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A new way to make spills history

Made-in-Sudbury cleanup material Activated White aims to revolutionize mining health and safety

Contamination of the air and ground is an inevitable and costly consequence of industry, which has lead to a sub-industry of remediation and containment.

This has led one group in Northern Ontario to come up with a made-in-the-North product they say will help make it easier, more cost efficient, and safer to clean up wet and dry contamination.

Activated White was formed about two-and-a-half years ago with a mission to get a remediation product to market. The company produces a polymer resin invented by Jake Menard about 10 years ago that absorbs wet contaminants like oil and gasoline and dry contaminants like dust, smoke and diesel exhaust.

“It has a great affinity for oil, it loves hydrocarbons and it's hydrophobic, so it doesn't like water, it loves oil,” said Dr. Dennis Reich, CEO and co-owner of Activated White. “It will suck oil out of water, soil and surfaces and contains it in its structure.”

The resin, which has a texture of fine sawdust and clumps easily, has many practical applications. It's non-toxic, biodegrades, enhances the natural biogeneration of the soil and can be used as a fertilizer.

“Cleaning up on site is cheaper and safer. Rather than trucking soil and water to an off-site facility to be processed they do it right there.”

It can be utilized as a dry foam or fine sheets. What makes it unique, said Dr. Reich, is it's hydrophobic properties.

“Water passes right through it, but hydrocarbons are attracted to it,” he said. “Other hydrophobic materials used in cleanups absorb contaminants, but stops water from passing through.”

They are using this property and its portability as a selling point for potential customers as an efficient on-site product to clean up contamination, rather than removing contaminated material or water.

“This product can remediate a mine pit within a year,” said Dr. Dennis Reich, CEO and co-owner of Activated White. “Cleaning up on site is cheaper and safer. Rather than trucking soil and water to an off-site facility to be processed they do it right there.”

Currently, they are packaging the resin in quick cleanup kits that short booms filled with the resin and small sheets impregnated with the resin. They also have tubs of dry resin being sold as a quick way to clean up wet spills and to clean hands, as well as 20-foot-long booms that can be unfurled and dropped in ditches or cut to fit.

It can be used in filtration systems to clean up spills and mine sites as well as recover oil and other resources for processing and reuse. One in particular is in diamond drilling. The drills need oil and water to lubricate and cool the bit. A system like this could recapture the water and filter it for reuse quickly and on site.

He said Sudbury is the perfect place to produce and test the resin due to the history of mining, the number of industrial companies based there and the growing remediation industry. Due to mines having confined spaces, companies have to be ready to respond quickly to issues like spills. The other problem is it is expensive to move materials around, including contaminated materials that need to be taken away to remove contaminants.

“With water, it may have hydrocarbons in it; you want to gt that hydrocarbon out of the water, if possible, and reuse the water, or contain the hydrocarbon from being exposed to human environments,” Dr. Reich said. “When that hydrocarbon is burned in a combustion engine, it enters the air, becoming nanometre-sized particles. Because it has a high affinity for hydrocarbons, it sticks to the Activated White and removes it from the air.”

They have been touting the systems as cheaper, comparing them to more established systems. In their tests, the Advanced White system was able to perform at a cheaper cost. In the case of products like air filters, their passive filtration system also operated much quieter.

Testing on-air filtration is very promising, said Andre Legault, the team's business development manager. So far, the industry standard for particulate is five parts per million (ppm), but he said Activated White can get it down as far as two ppm. This could have far-reaching consequences for mine air filtration systems and could even be applied to consumer products like home air filters and masks. It could even change industry standards.

“We can go to the market and say we have something better that can save lives by cutting the amount of particulate and dangerous vapours in the air,” he said. “The government says five, but we are saying we can get it down to two, and at a lower cost than most. If we can lower the amount of particulate and vapours in the air, the government could take notice and rewrite standards based on our work. This is about showing it can be made safer. That's how progress and innovation works.”

Dr. Reich added Activated White doesn't capture carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, but it does capture sulphuric-type gasses. He cited a court case in Quebec in 2015 when an electrician for a mine sued due to lung cancer he said he developed from being exposed to nanoparticles in the mine's air even though the filter systems met government guidelines.

Another project they are working on is a prototype trailer-sized filtration system they hope to package as another on-site spill recovery system and even modify to use in ship bilges to pump out water.

“A lot of the water in bilges have diesel oil contamination and right now the allowable amount is 15 ppm for the sea and five ppm for the lakes, this could reduce that to almost zero,” Dr. Reich said.

Activated White is the recipient of the first Buy in Canada First grant, a federal initiative that encourages companies to purchase and test new products within the country.

“It helps grow companies and encourage innovation, rather than just buying the product in the country, then taking it overseas to test it,” Dr. Reich said.

It's currently being tested for other applications, such as air filtration and dust masks for consumer products.

While testing for other applications, such as in the medical field and consumer air filtration are ongoing, Dr. Reich said they are working with government departments and other agencies and are excited by the preliminary results.

“It's been used in other applications and right now we are focusing on getting it into commercial products,” he said.