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Absorbing the world's problems

by David Scott | January 13, 2015

Imbibitive Technologies co- founder John Brinkman and Michael Iafrate, Manager Business Development stand with their flagship product: Imbiber Beads. (Photo by Geoff Robins)

John Brinkman thinks he has the answer. Now, he needs to convince the world to use it.

Brinkman, BA’83 (Phys-Ed), started Imbibitive Techologies that markets an oil-cleaning absorbent technology called Imbiber Beads. The beads employ similar technology to the super-absorbent polymers that filled Pampers disposable diapers in the 1960s, an invention by Victor Mills at Procter & Gamble.

Pampers were successful because they retained fluid within their molecular structure. Imbiber Beads similarly retain toxic liquids – including oil – from water.

Today, Brinkman’s company, based in Welland, Ont., is the exclusive worldwide manufacturer of the Imbiber Beads. His polymer has proved to “drink up” toxic liquids into its solid structure – absorbing up to 27 times its original volume and cleaning up to 90 per cent of spilled pollutants.

Despite this, Imbiber Beads have yet to be embraced in North America for oil spill cleanup.

“If you genuinely want to improve, you have to be looking outside the box. And start looking at doing different things because the current oil spill regimen obviously doesn’t work,” Brinkman said.

He says the current oil spill cleanup methods are stuck in the old mindset of ‘solution to pollution is dilution.’

“I’m not on my soapbox but I believe in this. I’ve been at it for 20 years. Thank God my business isn’t dependent on this market segment.”

Brinkman took the long road to where he is now.

He was a London native who went to Western for Physical Education from 1972-75. He was in the wrong program, and he knew it early, but says switching in those days was difficult. After three years, he left university, became a tennis pro, then returned and finished his BA in 1983.

“The degree was unfinished business and in order for me to complete myself I needed to go back and complete it.”

After graduation, he sold drain tiles in Britain for an Exeter company. At a trade show in 1987, he stumbled across Imbiber Beads for the first time. The product was invented by Dow Chemical, but was too narrow an application to interest the company. Brinkman worked for three years and finally got Dow’s blessing to license and sell it himself a decade ago.

There were three lean years. He ran his start-up office during the day and paid his bills by working nights as a security guard and moving furniture on weekends.

“(The Physical Education program) was really about the competitive nature,” he said. “It’s the whole idea of persevering and competing and not quitting on anything. That was just part of the overall training.”

He works alongside fellow Western grads, father-and-son team Bruno and Michael Iafrate. Bruno, the vice-president of operations, graduated in economics from King’s University College in 1978 and later became an accountant; Michael graduated from Ivey Business School in Honours Business Administration in 2010.

Until cracking the North American oil spill cleanup market, Imbibitive Technologies has a number of contracts to keep research and manufacturing in the United States and Canada up and running. The company has nine U.S. employees at locations in Delaware, Arkansas and Michigan. Its Welland location employs six.

His company has been involved in an armouring system for the U.S. Army, and is currently working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to create a solution for stabilizing home methamphetamine labs after drug raids.

“Methamphetamine is horrible stuff,” Brinkman said. “It’s primarily Coleman’s fuel oil, lye, epinephrine and Drano. There are several different formulas and it’s extremely volatile.”

After visiting the FBI academy in Quantico, Va., in 2011, at a replicated meth lab, Imbibitive Technologies has created a formulation that can immobilize the meth mixture – which is often made in a one-litre pop bottle – quickly and safely.

“With our system, you can take the cap off, you pour our mixture in; it immobilizes it. It sets it all up. One of the things, when you eliminate the liquid, you drastically reduce the rate at which the vapours are available. And that’s the key.”

Despite these successes, his technology’s biggest embrace has come from half a world away.

After a six-year study by the Maritime Disaster Prevention Center (MDPC) in Yokohama, Japan, the organization is now using Imbiber Beads for marine spills. The MDPC coordinates spill response under the guidance of the Commandant of the Japanese Coast Guard.

Iafrate releases a handful of Imbiber Beads Beads that resemble grains of salt and can drink up 27 times their original volume. It’s a quick method for first response to oil spills that Brinkman is trying to convince the oil industry to use instead of dispersant.

“They didn’t have the aversion to using bulk particulate (scattering beads in the water without a containment system to keep them in one place) for one thing,” Brinkman said of the country’s willingness to try the technology.

Brinkman has been working with a German company to employ a helicopter delivery system for the Imbiber Beads, flying over a site to disperse quickly after a spill occurs.

“Because in the Office of Technology Assessment report to Congress in March 1990, one year after the Exxon Valdez spill, they said the biggest problem is the spill spreads to unmanageable proportions within the first few hours. A spill will spread six square miles within the first 12 hours. That’s a huge area.”

Imbibitive Technologies has also been involved in a study for the past three years with the UK Highways Agency to find better ways of cleaning up highway oil spills from tanker trucks or other collisions. So far, mixtures of sand and Imbiber Beads have reduced spill cleanup times from 14 hours to six hours.

As a result, “commerce is moving quicker,” Brinkman said.

He has approached the Ministry of Transportation – Ontario about similar applications. The numbers make sense to find a better way to deal with oil spills. In Ontario, it costs $1.25 million to re-pave one mile of highway impacted by a diesel spill. Also, Toronto loses $3.3 billion each year due to traffic delays from spills and accidents.

“I continue to pursue it (Imbiber Beads for oil spills) because as I’ve said there’s a moral and ethical reason to improve for future generations. This is a legacy.”

(With notes from Tom Spears)

This article appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Alumni Gazette
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