Clean sources of groundwater are incredibly important to the general population of the United States. More than 50 percent of the U.S. population relies on groundwater sources for their drinking water according to The Groundwater Foundation. These groundwater sources are susceptible to contamination from various sources including chemical storage tanks, uncontrolled hazardous waste sites, residential and commercial septic systems, road salts and even atmospheric contaminants. Such contaminants can make groundwater unsafe for drinking or for crop irrigation, another major use of groundwater sources.
The importance of ensuring clean, contaminant-free sources of groundwater has turned groundwater cleanup into a valuable component of the environmental remediation market. Market research recently published by MarketsAndMarkets predicts the environmental remediation market to grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.62 percent between 2016 and 2022, when the global market is expected to reach $123.12 billion USD. The groundwater remediation sector was expected to grow at the highest CAGR of any environmental remediation sector during this period.
Today, December 16th, marks the 15th anniversary of the issue of a seminal patent in the field of soil and groundwater remediation. Jacqueline Quinn, an environmental engineer at NASA the inventor of emulsified zero-valent iron (EZVI) environmental remediation technology, is a 2018 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. With the anniversary of the issue of this important patent upon us, we return again to our Evolution of Technology series to explore how this important environmental remediation technology came into being.
A Brief Look at Environmental Pollution and Remediation Efforts in History
Throughout human history, sources of pollution have followed the formation of urban areas where large populations are located. Heavy levels of sulphur hanging in the air of London in the year 1285 led King Edward I to create what is believed to be the world’s first air pollution commission leading up to the British king’s decision to ban the burning of coal, which had become the primary source of fuel due to a lack of available wood. London would continue to be a barometer of the deleterious effects of polluted air on a populace through the days of the Industrial Revolution when it experienced the Great Stink in the 1850s and the Great Smog in the 1950s.
Water pollution would become a greater concern in the 20th century when the effects of industrial chemicals and wastes upon water sources was better understood and became headline grabbing news. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this is the Cuyahoga River, a river located in Northeastern Ohio which first caught on fire in 1936 when a blowtorch set floating oils and debris aflame on top of the river. Several fires broke out on this river over the following decades and a major blaze on the Cuyahoga in 1969 led the U.S. federal government to enact the Clean Water Act in 1972 which prescribed improvements to sewage treatment plants and set limits on the types and amount of industrial wastes that can be discharged into water sources. Two years earlier, the administration of former President Richard Nixon signed a reorganization plan which called for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the lead governmental agency for handling environmental pollution issues across the country.
Jacqueline Quinn Revolutionizes Groundwater Remediation by Cleaning Rocket Engine Degreasers
Born in July 1967, Jacqueline Quinn obtained her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and both her master’s degree and Ph.D in environmental engineering from the University of Central Florida (UCF) before going on to join the engineering staff at NASA. One of her tasks at the agency was to develop a better method of cleaning up solvents used to clean parts from the agency’s rockets. These solvents, known as dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs), are effective at cleaning rocket parts but they are heavier than water and can contaminate groundwater sources if left untreated.
In the late 1990s, Quinn and a team of researchers from UCF were tasked with developing a method of cleaning up DNAPL sources, some of which were leftover from the earliest days of NASA’s space program; such contaminants also existed at sites operated by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Thousands of government and private facilities had a need for an effective solution for DNAPLs and Quinn and her team developed EZVI as an in situ remediation solution for removing those contaminants. EZVI involves making an emulsion of nano-sized particles of zero-valent iron, or iron molecules without any electrons available for chemical bond formations, within a micelle, or an aggregate of molecules in a colloidal solution. The resulting emulsion is a surfactant-based, biodegradable water-in-oil mixture which is injected into contaminated groundwater, attracting DNAPLs and chemically degrading them into byproducts which aren’t environmentally harmful. The micelle itself degrades into a carbon-rich source which helps to enhance continued biological reductive chlorination remediation.
The work of Quinn and her research team is reflected in the issue of U.S. Patent No. 6664298, titled Zero-Valent Metal Emulsion for Reductive Dehalogenation of DNAPLs. Issued December 16th, 2003, it claims a zero-valent metal emulsion comprising 6.4 percent to 10.6 percent by weight of zero-valent iron particles, 1 percent to 1.8 percent by weight of surfactant, 32 percent to 53 percent by weight of oil and 36 percent to 59 percent by weight of water. The claimed emulsion that treat DNAPL sources in the saturated zone which destroys and contains those liquids with reduced treatment times and lower costs.
In 2005, NASA first licensed its EZVI technology with TEA, which has produced hundreds of thousands of gallons worth of the substance for environmental remediation projects all over the world. EZVI has been used in many remediation projects on government sites and commercial facilities including dry cleaning, degreasing, leather tanning, metal cleaning, pharmaceutical production and aerosol plants.
Since developing EZVI, Quinn would go on to create many other innovative environmental remediation solutions and she holds 11 patents. In 2005, Quinn received two awards from NASA, the Commercial Invention of the Year and the Government Invention of the Year. In 2006, she received the Federal Lab Consortium’s Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer and in 2007 she was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame.