NASA spin-off, ecoSPEARS, aims to clean the world's cotaminated soil, sediment and groundwater, forever
Phone interview with WT Interview with Ian Doromal, Co-founder of Ecospears, on July 6th, 2021. The transciption below has been edited for clarity.
WTNY – I looked at your site extensively, I looked at the three units. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be and how these three units came out of thin air for you?
Doromal – Yeah, absolutely. So, worth going back to the genesis of the company, really the technology. So, our company’s name is Ecospears and the technology that we were able to license from NASA is SPEARS. SPEARS stands for Sorbent Polymer Extraction and Remediation System and this was a system developed by Dr. Jackie Quinn; brilliant environmental engineer from NASA Kennedy Space Center. She invented that around in 2010, 2011 when she read an article stating how plastics were breaking up in the ocean turning into microplastics and it was absorbing these trace contaminants of sea contaminants like PCB’s and Dioxins.
So, what she did was she ran a test, she grabbed a straw from a cafeteria, filled it with ethanol solution, and crimped one side of it with a hair crimping iron, filled the straw ethanol solution and crimped the other side, and then put in into a stock solution of PCB contaminants and lo and behold it absorbed those contaminants like a sponge. That’s when SPEARS was born. In 2015 NASA patented the technology and 2017 Ecospears, myself as well as Serge the co-founder, we started Ecospears. That’s how the technology came about and that’s our namesake technology.
WTNY – That’s just amazing. In my media we work with a fair number of articles and sources and stories that involve dioxins. An awful lot of native communities have PCB dumps in their communities, didn’t realize perhaps over the years that’s what was being dumped there. So, this is a solution to that, is that it?
Doromal – Yeah, absolutely. So, SPEARS is more of a sediment remediation technology. It’s a scalable mat liner of plastic spikes that have food grade ethanol inserted into them. They get placed into the affected area of waterways, you know lakes, river and streams. Once down pressed into the sediment layer its really a “set and forget” method. You leave it there and it absorbs its toxins like a sponge so we’re really targeting more of a polychlorine, biphenyls and dioxins and more of your chlorinated contaminants. The plus side of SPEARS is we focus on a sensitive wetland area, areas where there is structural integrity. It doesn’t destroy the aquatic habitat as a dredging would do and really limits re-suspension. So, what we’re doing is we’re trapping it into each spear or each spike and then safely removing it from the environment once and for all.
WTNY – When you talk to someone that’s interested in using your technology most companies have some kind of a check list where, we checked the boxes ok, our technology will work. Can you give my viewers a sense of what their check list would look like and when they call you what you can do around that?
Doromal – That’s a really good question. So, we’re an early-stage company so there are a lot of places we could deploy SPEARS but right now we are focusing on those areas where we can help the most. Namely areas that have regulations tied to it where there is work that needs to be done already, usually they’re doing the feasibility study, they’re looking at different types of solutions that could potentially be used at full scale, so it would have to be the right timing of the stage of the project. Usually that’s tied to knowing if there is funding available. Of course, as an early-stage company we’re really mindful of maybe not going down a path even though we’d love to help every site out here we also have to think about the business.
Really the application uses are places of high “hot spot” remediation, so if you have areas that are very high parts per million, we could deploy it, also areas where there are bridges, harbours, piers or structural integrity issues where dredging is not an option. We can also deploy in areas of low concentration where dredging to remove or not resuspend contaminants to the affected area is difficult.
Also, a great thing about SPEARS is it prevents, really slows down the sediment erosion so if you really think about Florida mangroves, a really natural way to filter off these contaminants, it's similar to that. So were looking at SPEARS more for slow erosion of contaminated sediment as well as provides a nursing ground for the fish, shellfish and other marine organisms. So, any areas that are sensitive in nature that you don’t want to destroy, you want to keep intact that’s also a great candidate for SPEARS. Any water body typically close to the coastline is where more of the contamination is going to lie but that’s also the place where it could most affect populations, especially native populations that rely on the river, rely on the water body for fish. So, it’s by removing those contaminants closer to where people are that will have the greatest impact because it will also improve the health of the fish over time.
WTNY – Right now, were working with a community in Northern New York that has had quite a bit of PCB dumping right next to their community. It’s connected to the St. Lawrence River so they can’t really dredge it. That seems to be what everybody says, as soon as you start dredging you’re mixing up the sediment. If you’re looking at something along those lines can you give me an idea of the time frame and if you folks show up with this incredible equipment and technology does it take a day, a year, what are we looking at?
Doromal – Ecospears is more of a passive remediation/absorption system, so depending on the starting concentration once we deploy, we will typically see absorption of the contaminants, the PCB’s, into the spears about 70-90% within the first 9-12 months, so it’s a pretty good amount. What we plan to do is just leave it there and continually monitor and sample every 3 or 6 months. As long as there is absorption into the spears and spears have high capacity for PCB contaminants and molecules since they are so small, so you’re never really going to hit a saturation point. We will leave it there and as long as were seeing absorption it just makes sense to leave it there because as long as it’s absorbing those contaminants, its cleaning the environment, its embedded into the sediment layer so there’s really no obstruction to the marine habitat as well as to boats that have to travel since its under water. Our plan would just be to leave it there. What we see is a long term, really enhanced-monitor natural recovery system that over 10, 15 years if its continuing to absorb and make the environment healthier why not just leave it?
