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Thirsty flakes pressed into action to dry soggy books

Have you ever accidentally spilled a glass of water on a magazine? If you have, then you've got an idea of what happens when an entire book--or even entire book collection--gets soaked, such as from flooding or broken pipes.

Flooding, fires, and other natural or human-caused disasters are among librarians' worst nightmares.

Small numbers of waterlogged books are set near fans to dry out, or placed under the sun to air-dry. Putting paper towels or newsprint between the pages helps. Large numbers of soggy books are boxed and shipped to a facility where they're freeze-dried in a vacuum. All of these methods are slow, taking from weeks to months. But molds don't wait that long; they can start growing on wet books in just 2 days.

Help's on the way!

Now, there's Super Slurper to the rescue. It's a tan, flaky substance, called a polymer, that absorbs up to 2,000 times its weight in liquid. Imagine that!

Agricultural Research Service scientists in Peoria, Illinois, invented it in the late 1970s. They did this by connecting cornstarch to a chemical with a long name (polyacrylonitrile). Since then, Super Slurper has turned up in products ranging from diapers and bandages, to seed coats and gasoline cap filters.

An accidental good idea

Kathleen Hayes cooked up the idea for using Super Slurper to dry books. She is a former information specialist for ARS's National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Md. The NAL houses more than 3 million books, periodicals, and other materials with information about the production and use of food and fiber. The idea came to Hayes in March 2002, while attending a workshop on library disasters and book conservation.

Hayes wondered whether packaging the thirsty flakes and pressing them onto the pages, spines, or covers of waterlogged books would dry them faster than other methods. Perhaps maps, drawings, and photographs could also be saved, she thought.

To find out, she teamed with Nicholas Yeager. He's an expert on restoring books and documents, and owns company in Penngrove, California, called Artifex Equipment, Inc.

Putting It to the test

Yeager liked Hayes's idea, so he set up a small experiment using several wet books. Sure enough, Super Slurper worked as Hayes had imagined, drying the pages in just 10 minutes! And with more experimentation and development, he dried an entire book in 3 hours.

Yeager soon thought about commercializing Super Slurper for book drying. He signed a special agreement with NAL. This allowed him to do more tests to make sure Super Slurper doesn't cause unwanted harm, like staining a treated book, or smudging its color pigments. It didn't.

Yeager's tests did show that Super Slurper worked best when made into sheets and pressed firmly onto a wet surface. The sheets absorbed 55 times their weight in moisture, and became gellike, though their surface remained dry to the touch. After a while, the moisture inside escaped as vapor.

Slurping spills in other places

Working with Hayes and ARS scientist William Orts in Albany, CA, Yeager came up with other possible uses. These include drying floors and removing moisture from shipping containers.

Another possible use is what Yeager calls a "humidity blanket." Rather than absorb moisture, though, the blanket releases moisture into the fibers of brittle documents that need flattening. This makes them easier to restore.

Word of Yeager's Super Slurper uses is spreading. Indeed, his company's staff have already hand-made 2,500 sheets of the stuff for several customers. One of them is the federal government's Library of Congress. Considered the world's largest library, it contains more than 130 million items. These include 29 million books and other printed materials, 12 million photographs, and 4.8 million maps.

Hurricane Katrina, which hammered the Gulf Coast region in August 2005, also stoked interest in Super Slurper. "Since the Katrina flooding, there's been a lot of interest in the product, including from people looking to dry books at home," says Yeager.

He's now waiting for equipment that can make 6,000 of the sheets in 1 hour. He's selling the sheets under the product name "Zorbix."

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