Satellite photographs show the oil spill as a dark cloud moving across the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The cloud becomes bigger and bigger, while rescuers find the first oil-soaked seabirds – meaning it is only a matter of time before this destructive tide of crude oil hits the beach. The TV and internet images prompted HeiQ co-founder and CEO Carlo Centonze and his team to develop a product designed to protect beaches from such a disaster. The aim was to do so in record time and therefore provide help in dealing with the latest disaster. For the Bad Zurzach-based high-tech firm, however, it wasn't a case of starting from scratch. "Through developing our previous products, we had acquired comprehensive expertise in the characteristics of oil and water," says Centonze. "We knew exactly how to make textiles as water and oil repellent as possible. It was this knowledge that allowed us to develop a fabric that enables water to be repelled yet oil to be absorbed at the same time." The idea was to place this fabric on the beaches of Florida and other strips of land affected, and at least help contain the disaster on land.
Utilizing Chemical Processes
Oilguard, as the new product is known, is a non-woven textile whose individual fibers are processed with a special chemical coating.This coating can absorb and bind an eighth to a tenth of its own weight in oil and repel water at the same time. "Think of it as a type of oil-based gelatin that swells up, and thus remains trapped in the fiber network of the non-woven fabric," the firm's CEO explains. The fabric is placed at the point where land and sea meet. Should a beach have strong tidal fluctuations, several layers can also be placed adjacent to one another. Oilguard remains the only technology in the world that can be used to prevent the contamination of coasts and beaches by oil. Given the 70 oil incidents that occur on average every day worldwide, the discovery answers a major need.
Product Developed in Record Time
The beach protection fabric was developed at lighting pace. "Just a month after the oil disaster began on April 20, 2010, we had a functioning prototype," says Centonze proudly. A month after that, and the firm was on the beach in the US demonstrating how the new product works. The pace at which Oilguard was developed is all the more remarkable given that two other firms – non-woven fiber manufacturer TWE from Emsdetten, Germany, and chemical components manufacturer Beyond Surface Technologies from Pratteln, Switzerland – were involved in the process alongside HeiQ. Centonze adds: "It was only possible to come up with a product so quickly because cooperation between our three firms had already been established and there was a great deal of trust between us."
Award Is Seal of Quality
The pace of product development caused quite a stir – so much so that in early November HeiQ received the Swiss Technology Award 2010 at the Novartis Campus in Basel. "This prize is presented as part of the Swiss Innovation Forum, and goes to firms that deliver outstanding innovative and technological achievements and that have above-average market potential," says jury member Hans Baumgartner, Head of SME Business at Credit Suisse.
Asked why in his view HeiQ won, the prize-winner replied: "Within a really short space of time, we tackled a problem and developed a solution. Oilguard has been very well thought-through. For example, after being used on the beach it can be incinerated in cement plants – thus providing a source of energy." With its focus on the technology rather than the firm, the award is a kind of seal of approval for the Swiss quality of HeiQ's product. "That obviously strengthens our credibility. In the Asia region especially, there is strong demand for such Swiss quality."
It's All About Saving Resources
Oilguard is not the only HeiQ product to offer outstanding quality. "All our products are about saving resources and making a contribution to more sustainable, superior quality," Carlo Centonze emphasizes. "We get our inspiration from nature, and endeavor to replicate natural concepts wherever it makes sense to do so". For example, HeiQ adds tiny quantities of silver to the polyester clothing used mainly in sportswear. The anti-bacterial effect of the silver eliminates any unpleasant odor. "The process enables the polyester clothing to be worn for a much longer period of time. Compared with cotton clothing, it has a significantly better environmental profile in terms of the consumption of resources – that is, manufacturing and washing," Centonze stresses. Another fascinating product is Barrier, which is based on the microstructured surface of a lotus blossom and is the perfect repellent for water, oil, and dirt. Through the application of microstructures to textiles, the use of chemicals in manufacturing can be reduced by up to 60 percent compared with competitor technologies.