DuPont Donates Patent to TU for Beads That Can Clean Up Hazardous Substances

Thursday, May 25, 2000

DuPont, the Fortune 50 corporation that is a world leader in science and technology, has donated a patent estate to The University of Tulsa for development of a little black bead that can house hungry bacteria that then feast on hazardous substances and render them harmless before they damage the environment.

“This patent donation is a very welcome gift for the immediate complement it provides to our research and educational programs,” says TU President Bob Lawless. “But the benefits as the technology is improved will extend from our campus to industry and ultimately to the environment that we all share. The donation also demonstrates DuPont’s assurance that TU is an institution with quality researchers who can advance this technology.”

Jay B. Rappaport, director of DuPont Business/Technology Licensing, said DuPont has a history of selectively donating patents to universities for further development.

Rappaport explains that each year DuPont researchers generate more ideas than the company’s scientists alone can develop and turn into commercial products, and sometimes these discoveries are not ideally matched to the company’s future plans. “In this case, we believe that The University of Tulsa has the resources and expertise needed to develop this technology to its fullest potential,” Rappaport said.

TU professors and students will conduct research to find uses for the beads in a range of settings. The bacteria-laden beads absorb organic contaminants in solutions and convert them into harmless substances.

“We are confident that these beads are going to have widespread applications,” says Kerry Sublette, a TU chemical engineering professor who is already working with the beads. The product has been used to clean groundwater polluted by gasoline that has leaked from an underground tank. Known by its trademarked name, Bio-Sep, it consists of porous beads made of a polymer and impregnated with activated carbon, which accounts for the black coloration.

Although only the size of beebees, these beads have lots of room inside for bacteria, explains Sublette. Once bacteria get in, they cannot easily get out and they grow inside until much of the internal volume is filled with bacteria. He says the beads have special properties that enhance their usefulness as a home for bacteria. First, they contain activated carbon, which protects the bacteria from toxic compounds that may be present in wastewater or contaminated groundwater. The activated carbon also allows contaminants present in very low concentrations to be retained in the beads long enough to be degraded by the bacteria.

Secondly, Sublette says, “these beads are tough. For example, they can be piled up on each other as in a filter column without collapsing under their own weight and can be vigorously stirred in bioreactors without falling apart.”

In industry, microorganisms, such as bacteria, have many useful purposes such as production of pharmaceuticals. Other bacteria are used to remove pollutants from wastewater or groundwater. In either case, says Sublette, the vessels where these processes take place are called bioreactors. The more bacteria that can be contained within the bioreactor, the smaller the bioreactor needs to be to do the job at hand. Therefore, concentrating the bacteria saves money.

Sublette says many researchers have shown that using Bio-Sep in bioreactors designed for wastewater or groundwater treatment allows as much as 10 times more bacteria to be packed in the bioreactor than normal. “This means that with these beads the bioreactor needs to be only one-tenth of its normal size to do the same job.”

He says TU researchers are currently using Bio-Sep to increase the efficiency of bioreactors that remove toxic hydrogen sulfide from gases and wastewater produced in the oil and gas industry. This work, which is funded by the Department of Energy, will be field-tested next year.

The researchers are also investigating many other applications as well as seeking research partners at other institutions and national laboratories. The beads were invented by DuPont scientists Tom Bair and Carl Camp, who is a TU graduate.

Sublette expects that graduate students will find thesis or dissertation topics among the projects that will arise to further develop the beads, and he says undergraduates will also find research and work opportunities. Any income that might derive from the product in the future, such as licensing of the patent, will be used to enhance undergraduate and graduate programs at TU.

DuPont is a science company, delivering science-based solutions that make a difference in people’s lives in food and nutrition; health care; apparel; home and construction; electronics; and transportation. Founded in 1802, the company, which operates in 65 countries and has 94,000 employees, has more than 40 research and development and customer service laboratories in the United States and more than 35 labs in 11 other countries. DuPont owns some 2,000 trademarks and brands, including well-known consumer brands such as Teflon brand fiber and Lycra elastane.