They are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, but the iron-based nanoparticles developed by Wei-xian Zhang
have achieved an environmental impact out of proportion to their size.
In half a dozen states, at some of the nation’s most polluted waste sites, Zhang’s “nanoiron” has demonstrated that small is superior when it comes to the remediation of contaminated groundwater.
In the past five years, Zhang, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering
, has won kudos for his invention from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA
) and from such prominent journals as Chemical & Engineering News and MIT’s Technology Review.
Last month, Lehigh Nanotech LLC
, an environmental-cleanup company that markets Zhang’s nanoparticle technology, was named one of the nation’s top 25 technology-collaboration stories by the Association of University Technology Managers
. The two-year-old company was formed with help from Lehigh’s office of technology transfer
AUTM, an international organization devoted to technology transfer and intellectual property issues, included a five-page article about Lehigh Nanotech in its annual Better World Report
. The Report was distributed to federal and state government agencies and to companies around the world and was also given to the 2,000 people who attended AUTM’s recent annual meeting, which was held Feb. 28 to March 1 in San Diego.
“Technology invented at Lehigh University is successfully cleaning up a wide range of soil and groundwater sites [contaminated by] toxic materials, heavy metals, fertilizers and pesticides in about a tenth of the time of typical environmental remediation,” said the Report’s article on Lehigh Nanotech.
“It takes only six ounces of the tiny nanomaterials, versus a ton of larger compounds, to make sweeping changes in cleaning up contaminated environments. This revolutionary breakthrough in nanotechnology is helping clean up hazardous waste sites and toxic industrial sites faster and more economically than ever before.”
The right size for the job
Zhang began eight years ago to use iron-based nanoparticles to remove contaminants from soil and groundwater. The particles contain more than 99.9 percent iron and a small amount of a noble element catalyst such as palladium.
The nanoparticles’ size gives them their advantage, says Zhang. Measuring 20 to 50 nanometers in diameter, the particles have a greater proportional surface area than larger quantities of the same catalyst, giving them more reactivity with toxins. When they are injected into groundwater, they flow with the water and react with and detoxify contaminants.
“The complex molecules of chlorinated hydrocarbons, such as industrial degreasers and chemical solvents, are broken apart into simple, non-toxic compounds,” Paul Osimo, vice president of Lehigh Nanotech, told AUTM. “The iron combines with oxygen and turns to rust. The quantity of iron injected is relatively small compared to the amount of iron which occurs naturally in soils.”
For his work with nanoparticles, Zhang has received funding from EPA, the National Science Foundation, Lehigh, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners and Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) through its Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) program.
EPA said Zhang’s nanoparticles are “highly reactive, can be scaled to fit the pollution problem and could be used for a wide variety of common contaminants, including chlorinated hydrocarbons, pesticides and explosives.”
Lehigh Nanotech has its offices on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus. Osimo credits Lehigh’s office of technology transfer for helping streamline the company’s formation.
“A year after Professor Zhang and Lehigh filed a patent application, we had established a company, licensed the technology from the university and were producing and selling a product,” said Osimo.
“Lehigh’s technology transfer office helped make the process work smoothly.”
Lehigh Nanotech has completed remediation projects in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Ohio and Florida. Treated sites include landfills, an electronics manufacturing plant, a vinyl chloride manufacturing plant, chemical plants and U.S. Department of Defense facilities. Contaminants removed include pesticides, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE).
Currently, says Osimo, Lehigh Nanotech’s nanoiron “is being used to treat groundwater where industrial leaks and discharges have contaminated drinking water supplies. At hazardous waste sites, it can take 10 to 20 years to clean up. These small nanoparticles are solving big problems. They allow us to clean up a toxic site in less than a year. This is a huge breakthrough.”
With as many as half a million sites requiring cleanup, estimates of the cost of remediating America’s contaminated groundwater run well over $1 trillion. Zhang believes his method could cut these costs by as much as 75 percent.
“Lehigh Nanotech is not only a great story of collaboration but also of a technology that, if used effectively, can make the world a better place,” says Yatin Karpe, senior manager of Lehigh’s office of technology transfer.
AUTM is a nonprofit professional association whose members include more than 3,600 intellectual property managers and business executives from 45 countries. Those members represent more than 350 universities, research institutions, teaching hospitals and government agencies, as well as hundreds of companies involved with managing and licensing innovations derived from academic and nonprofit research.
Members of Lehigh’s office of technology transfer play active roles on the AUTM’s committees.
AUTM launched the Better World Project in 2005 to promote the benefits of academic research and technology transfer. The 2008 Report was subtitled “The Art of Collaboration: The Relationships that Bring Academic Innovations to the Marketplace (Part 1) and Technology Transfer Works: 100 Innovations from Academic Research to Real-World Application (Part 2).”
Photo from the New York Times.