ecoSPEARS is Disrupting an Industry with NASA Environmental Technology
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are chemicals commonly found in electrical appliances, flame retardants, paint, caulk, building materials and insulation. These chemicals lurk in the sediments of waterways, slowly making their way up the food chain in a process known as biomagnification, threatening the health of the world’s seafood supplies.
Developed in 1929, PCBs were later found to be cancer-causing contaminants. In 2001, the Stockholm Convention signed by more than 190 nations agreed to eliminate PCBs by 2028. As of 2018, less than 5% of the PCBs ever manufactured had been removed from the environment. PCBs were banned in the United States in 1979, but they remain in the environment until removed because they do not degrade naturally. A study done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 found that 94% of the fish sampled in U.S. waterways carried PCB contamination.
To eradicate these deadly toxins without harm to the environment, a team of NASA engineers designed a Sorbent Polymer Extraction and Remediation System (SPEARS) technology that absorbs PCBs “like a sponge” from the sediment layers of waterways. The devices, shaped like hollow tubes with pointed ends, remove and trap the toxins inside their interior walls. After the site is deemed clean by regulators, the SPEARS are then removed from the water body for safe disposal.
The work is important because PCBs can enter the body through the lungs, the gastrointestinal tract and the skin. These chemicals are circulated in the blood and stored in fatty tissues and organs, including the liver, kidneys, lungs, adrenal glands, brain, heart and skin, eventually causing or contributing to cancers, brain disorders, birth defects and even death. The contaminants continue to be released into the environment through spills, leaks from old equipment such as electrical transformers, and improper disposal and storage of this equipment. PCBs are now considered the most widespread toxic contaminants in the world.
Realizing that there was an opportunity for launching a company by commercializing the space agency’s transformative solution, Sergie A. Albino partnered with a family friend, R. Ian Doromal, to form ecoSPEARS: a cleantech solutions provider of green cleanup technologies. Albino and Doromal founded ecoSPEARS in 2017 and became the exclusive licensee of NASA’s SPEARS technology.
“NASA had its own PCB problems, much of it from older electrical equipment, lubricants, fuels and infrastructure,” Albino said. “It wasn’t until they asked the question of how they could collect the PCBs from the environment — without causing further damage to the environment — that the SPEARS technology became a reality.”
Today, the company’s technology solutions extract and destroy PCBs, dioxins and other chlorinated contaminants from the environment while protecting human health, wildlife and the environment.
“It’s funny — we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Dr. Jackie Quinn reading up on plastics in the ocean a few years before it became a mainstream topic,” Albino said. Quinn, an environmental engineer at Kennedy Space Center, noticed a growing trend of plastic pollution in the oceans containing toxic contaminants. “She knew when you take chlorinated contaminants and expose them to a material like plastic, the contaminants will migrate to the plastic material to escape the aqueous environment, or the water. That’s when she came up with the brilliant idea of developing a technology system that could absorb chlorinated contamination by giving them a better habitat to escape to.”
Quinn has since been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her involvement in developing the emulsified zero-valent iron (EZVI) technology used to combat chlorinated solvent contaminants left over from the early years of space exploration. In a press release about the ceremony in May 2018, Kennedy Space Center’s chief technologist, Barbara Brown, commented on the significance of Quinn’s work: “This is a proud moment for Kennedy Space Center. It’s immensely satisfying to see one of our own recognized and celebrated for her hard work and ingenuity. Her inventions … have not only furthered NASA’s mission, they have also benefited humanity, and it doesn’t get any better than that.”
How It Works
The set of SPEARS is inserted into the contaminated sediment or waterway. The devices attract the contaminants, including PCBs, enabling a passive extraction method. After the SPEARS are pulled out of the environment, they are analyzed to confirm the PCBs have been absorbed into the plastic and removed from the sediment or water. The SPEARS are then processed via a reductive integrated destruction system (RIDS) to destroy the PCB molecules completely.
