June 16 2010 12:00 AM

Detroit-area woman dreams a way to sop up oil, wants to try it in the Gulf


The idea came to Adria Brown in a dream one night about 20 years ago. She recalled having listened to a news report on the radio about how Exxon had spent billions trying to create a new chemical solvent to clean oil spills. Her idea was much simpler: the absorbent power of corn cobs.

“I literally had a dream,” she said. “I got up in the middle of the night and was drawing pictures. Like in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’” At first, she thought she had dreamed of a beehive. After she awoke from her dream, she went to her kitchen and started testing the idea from the dream on cooking oils dumped in bowls of salted and fresh water. She went to farms near her home, dressed in a fur coat and high heels, looking for the exact object that was in her dream. That’s when she found the cobs.

“I found what I was looking for in a garbage bin,” she said.

Since then, Brown has been molding the idea, getting patents (the process has U.S. and Canadian patents) and trying to convince scientists and other experts of the legitimacy of the idea. For most of her life she has run her own business, Madison Executive Galleries, an interior design firm. Several weeks ago, she closed the business to focus full time on getting the method implemented in the Gulf of Mexico.

She envisions that a cargo plane would drop the cobs into the water, where they would float and collect oil. Then the cobs could be collected, wrung of their oil and be placed back into the water to continue the cleanup.

Brown is getting help from a state produces a lot of cobs: The office of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is helping Brown circulate paperwork to various agencies that would contract with oil cleaners. Brown has also procured some 34,000 tons of cobs from Feeders Grain & Supply in Corning, Iowa. She said it takes 600 cubic feet of cob to sop up 1,000 gallons of oil. But she needs more, and thinks she can get cobs from Michigan.

Kris Berglund, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University, said that at first glance, he did not see a fundamental problem with it. Berglund, before being contacted by a reporter, had actually read about Brown’s idea in an engineering newsletter.

“What I don’t know is how do you get enough corn cobs,” he said. “As far as them floating and absorbing the oil, it probably can work. Corn cobs do pick up things; their center is almost like a cork.

“I’ve heard crazier things.”