environmental innovation

Fostering the Science and the “Art” of Innovation

By Dustin Renwick

From Microsoft to Intuit to Ferrari, companies around the world have learned that innovation lives throughout a healthy organization.

Two years ago, EPA wanted to begin a change that would inspire more innovation in its research labs by pushing scientists to think about transformational projects.

In other words, EPA leaders wanted to ignite the passion and wonder that accompanies great science and replace ordinary thinking with “Wouldn’t it be amazing if EPA could . . . ?”

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (PIPs) were created as an internal competition to empower EPA scientists and researchers to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects.

This model dates back to at least 1948, when 3M encouraged its employees to spend 15 percent of their time on projects they found rewarding. A cultural icon, the Post-It, was among the results from that radical notion of giving employees like Art Fry the freedom to explore and tinker.

Through our first two years, 22 PIP proposals were selected from nearly 200 applications. These teams received seed funding and time to carry out pilot projects ranging from satellite-based coastal monitoring to novel methods for breaking down plastics.

Submissions are judged each year by an external panel, which takes into account a proposal’s:

  • Relevance to the Agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment.
  • Potential to dramatically change how EPA solves environmental problems.
  • Potential for significant progress toward sustainability and advancing EPA’s strategies.

Teams from the first year of PIP have submitted their final reports, and second year projects continue. The submission period for our third year closed at Thanksgiving, and those proposals are currently being judged.

I’ll periodically highlight some of the innovative ideas here on It All Starts with Science, so be sure to check back later. You can even use a Post-it to remind yourself.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Around the Water Cooler: Can Innovations Solve Our Nutrient Problem?

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Nitrogen is an integral part of proteins, the building blocks of life. But in excess, like anything else, it can have negative effects. In fact, too many nutrients, including nitrogen, can cause depletion of available oxygen in surface waters, toxic algal blooms, hypoxia and acid rain.

The consequences aren’t pretty. Excess nitrogen threatens our air and water quality as well as disrupts the health of our communities, people and land. In other words, some plants and animals can’t live in this kind of environment. I’ve written about this problem before. For example, check out this post on seagrasses.

Nutrient pollution is a problem that affects many areas in the United States, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and New England’s Narragansett Bay.

To help combat this overwhelming nutrient problem Cleantech Innovations New England  is providing awards to applicant teams of up to $130,000 as part of the i6 Green Challenge, funded by EPA in partnership with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy.

The funds will be awarded to develop ground-breaking and affordable technologies that can reduce nitrogen discharge from septic systems by 95%. (A high proportion of New England communities and more than 20% of U.S. Residents rely on septic systems). In addition, these new technologies should be able to recover nutrients (nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and preferably potassium (K)) from the wastewater and/or also create energy.

The technologies must be scalable and affordable, with retrofits to existing septic systems costing in the range of $5,000 to $10,000, and no more than $25,000 for new installations. Of course, on-site nutrient monitoring should also be considered in order to monitor performance.

For more information and to apply for the award, please visit Cleantech Innovations New England. The deadline to apply is January 18th, 2013.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team and is a frequent “Around the Water Cooler” contributor.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

For the Win: Benzene Challenge Yields a Solution

By Dustin Renwick

Illustration of a carbon nanotube.

EPA scientists monitor pollutants with odd names, but benzene stands out as one of most widely used chemicals in U.S. The compound ranks as a human carcinogen and an air pollutant found in sources including gasoline, vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke.

Current commercial benzene monitors work well, but the equipment is cumbersome and expensive. On the other hand, the cheap, portable technology that could allow you to test multiple highways in a day isn’t yet accurate enough for scientific research.

EPA organized a challenge for inventors and developers to help make benzene detection easier and less costly.

“One of our jobs is to communicate to the general public and those who are involved in new technologies what our interests are,” said Ron Williams, an EPA research chemist who worked on the team that designed the challenge.

The competition’s prize was recently awarded to Doug Corrigan, who has experience in physics, biochemistry and materials sciences and now works with technology-based economic development.

He said his experiences with different fields give him a figurative toolkit with pieces that sit ripe for remixing.

“It’s always satisfying to look at something and say, I have no clue how we’re going to work through that,” Corrigan said. “These challenges force you to sit down and learn new things.”

How He Did It

Corrigan’s solution used molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) and the measurement sensitivity of carbon nanotubes.

What does that mean?

If you created a mold of a raspberry pressed into wet plaster, you’d have a unique indentation. Other berries without that exact size and structure wouldn’t fit — similar to how a key pairs with its matching lock.

The same thing happens in MIPs, where scientists stamp a “key” compound, such as benzene, into a polymer. After the initial template is removed, benzene is the only molecule that will match that imprint, the “lock.”

Scientists also need a way to know when the key is in the lock, indicating benzene’s presence.

Nanotubes can measure small changes in electrical current, such as when a benzene molecule attaches to the MIP. Imagine rolling a sheet of chicken wire, and you have a good proxy for a nanotube, except the wall of a nanotube is one carbon atom wide. In this form, carbon exhibits those electrical properties not found in the graphite of pencils or the 3-D structure of diamonds.

But nanotubes don’t work well by themselves in air sampling monitors because too many gases create an information overload. In Corrigan’s design, the MIPs select the specific compound scientists want the nanotubes to measure.

The sensor arrangement can return measurements within a few minutes, and it all fits in a cost-effective package about the size of a large shoebox.

“When you consider the potential of molecularly imprinted polymers and carbon nanotubes for benzene sensors, that’s something you can fabricate,” said Eben Thoma, an EPA research scientist. “That’s mass production with a much lower cost potential.”

The EPA is now exploring methods for building prototypes of Corrigan’s design and transferring the technology to the public sector.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.