Soane Energy’s Oil-Grabbing Polymers Could Make a Necessary Industry Less Noxious

When you hear the phrase “cleantech,” you generally think of green hills studded with wind turbines, or buildings sheathed in shiny solar panels. The oil sands of Alberta—where mining companies foul vast amounts of freshwater while extracting crude oil from surface deposits, leaving behind huge, toxic tailings ponds—don’t usually come to mind.

But the way inventor/entrepreneur David Soane sees it, the global economy is going to stay hooked on petroleum for quite some time. So the more scientists can do to make oil extraction cleaner, the less damage we’ll do to the planet during the transition to a post-fossil-fuel future.

At his latest startup, Cambridge, MA-based Soane Energy, the former U.C. Berkeley professor is applying his knowledge of polymer chemistry to do exactly that. The company’s “ATA” technology—for “activation, tethering, and anchoring”—uses custom polymers that efficiently remove oil-bearing particles from the water used in oil extraction. The technology works great in Soane’s lab, and now the startup is collaborating with several operators to see whether it will work on the huge scale required in Canada.

David Soane“I believe that in the distant future, ideally, all energy should be renewable,” Soane says. “I’m a firm believer that we should continue to invest in solar, geothermal, and wind. But there is a transition period that may last 50 to 100 years. Meanwhile, we can’t blindly continue to do things they way they’ve been practiced. This technology is one little example, hopefully Soane Energy’s contribution, toward managing this transition period.”

Soane is probably most famous for founding Nano-tex, the Oakland, CA, company that supplies polymers used by clothing makers such as L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer to render textiles water- and stain-resistant. It is interfaces—in Nano-tex’s case, the interface between the polymer-protected cloth and water—that really fascinate Soane, and believe it or not, there’s a direct connection between the textile technology and the idea of cleaning up tailings ponds.

Polymers, which are basically chains of repeating chemical units, are useful at interfaces because chemists can splice together chains from two halves with different chemical properties. One end of such a chain might be tailored to attached to a substrate, such as a piece of cloth, while the other might be designed to be … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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