Inventor’s solution dissolves Styrofoam, creates polymer for asphalt and concrete mixes

(Bentonville, Arkansas) – Bentonville inventor Sean Stephan has come up with a vanishing act for the ubiquitous foam coffee cups, takeout boxes and packing materials that inundate landfills, sewer drains and roadways. Stephan has developed an orange oil-based solution that dissolves polystyrene foam before your eyes. The solution is then separated from the resulting polymer using gravity. The solution is reused for the next batch, while the polymer is recycled for asphalt mixes, shrink wrap, or composite for construction materials. On Tuesday, the Benton County Solid Waste District began testing Stephan’s technology as a pilot project that will examine such things as the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and labor needs of the process, officials said at a news conference. Wendy Eckman, the district’s deputy director, said the district won’t accept public drop-offs until the 30- to 90-day test is complete. Stephan’s chemical concoction and the separation process, both patent pending, are owned by the fledgling Rogers-based Advanced Environmental Technologies Inc., said its president, Joshua Hutchinson. Polystyrene is most commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam. After Tuesday’s announcement, people were encouraged to dip their coffee cups in a large glass bowl and watch them dissolve in mere minutes in the clear, thick liquid. Others tried their experiments in a large plastic tank, where the skeleton silhouettes of other coffee cups floated. Hutchinson and Stephan contend the solution and its orange-scented fumes are nontoxic. They touched their fingers into the solution to demonstrate its safety. Rubbing the liquid briskly, they transformed it into smokelike puffs that quickly solidified into “spider webs” as they flicked them into the air. “You see those little webs,” Hutchinson said as he manipulated the tiny strings with his hands. “Imagine millions and millions of them in your concrete.” Some states now require polymers in their road asphalt mixes, he said. Polymers like Stephan’s solution are valued because they help prevent cracking as pavement expands and contracts under the pressures of varying temperatures and other stresses. The solution can be added as the asphalt is mixed or brushed between asphalt applications to help bind the layers. Landfill operators have long wished the polystyrene containers, which take precious space, would just go away. The foam material is great at keeping drinks hot or cold without “sweating,” and at cushioning merchandise during shipment. Unfortunately, burning it can create harmful fumes. Waste managers estimate polystyrene takes up 25-35 percent of overall landfill space, and they believe it takes 500 years to begin degrading. Stephan said his solution can be used to keep foam out of landfills and shrink the foam that’s already there. Armed with a spray bottle of his stuff, he demonstrated by squirting it into an aquarium containing foam pieces interspersed with potting soil. The foam begin to shrink after a few short sprays. He said he wasn’t the first to use orange oil to dissolve polystyrene, he just found a way to avoid using it full-strength. “About two years ago, I was actually looking for a cheap polymer,” Stephan said. “Polymer on the market is very expensive.” So was orange oil, whose chemical name is D-Limonene. He found a way to use the citrus essence in a 70 percent water-based solution along with a surfactant that provided better coverage by reducing surface tension and an emulsifier that allows the water and oil to mix. Stephan envisions tanks of solution in use at convenience stores, restaurants, schools and on trucks. Though heat is not needed to break down the foam, the addition of heat can speed up the process by 10 times, so he has developed a method by which his mobile tanks can use heat from the truck’s engine to speed up the process without other energy sources. Written by: TRACIE DUNGAN

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