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Flake of Super Slurper held between finger and thumb. Link to photo information
From an earlier study at ARS, a flake of Super Slurper after it absorbed nearly 2,000 times its own weight in moisture. Click the image for more information about it.

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Super Slurper: From Laboratory Bench to Library Shelf

By Jan Suszkiw
December 5, 2006

Super Slurper, a cornstarch-based superabsorbent polymer invented by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists over 30 years ago, continues to fan the entrepreneurial spirit.

Take, for example, Nicholas Yeager, president of Artifex Equipment, Inc., a Penngrove, Calif., company specializing in book and document restoration. This fall, Yeager's company began mass-producing Zorbix, a sheetlike product based on Super Slurper that can dry out waterlogged library materials before destructive molds take hold.

Zorbix's commercialization is the latest chapter in a storied history of Super Slurper spinoffs that followed an ARS patent on the starch polymer in 1976. Among those spinoffs were disposable diapers, wound dressings, fuel filters and seed coatings.

The Zorbix story began in 2003, when Yeager was contacted by Kate Hayes, an information specialist with the Technology Transfer Information Center at the ARS National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Md. Hayes, now retired, proposed using Super Slurper as a fast, new way of drying books exposed to flooding, leaky pipes and other watery disasters.

Intrigued, Yeager ran a simple test: He pressed Super Slurper onto the pages of a paperback novel that he had wetted. Yeager informed Hayes that her idea had worked, and that he wanted to explore the polymer's potential further.

In August 2003, NAL and Artifex entered into a material-transfer cooperative research and development agreement to both expedite and formalize Hayes and Yeager's bicoastal collaboration. In February 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant to Artifex.

In studies there, Yeager changed Super Slurper's flake form into another that allowed the creation of thin, flexible sheets, which he named Zorbix. In his tests and independent studies, the sheets worked as well as or better than other drying methods, including vacuum drying, poultices and blotters.

To better meet demand since debuting Zorbix in March, Artifex has obtained automated equipment capable of making thousands of the sheets per hour.

ARS is USDA's chief scientific research agency.