Sister Blog: Innovating our Way to a Cleaner Future

This post was originally published on our sister blog, EPA Connect

By Bob Perciasepe

The history of environmental protection in the United States is a history of innovation. From catalytic converters to advanced batteries, technological innovations have helped us protect our health and environment by reducing pollution.

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One company receiving SBIR funding is developing an efficient and low-cost manufacturing method to recycle rare earth-based magnets from industrial scrap.

With that history in mind, today EPA announced more than $2 million in contracts to seven small businesses to develop sustainable technologies that can help protect our environment. EPA’s funding will support technologies ranging from an E-waste recycling process that will help recover valuable resources from industrial scrap to an environmentally friendly insulation that can support energy efficiency in green buildings.

EPA announced that the following seven small businesses will receive contracts from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program:

Since the program’s inception in 1983, EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program has made close to 1,500 awards to small businesses to develop and market their technologies.  One such company, Defiant Technologies, won a Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2011 to develop a portable device to detect and analyze harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the environment.  Defiant Technologies’ FROG-4000 is now available on the market and allows for onsite analysis of VOCs in 10 minutes – protecting people’s health and reducing the cost of environmental analysis.

Do you have an idea for an innovative technology that can help protect the environment? EPA is still accepting research proposals through August 13 for Small Business Innovation Research funding.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Innovating our Way to a Cleaner Future

The history of environmental protection in the United States is a history of innovation. From catalytic converters to advanced batteries, technological innovations have helped us protect our health and environment by reducing pollution.

With that history in mind, today EPA announced more than $2 million in contracts to seven small businesses to develop sustainable technologies that can help protect our environment. EPA’s funding will support technologies ranging from an E-waste recycling process that will help recover valuable resources from industrial scrap to an environmentally friendly insulation that can support energy efficiency in green buildings.

One company receiving SBIR funding is developing an efficient and low-cost manufacturing method to recycle rare earth-based magnets from industrial scrap.

One company receiving SBIR funding is developing an efficient and low-cost manufacturing method to recycle rare earth-based magnets from industrial scrap.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Materials Science 101: Molding Mushrooms

By Dustin Renwick

Compostable packing for shipping wineYour new TV or fancy bottle of wine came in a cardboard box that can be recycled, but thanks to a small, eco-friendly business, those white packing pieces that cushion and protect consumer goods inside boxes could go a step further in the product life cycle.

Ecovative, located in New York, wants you to throw the packaging in your compost pile.

Typically, those pieces are made of polystyrene foam, which hangs around in landfills for hundreds of years after it’s been discarded. Ecovative can replace that foam with another white material: mycelium.

Fungi absorb nutrients with their mycelia. Think of them as the roots of a mushroom.

In a five-day process, Ecovative can grow mycelia into all-natural packaging. Better yet, mycelia don’t need water or light to curl and coil into a dense, customizable form that packs eight miles of fibers into each cubic inch of material.

The other major selling point for the mushroom-based materials is that they grow in agricultural waste streams that can be adapted to regional sources. Corn stalks can be used in the Midwest, but a factory in China could use castoffs from rice production. The mycelia grows throughout the organic mass until the mold is filled, and then Ecovative heats the material to stop growth.

The company won an EPA Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 2009, two years after co-founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre started out. It is also one of the new SBIR awardees announced today, each another potential success story. (Read Ecovative’s winning research proposal: Growth of a Fungal Biopolymer to Displace Common Synthetic Polymers and Exotic Wood.)

“EPA was first to take the leap and validate this tech,” said McIntyre, the company’s chief scientist.

“The EPA SBIR was really critical for our early stage of development for several reasons. One of the most important was the peer-reviewed validation. And the funding really supported early-stage efforts in moving from the lab bench to a commercially viable prototype production line.”

Bayer, the company’s CEO, recently told The New Yorker that Ecovative aspires to be the new Dow or Dupont. McIntyre said those companies represent ubiquity for consumer products.

“We’d like to be the same,” he said. “We want to have the broadest impact possible in terms of providing environmentally friendly solutions.”

McIntyre and Bayer started small, but their company now employs 54 full-time workers overseeing projects such as new construction materials, opportunities in the automotive market, and a way to replace common plastics in packaging. The work has attracted more EPA SBIR contracts and other awards.

In May, the Small Business Administration recognized Ecovative with the Tibbetts Award, which highlights the best SBIR projects each year. The three criteria for the Tibbetts are technical innovation, business impact and broader social and economic benefit.

Mushroom materials are innovative, durable alternatives to products we often use but rarely think about. In fact, there’s a chance parts of your next house might be grown instead of fabricated or built, adding a new twist to living in harmony with nature.

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

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Are Mushrooms the new Styrofoam™?

By Gavin McIntyre

I started my career in advanced biomaterials after recognizing a problem that faces anyone who purchases items on the Internet, from frozen food to consumer electronics. Once you open your package, what do you do with all the bulky foam that’s not easily recycled?

Plastics and foams are ubiquitous in our everyday lives and serve a valuable role in many industries. But these materials are predominately derived from fossil fuels and most are not compostable. This creates a real problem when these materials are used in short-term applications like packaging, where their useful life lasts months at best. This is a concern for many municipalities since non-compostable synthetics continue to accumulate and fill landfills beyond their capacity.

Our goal was to develop compostable materials that are not derived from fossil fuels and do not require an exorbitant amount of energy to manufacture. In seeking to design an alternative, we took advantage of domestic waste streams that are abundant and rapidly renewable. These raw materials fit into nature’s recycling system and are beneficial to the environment once their useful lifecycle is complete.