WTNY – I agree. I’m not sure that people would understand the business model. So, if I’m in this community and I want to clean up this PCB’s, I call up Ian and I buy one of these or Ian says here we will lease this to you, or no, your group has to teach our people how to monitor this? Can you give me an idea around deployment and how do you see that?
Doromal – So our, in terms of our business model and how we implement, we typically work with engineering and consulting groups, and environmental consulting groups. So typical to these clean up projects once the state or federal, or if it’s a superfund, forces these responsible parties to clean up the site it’s really up to the responsible parties in conjunction with stakeholders, like engineering consulting groups, to vet out the different options, remedial alternatives and hopefully they will vet SPEARS because once its vetted, SPEARS vs the alternative they will see it’s a greener more sustainable method for the environment.
If they select SPEARS what would happen is, we would work with the consultants to do a pilot study. So, we would usually put upwards of 5-10 one metre square mats in the affected area and do a study for about 12-24 months to look at the absorption rates, look at the efficacy of a real life setting of PCB’s coming into the SPEARS and doing a testing and analysis of that. After that typically it would go to full-scale remediation, after the pilot study is complete.
So, it would not be that community members would call to order it, it would have to be something written into the record of decision. If it’s a superfund site, I would recommend community members or stakeholders who are really interested in seeing this technology being implemented in areas where they live to call any EPA officials or the project managers tied to the site and let them know that there is a better alternative that exists now for the community as well as the environment.
WTNY – There are so many problems around dredging and various filtration systems it sounds like a super alternative. How’s the response been so far now that you’re getting the word out?
Doromal – It’s been great, but these things take so long. There’s been a lot of technology fatigue amongst not just the environmental groups, whether its activists or consultants. There have been a lot of promises made in the past. I think what makes this different is, its post-validated technology from NASA. NASA is really an innovation center that’s beyond just space, people think it’s just space innovation. NASA wanted to protect their sensitive wetland areas and Kennedy Space Center and that’s why they said dredging is not the way here, we have to find a new alternative and that’s where this technology was born.
So, we are really blessed to have an opportunity to license this technology and get it out of the corridors of NASA because it has to have a chance to get to the private sector, but it would take a company to be able to do that.
So that’s for sediment remediation but what we’ve also used the same science to create what’s known as our Ecoterra and that’s a soil washing technology.
WTNY – Tell me a little bit about that.
Doromal – So there’s any impasse to upland settings, or any dry soil we would excavate the soil, put it into our mixing equipment and then we would use a process of soil washing where we use a combination of water as well as ethanol to desorb those contaminants off the soil. Once we concentrate just the contaminants what we do is we then destroy it via, its call ecocube, so it’s a proprietary ultraviolet light system that can destroy the PCB’s or other contaminates in the water as well as in the ethanol to be able to reuse the water and ethanol for additional rinse cycles.
What’s unique about our system is we really eliminate the need to incinerate as well as to dig and haul to a landfill. We’re going for complete elimination of the contaminants on the molecular level and we’re doing everything on site. So, were eliminating the need to transfer and dispose, think about 20 thousand trucks on the road potentially harming communities or things like that, people workers, we’re doing everything on site. Once you’ve extracted just the toxins from the soil what we seek to do is we seek to put back the soil where it belongs, put it back into the earth. Its limited natural resource, since its clean we can put it back into the earth or use it for beneficial reuse projects. So, really its elimination of that incineration method as well as landfilling and really reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to incineration, by greater than 95%.
WTNY – That’s amazing. I guess being a Canadian the question has to come up. Will this work in the winter?
Doromal – I know its really cold up there, so I’m saying this tentatively from Florida. So, for SPEARS it will work as long as the waterway doesn’t freeze up because water is the superhighway, that transfers the contaminants into SPEARS. So having said that, if the water body freezes and unfreezes again then it will continue to work. It really has to be in an aqueous phase in order for SPEARS to work. For soil it will work but if it's really cold so we will probably wait until its warmer to do the process. It would be much easier to handle, the temperature really doesn’t affect on the soil side, it doesn’t really affect it working.
WTNY – Just one more question before I let you go. Let’s talk about policy, rules and regulations. Is there something that if I’m in Canada and I’m thinking of a place called Grassy Narrows which has all kinds of issues with their soil, do I have to get permission to use your technology in Canada, or is this loosely based on our rules and regulations too? Can you speak to that?
Doromal – We have to look into more of that but with our technology I would imagine would fall under regulations that should be approved just because we’re actually USA-EPA approved. In terms of our soil washing method under the guidance of 40CFR761.68 we’re approved for self-implementing site clean-up for PCB bulk waste under that risk based clean up approval. So, something we would have to look at. I imagine its fairly similar. Canada is a really regional market that we’re starting to speak with more potential customers so really looking at it in the back half of this year and next year but would love any connections or contacts that you have with Canadian regulatory. We would love to ask that question.
WTNY – Thank you for this.