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Absorbent Polymer Has "Thirst for Knowledge"

By Jan Suszkiw
September 22, 2003

Cupped in the palm of one's hand, Super Slurper is a nondescript powder—until you add water. Then, starch-based polymers in Super Slurper "drink" the water right up, transforming the powder into a gel capable of retaining nearly 2,000 times its weight in moisture.

Now, this same thirsty disposition could make Super Slurper worth its weight in gold to librarians and archivists. The Agricultural Research Service and Artifex Equipment, Inc., of Penngrove, Calif., are collaborating on tests of the polymer's ability to dry books, papers, photographs and other materials soaked by water from flooding, leaks and other disasters.

Kathleen Hayes, coordinator for the Technology Transfer Information Center at ARS' National Agricultural Library (NAL), Beltsville, MD, thought of the idea while attending a March 2002 workshop hosted by the National Archives and Records Administration. She envisioned using Super Slurper as a fast, new way to salvage water-damaged materials, rather than air drying them—which is laborious and expensive—and as an alternative to vacuum freeze-drying, a recovery process that can take months and cause collateral damage.

Artifex president Nicholas Yeager was intrigued, and conducted preliminary tests in which Super Slurper dried several wet books in about 10 minutes. Air drying methods, by comparison, take weeks—and mold growth can begin in just 48 hours.

In August, Yeager signed a cooperative agreement with the NAL to continue testing. Besides checking for mold inhibition, his tests aim to gauge Super Slurper's ability to minimize other types of water damage, including wrinkled pages and swollen book bindings that take up 20 percent more shelf space.

Super Slurper, for its part, must not produce any stains of its own nor mar an item's inks and pigments. J.L. Willett, a chemical engineer at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill.—Super Slurper's "birthplace"—is on hand to technically advise Yeager, who may opt to market the polymer commercially.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.