Supersponge from Saxony-Anhalt nominated for the European Inventor Award

The “magic sponge” by Deurex AG from Zeitz soaks up oil and chemicals from water. It has now been nominated for the European Inventor Award.

Just under 160,000 inventions are registered each year at the European Patent Office. Günter Hufschmid and his company, Deurex AG, from the German federal state of Saxony-Anhalt are one of the three finalists in the “small and medium-sized enterprises” category. The “Inventor’s Oscar” will be awarded in Venice on 15 June.

The staff at the European Patent Office were sceptical at first. A wadding that cleans contaminated water, soaking up oil, diesel and chemicals like a sponge, so thoroughly that the water is then virtually drinkable again? It sounded too fanciful to the experts in Brussels, and they rejected the patent registration that Günter Hufschmid, Managing Director of Deurex AG from Zeitz in Saxony-Anhalt, had submitted. What then? Appeal? Ernst Krendlinger, chemist at the Zeitz-based company, preferred instead to travel to Brussels and practically demonstrate how simply it worked – and drink a sample of the cleaned water! The patent lawyers were so impressed that they did not just approve the novel cleaning binding agent Deurex Pure: They nominated it for the European Inventor Award 2017. Günter Hufschmid and his company, Deurex AG, are one of the three finalists in the “small and medium-sized enterprises” category. The “magic sponge” from Saxony-Anhalt is something else. It actually looks like it is made of cotton: light and white. It is made from wax under high air pressure, but it can do more than a normal wad of cotton. “Günter Hufschmid’s ground-breaking innovation has the potential to redefine how oil and chemical contamination can be resolved,” says EPA President Benoît Battistelli: “With its ability to remove harmful substances, this invention serves the environment and those whose existence depends on it.”

The invention has already been used, during the floods in 2013 around the Elbe and in southern Germany, to absorb leaking heating oil. An environmental organisation is already using the wadding to clean the oil-polluted Niger Delta. It is also used to protect against oil spills in wind energy systems. Depending on the size of the system, up to one thousand litres of oil can be stored in the gear unit, and in the event of an accident, it can leak out through a gap between the nacelle and the tower and carried up to 350 metres by the wind. This is prevented by a collar around the tower, filled with Deurex Pure, which absorbs leaking oil. The world’s first facility with such a system is located in Zschornewitz in Saxony-Anhalt. The first wind farm to have this protective system is currently being fitted.

Deurex Pure is used anywhere that oil contaminates water. More and more fire services and ports are purchasing the innovative binding agent, because the “magic sponge” is simply astounding. One hundred kilogrammes of the fibre-like, waxy binding material can absorb more than six hundred litres of oil from water completely. “The secret of Pure is the extremely large surface area of the fine fibres down to the nano level. One gram of Pure has a surface area of three square metres,” explains founder Günter Hufschmid, who claims that the wadding can absorb around seven times its own weight in oil, and other substances such as alcohol and surfactants. Moreover, because of its low density, the wadding will always float to the top, even when it is saturated with oil. Packed into net-like tubes, it can be fished out at any time. It can also be easily used in rough seas. The special highlight is that the wadding can then be wrung out in a centrifuge and used again.

Günther Hufschmid is anxiously waiting for the awarding of the European Inventor Award. He knows that the product is good: “More and more people are asking for Pure. The nomination turned out to be brilliant advertising for us,” says the chemist. That is helpful if you want to market a new product.

Born in Munich, the then 33-year-old moved to Elsteraue to market a unique technology he had developed for the so-called micronisation of wax at the chemical and industrial park in Zeitz. “The chemical and industrial park is centrally located in Central Germany and provides good connections by road and by air,” says Hufschmid. He has been developing the production of the new Deurex Pure binding agent since 2012. A facility was created that can produce 700 tonnes each year, and this trend is rising: “Both parts of the business – the manufacturing of natural and synthetic wax and the Pure oil and chemical binding agent – are developing positively. We are planning to invest in new plant and storage capacities, and we are already thinking about a new office building,” says Hufschmid. The number of employees will continue to increase beyond the 22 it has today.

Pure is already a successful product, though the invention of the binding agent was a pure coincidence. Strictly speaking, one could even say a slip-up. In spring 2010, an employee at Deurex prepared the production of the wax granule overnight and set the machine incorrectly by mistake. The next morning, everything was covered in fine white threads. “At first we were worried that the machine was broken,” Hufschmid remembers. But it wasn’t; it had made ten tonnes of strange waxy wadding. Four weeks later, the chemist was watching TV with his children and saw the destruction of the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon: 774 million litres of oil streamed into the Gulf of Mexico. “And then the idea came: I asked chemist Ernst Krendlinger to find out whether the white waxy wool absorbed oil, since its shape resembles a sponge”, Hufschmid goes on to say.

Is there a weapon in the fight against oil contamination in the world’s oceans coming from Saxony-Anhalt? “That is my vision,” says Günter Hufschmid. “Our systems can be set up anywhere, even on ships – where you can combat oil spills in the sea with Pure on-site!”

Author:            Michael Falgowski