A super-sponge for oil spills: Günter Hufschmid receives European Inventor Award 2017 in the SMEs category

Dr Ernst Krendlinger, Head of Research and Development at Deurex and Mr Steffen Remdt, Product Manager at Deurex, accepting the European Inventor Award 2017in the SMEs category on behalf of winner Günter Hufschmid, at the award ceremony in Venice on 15 June. (Photo: European Patent Organisation)
  • European Patent Office (EPO) honours German chemist Günter Hufschmid at award ceremony in Venice for inventing “magic cotton” to fight spills
  • Fluffy, fibrous wax adsorbs about seven times its own weight in hydrophobic liquids, making it an ideal tool to clean up chemical and oil spills
  • The invention has already proven its value, from small-scale clean-up to large-scale reclamation in the polluted Niger Delta
  • EPO President Benoît Battistelli: "Günter Hufschmid's invention could change the way oil and chemicals are cleaned up after a potentially devastating spill."

Venice/Munich, 15 June 2017 – The words "oil spill" conjure up images of oil tankers run aground or drilling platforms engulfed in flames. These accidents are devastating, but their clean-up might become easier and their effects less severe thanks to a binding agent developed by German chemist Günter Hufschmid (58). His new synthetic wax, known as "Pure", can adsorb up to seven times its weight in oil or chemicals, and be reused. For this accomplishment, the European Patent Office (EPO) honoured the chemist and his team with the European Inventor Award in the "Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)" category, one of five award categories, at a ceremony held today in Venice.

"Günter Hufschmid's invention could change the way oil and chemicals are reclaimed after a potentially devastating spill," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli. "Cleaning up pollutants

can help limit their environmental impact and mitigate the health risks.” He added: “His story also highlights the innovative strength of Europe’s SMEs, who can provide technological solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing us today.”

The award ceremony at the Arsenale di Venezia was attended by some 600 guests from the areas of politics, business, intellectual property, science and academia, and opened by the EPO President, together with Carlo Calenda, Italy’s Minister of Economic Development.

Now in its 12th year, the European Inventor Award is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to social development, technological progress and economic growth. The winners were chosen by an independent international jury out of more than 450 individuals and teams of inventors put forward for this year's award.

A chance discovery, an intentional success

Hufschmid developed his invention in part thanks to a chance incident. In 2010, a worker at his wax, paint and plastics company, Deurex, had left a machine running overnight with incorrect settings. The next morning, the entire factory floor was covered in a white, cotton-like substance. As a trained chemist with many years of experience in the industry, Hufschmid immediately set upon finding a possible use for the fibrous material left behind. Inspiration came through the accident at the Deepwater Horizon oil platform only a few weeks earlier that was spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. "The whole world was talking about how to recover the oil from the sea and how to save the ocean," Hufschmid recalls. He decided to check if the wax cotton could be used for oil reclamation. As it turned out, the wax soaks up oil exceptionally well. About 1 kg of the substance adsorbs 6.5 litres of oil. Its high adsorption ratio also reduces waste; and makes it more economical to produce. Unlike other products, which need to be disposed of after use, it can also be wrung out like a sponge and reused immediately.

After two years of product testing and then securing a patent from the EPO, Hufschmid and his team had the assurances they needed to invest in a new production facility and begin talks with petroleum companies to help them gain a foothold in the oil reclamation market.

The invention in action

Hufschmid’s new synthetic wax has already proven effective in both small and large-scale applications. In 2013, the company donated truckloads of Pure to help firefighters in southern Germany soak up heating oil that had leaked into the basements of flood victims. Deurex has also worked with an NGO to help clean up Nigeria's highly-polluted Niger Delta. But that is not all: "Currently our biggest success is application in wind turbines," Hufschmid says. Modern windmills demand large amounts of oil for lubrication, which leaks out. Without an oil binder to plug the leak, clean-up can be expensive and time-consuming. This is yet another application where Pure, often referred to by the company’s staff as their “magic cotton” could be put to use.

Source: European Patent Office

Media materials for Günter Hufschmid (via European Patent Office)

Short video about the inventor (YouTube)

Download broadcast-quality (HD) films: English dub, B-roll and cleanfeed (EPO Media Centre)

More video and photo material

Read more about the inventor

View the patents: EP2392630

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