Cleaning up contaminated land is a massive problem around the world. Pollutants can threaten human health and hold up redevelopment projects. One young Connecticut company called Verutek has just patented a new approach to environmental remediation.
John Collins has dealt with environmental pollution throughout his career.
“There are so few good remedial technologies and so much contamination. There’s like, 294,000 contaminated sites in the United States that have not been cleaned up.”
Collins has been a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense among others. A few years ago he found himself partnered with UConn professor George Hoag on a particularly tricky project.
“We didn’t start out with the goal of using green chemistry to develop ways to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater, but that’s certainly where we ended up.”
Oil-based contaminants are very difficult to wash out of soil. Most techniques involve waiting until the pollution leaches into groundwater and then capturing it. Collins and Hoag wanted to take a new approach, combining an oxidant to destroy the contaminant with a surfactant, or soap, that could actually penetrate into the earth. Collins says there is a precedent for this technique… but not in environmental science.
“In medicine, they’ll make nanoparticles and encapsulate them, and they’ll inject them in the body and target organs, and these little nanoparticles will go through the body, target the tumor and release the medicine. They do that in the same way that we take oxidants and reductants, we encapsulate them in micelles and target contamination in the ground.”
Usually, oxidants and surfactants can’t be combined, but Hoag and Collins found that by using natural, plant-based surfactants, the technique could be made to work. When they realized what they had, a process they called S-ISCO, they formed Verutek in 2006 to develop and market that and other new technologies. Bethany McAvoy has the job of explaining the approach to both technical and non-technical audiences.
“The basic message is taking something that’s oily and difficult to remove and bringing it into a solution, so most people can relate to that from washing dishes and getting the oil off of a frying pan. So that concept that if you use a surfactant or a soap, it allows the oil to detach, is actually something that’s pretty easy for people to understand, because they deal with it every day.”
“This is our new lab here….”
Jen Holcomb is Verutek’s lab manager.
“This is actually a solution we’re making that is going to be a synthetic groundwater….”
The company has about 30 employees and just a small facility but Holcomb says they can do a lot of their own testing.
“When we do mock-treatments in our lab, we can actually monitor how our treatments are working in real time….”
The company has been out in the field for some time, and has so far been involved in cleaning up some 30 sites. Its collaborated with the EPA on developing some of its technology, and it’s also just received a patent for its S-ISCO process. Dan Socci became the company’s CEO a year ago. He says the patent, one of some 30 or so that they have in the works, is hugely important.
“It makes a statement about the company and our ability to see a technology all the way through.”
The company’s now growing fast in terms of revenues, and it’s added about five new jobs in the last year. Socci says he’s here to take Verutek to the next level.
“My background is not chemistry or remediation so I bring an understanding of how to run a technology business to the company. And when a technology company’s fortunate enough to have a proven technology and to have some level of customer adoption, they’re ready to grow and to reach more customers more effectively.”
That means more international work. Environmental engineer Meredith Lanoue has been working on getting approvals to clean up a site in Sydney, Australia.
“It’s a former manufactured gas plant and there’s contamination in the ground. It’s part of a waterfront redevelopment project, so it’s right on a harbor. But the project is extremely high-profile and it’s mired in a lot of red tape. So we’ve gone through no fewer than 20 iterations of our work plan, and all of the different regulators have their particular concerns that we need to address.”
Founder George Hoag spent 20 years teaching at UConn. He says while in academia it was difficult to get permission to work on real sites.
“This really is like my ideal playground that I get to work on sites around the world. All sorts of different types of sites, and ones that other people haven’t been able to clean up. We don’t get the easiest sites to treat, we get the hardest ones. So I’m really enjoying it.”
Verutek is now working on developing other applications for the technology, including cleaning out the inside of oil wells to improve the flow.