.
The bits ended up looking like wads of dryer lint, but Brownstein was sure there would be a use for them.
He eventually moved to Issaquah and his wife started working at Meeker Junior High School in Kent. She had a friend who was a science teacher with his own home laboratory in Fife.
One night about 10 years ago, Brownstein showed the fabric to the man who took it into that lab to study.
“From the back of the lab, I heard this guy yelling, yelling,” Brownstein said.
The loose form of the fiber would absorb about 38 times its weight in oil.
The scientist, Brent Hepner, became Brownstein’s partner until Brownstein bought him out a year ago. Brownstein has since moved to Sammamish, although the business is still based in Issaquah.
Brownstein had no formal scientific training, but he’s gotten a crash course in chemistry in the past few years. He said the theory on why it works is that the polymers have a chemical structure similar to oil and attract the stuff. The loose fibers also have little nooks and crannies for the oil to slide into, letting other things, like water, go through.
Unfortunately, the obvious application of using it to mop up spills was out of the question. Brownstein said there are government regulations that prohibit tossing things like the loose fiber onto open water.
Serendipity takes a role
Unlikely as it seems, prior to 2001 Brownstein was working on a book about the North Carolina-based Beacon Blanket Co. The once-mighty company has since folded, but Brownstein had a chance to tour its factories. While there, he realized that the company sometimes used a technique to make fabric called needle woven, sometimes called needle punched, which could be used to turn balls of fuzz into fabric.
“My goodness, the two came together,” he said.
While not as efficient as the loose fibers, the fabric still absorbs 20 times its weight in oil.
He now contracts with two factories, one in Texas and one in Mexico. They manufacture the scrap fibers into mats about 5 feet wide, 250 feet long and three-eighths of an inch thick.
The fabric ends up a steel grey color and is sold under the product name, X-tex.
He said he’s heard of it being used around storm drains to help filter out some of the oil before the runoff goes down the drain, being wrapped around bags to filter out drippings being transported, as road-bed liner and dozens of other ways. He has customers across the U.S., including the state of Washington, which used the fabric to clean up a spill at the Crystal Mountain resort, and in 20 countries, he said.
Once it gets saturated, the oil can be wrung out and the fabric reused, Brownstein said. One customer, he said, has washed and reused the fabric 25 times. While it loses efficiency as time goes on, the product still works, he said.
Brownstein cautioned that the product is not a silver bullet. While the fabric removes most of the gross contamination, water that goes through it is not potable.
“As a pre-filter, this is getting a lot out,” he said.
The sentiment was echoed by Curt Hart, spokesman for the state Department of Ecology. Hart said the fabric was one of many tools the department uses when it is called in to assist with a spill.
“It’s a good preventative measure to sop up petroleum to keep it out of our state water,” Hart said.
Usually, the onus of a cleanup is on whoever spilled, but if the department is there quicker, they’ll start in an effort to head off a potential problem.
“Once oil hits the water, the damage has started,” Hart said.
Hart said the fabric can be useful, but once it absorbs the oil, then the fabric becomes a problem. Sure, they could wring it out, but into what? Eventually, the fabric ends up having to go to a hazardous waste landfill.
In the gulf
Brownstein said that last week, a top executive from BP paid a surprise visit to his plant in Mexico. He was so impressed that he wanted to purchase the plant’s entire production run, and everything it had in storage.
“We’ve been making the stuff for weeks,” Brownstein said.
The company will make booms to float in the gulf waters, reaching 40 feet below the surface, he said. They’ll also use it to line the beds of trucks carrying contaminated materials.
BP also plans to use the materials to make a fence, between 300 and 1,000 miles long, to protect sensitive estuaries and beaches.
The order will mean Brownstein will need to ramp up production even more.
“This is a spectacular adjustment, but everybody’s up for it,” he said.
His plant in Mexico is already going 24-7, Brownstein said, so the Texas factory will also have to start increasing production. He said there’s even a plant near Florence, Italy, that may contract out some of the production.
While the order represents a windfall of profits, Brownstein seemed conflicted about the situation. He said he’s mostly happy that he created a product that can help, and he feels lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.
“I just have the darndest feeling that this is my calling,” he said. “This is so sad, but we’re going to do everything we can to make it better.”
Ari Cetron: 392-6434, ext. 233, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.