Albino reminisced about the moment he realized this technology could be scaled to help solve the global PCB problem. “SPEARS is truly game-changing when it comes to a more cost-effective and eco-friendly method for contaminated sediment. Our team is focused on scaling this technology to tackle bigger and more challenging areas.”
The company’s flagship SPEARS technology was developed by Quinn, Dr. Robert DeVor and Dr. Phillip Maloney. “ecoSPEARS expanded on the design of the technology to extract contaminants deeper in the sediment layer,” said Maloney, who was an analytical chemist at NASA-Kennedy Space Center before joining ecoSPEARS full-time as the company’s principal scientist.
The EPA acknowledges contaminants within the first 6 inches of sediment as a potential health risk. Knowing that organisms, which eventually wind up in the human food chain, exist deeper than 6 inches, ecoSPEARS made it a mission to go beyond the minimum requirement.
“Our smallest SPEARS design is 12 inches long,” Albino said. “If we can reduce the concentration of bioavailable PCBs in the upper sediment layers, that leaves fewer PCBs available for fish to ingest, reducing the probability of those PCBs bioaccumulating further up the food chain and eventually ending up on our own plates.”
A Toxic National Treasure
From the 1940s until 1977, millions of tons of PCBs were dumped into the Hudson River in upstate New York from various manufacturers and distributors of PCBs. The improper disposal practices led to PCB contamination of sediments, soil and groundwater in and around the Hudson River, which resulted in more than 200 miles of the 315-mile-long waterway being classified as a Superfund site in 1984. Superfund, the informal name for the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, is a program designed to fund the cleanup of sites identified by the U.S. government as posing contamination risks to human health and the environment. These sites are ultimately unusable for industries such as tourism, agriculture or fishing.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the EPA and responsible parties led cleanup activities at the Hudson River site between 2009 and 2016, costing more than $1.7 billion. However, the contamination still remains today, with more work required before the river can be deemed clean.
“There are over 1,300 superfund sites and 450,000 brownfield sites in the USA that pose ongoing health threats to the community,” Doromal said. “The current cleanup options are both environmentally destructive and cost prohibitive. It’s time for a better, more sustainable approach.”
The most common methods of PCB remediation for waterways are capping and dredging, yet neither process destroys the PCBs. Additionally, both are expensive, time-consuming and destructive to ecosystems and wildlife.
“Ultimately, the goal is to reduce risk and exposure to people,” Doromal said, “but we also have a unique opportunity to remediate many of these contaminated sites for economic development.”
Strategy and Sustainability
Seeing the innovative and versatile potential of the SPEARS technology, Albino assembled a team of students from the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College to help determine how to launch the business. “I wanted to get a young group of MBA-focused students who were capable of operating on ramen noodles and rice and beans, as start-up entrepreneurs are often forced to do, focused on general go-to-market strategies. It wasn’t until the second year that I tailored the students to be more focused toward how we can monetize and eventually commercialize this type of business venture.”
The Entrepreneurs in Action (EiA) Social Enterprise Fund, a venture capital firm that invests in early-stage for-profit social enterprises, learned about ecoSPEARS and decided to get involved.
“It’s a big idea,” said Rob Panepinto, the CEO of EiA. “I think one of the things that’s wonderful about social enterprises is they are focused on solving problems that affect humanity. Not only is ecoSPEARS solving contamination problems affecting our own community, but in this case, they’re also solving the problem on a global scale. They have a real business strategy around innovating and scaling their technology, so that was an amazing combination that we don’t always see in social enterprises.”
The company is all about thinking better — not just for the growth of the company, but for the health of the planet, Albino said. “Our impact as a business reaches beyond just profitability or introducing an innovative product. For us, it’s about impact. It’s about being able to get to the root cause of these issues and cleaning our environment and communities. If we remove these contaminants from our land and waterways, not only do we now have access to more vibrant real estate, but we’ve also ensured that these toxins never pose a threat to humans again.” P