Super Slurper

Posted on July 15, 2013

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It waters your plants. It cleans up radioactivity. It makes your detergent foam. NASA sends it into space and ladies use it once a month for, shall we delicately say, personal hygiene. It keeps baby’s bottom dry, preserves books, and cures concrete. What is it, a Tom Waits song? Nope, it’s sodium polyacrylate, a.k.a. Super Slurper.

It’s a SAP, or Suberabsorbent Polymer. This class of non-biodegradable polymers is capable of absorbing up to 500 times their weight in water. Parents just love the hydrolyzed product of starch-acrylonitrile co-polymer, and who can blame them? SAPs are responsible for those expanding disposable diaper gel bead thingies that suck up all the pee-pee-poopy-caca and keep baby’s booty dry. There’s no shortage of controversy surrounding disposable diapers and their impact on the environment, but a majority of American parents opt for the convenience of Super Slurpiness on their babies’ bums.

Where did this miraculous substance come from? You may be surprised to discover that it’s the 1960s developmental brainchild of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The product was initially developed to increase water retention in soil. The product did as intended, holding up to 400 times its own weight in water, earning it the nickname Super Slurper. (Take that, 7-11!)

It wasn’t long before the private sector’s chemical companies developed their own SAP, and in the early 1970s it was first used commercially in disposable sanitary napkins and adult incontinence pads.  There was a small hiccup in its use when it was linked to toxic shock syndrome when used in tampons. Resourceful developers finally realized the potential of their SAPs in the European diaper market in 1982. Japan and the US quickly followed suit, and cloth diapers were soon a fading memory in modern parenting.

NASA uses SAPs in MAGs, the “Maximum Absorption Garments” worn by astronauts. This is a fancy way of saying “adult diaper stuffed inside a spacesuit.” PhysOrg reports that researchers are engineering nanoparticles in combination with SAPs to design a new system for cleaning concrete buildings and monuments exposed to radiation by dirty bombs. A company called Artifex collaborated with the USDA’s National Agricultural Library to make a new hydrogel desiccant based on polyacrylate. Dubbed Dri-Gel, the substance is being produced in sheets to preserve library books and artworks on paper, especially ones that have been exposed to the damp.

But why stop at library books and tidy heinies? With concerns over the impact of disposable diapers clogging landfills around the world, cloth diapers are making a big comeback. The SAP can prove its environmental worth by soaking up substances made by bigger creatures than babies–say, oil companies, perchance? Super Slurper-style polymer hasn’t solved the BP spill, but it’s being used in limited fashion in the Gulf. Steve Spangler tried it out in a little experiment you can watch on YouTube .

Kiped from the archives of the SyFy channel’s IdeaLab Blog for the TV show Eureka. Well kinda kiped, since I wrote it to begin with. Edited by Tiffany Lee Brown, without whom I’d be stuck in the land of curly quotes.

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Posted in: science, writing