Today our biomaterials replace the plastic foams used in the protective packaging and construction industries. Our technology uses the vegetative tissue from mushrooms, a vast network of unicellular filaments known as mycelium, as a natural adhesive to bind agricultural byproducts into a robust, foam-like material.

Our products are grown to the desired shape in just five days, and all the energy for growing the fungus comes from the agricultural waste. But most importantly these materials are safe (styrene was recently deemed a carcinogen), entirely home compostable, and comparable in cost to plastic foams.

Compostable packing for wine bottles.

A friend of mine, Eben Bayer, and I started Ecovative in 2007 right out of college to challenge this synthetic material paradigm. We needed a lot of support to get our nascent technology off the lab bench and into the market place. As two mechanical engineers, we first solicited the help of mycologist (mushroom biologist) Sue Van Hook.

We applied for an EPA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant to fund our research, which was awarded in early 2009. This Phase 1 award allowed us to optimize fungal strains and agricultural wastes necessary to approach potential customers. Today we operate two manufacturing facilities in upstate New York with 70 employees.  We will be opening two additional facilities in the U.S. over the next two years with a commercial partner, adding many new jobs to the economy. Everyday we come to work we leave satisfied that the products we literally grow offer a “green” alternative for packaging.

So hopefully next time you unbox you new computer you can put the packaging in your garden rather than sending it off to a landfill.

About the Author: Gavin McIntyre was the Principle Investigator under a series of Small Business Innovative Research grants awarded by the US EPA between 2009 and 2012. McIntyre’s research focuses on the development of novel materials and processes that emulate nature using agricultural byproducts and fungal mycelium to provide low cost alternatives to synthetics such as plastics.

And for more information on how EPA supports research for innovative environmental solutions and “green” jobs, read: Investing in a Sustainable Future.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Happy National Entrepreneurship Day!

 

A 2009 P3 Team.

By Presidential Proclamation, today is National Entrepreneurship Day, and we want to give a quick shout out to all the innovative entrepreneurs creating sustainable solutions to environmental challenges.

These are people like our Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awardees and our People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) college students. EPA supports these entrepreneurs so they can use their scientific and engineering know how to create jobs while making our planet greener and our lives healthier.

Interested? Read more:

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Innovating for a Green Economy

By April Richards

Growing plant with economic growth chartAs an EPA engineer, I like to think that my to do list runs something like this: Help save the environment. (Check.) Protect human health. (Check.) Create jobs. (Check.)

While you might be surprised by that third item on the list, it’s true! EPA has been funding small businesses for over 20 years through its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to develop innovative environmental technologies that are “commercializable.”

Successful SBIR companies are able to take the small seed funding provided by EPA and leverage that investment to bring in other sources of funding such as venture capital.  Companies are then able to grow by hiring new scientists, engineers and other employees needed to develop and sometimes manufacture their technology.

EPA’s SBIR program works hard to find companies that are innovating in ways that maximize environmental benefits. 

One cool example of this is a young, up and coming company that is working on converting waste to energy.  Cambrian Innovation has developed a bio-electrochemical system to treat wastewater from ethanol distillation (as well as other fermentation-based industries) while also generating electricity.

These efforts led to the concept of self-powered wastewater treatment plants earning the company the Ignite Clean Energy Prize in 2009. Due in part to the success of the bio-electrochemical  system developed with support of EPA’s SBIR Program, Cambrian recently received venture capital funding and has increased their workforce from four to 12 employees.

When one liter of ethanol is produced up to 14 liters of waste are created, meaning more than 100 billion liters of wastewater are generated per year!  Using novel microbes to generate electricity directly during the treatment process, Cambrian is able to convert some of this waste to clean energy. Cambrian’s system has the potential to make the biofuels infrastructure more sustainable.

Such innovation, of course is not just good for the environment, but good for the economy.

“The EPA SBIR program has been instrumental in helping Cambrian Innovation achieve our goal of becoming a world-leader in the field of environmental bio-technology and bio-electrochemical systems,” said CEO, Dr. Matthew Silver, adding that “EPA funding helped us move our technology from the bleeding edge to a viable and highly-disruptive industrial product. Working directly with the EPA has also given us tremendous insight into the environmental regulations that will shape water innovation and protect our environment in the coming decade.”

For more information on the government-wide SBIR Program see www.sbir.gov.

About the Author: April Richards joined EPA in 2001 and is Program Manager for the Agency’s SBIR Program.  She appreciates the practicality and commercial edge that small businesses bring to environmental protection.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Science Wednesday: Smart Investments: Technology for the Planet and the Economy

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: April Richards is an environmental engineer with EPA’s Office of Research and Development, where she helps manage EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. She recently organized the SBIR kick-off meeting for the new early-stage technology developers that received funding from EPA.

We recently held our kick-off meeting for new small businesses awarded EPA funding to develop innovative technologies for solving environmental problems. It was so exciting to have a room full of entrepreneurial engineers and scientists putting their collective brainpower toward solving such important issues as climate change, air pollution, renewable energy, infrastructure, and water quality monitoring.

“It’s great to know EPA wants us to succeed,” was one company’s way of summing up the meeting. We sure do!

The original idea of the SBIR Program was to tap into the wealth of engineering and scientific expertise of small businesses to address federal government’s pressing research and development needs. Given that small business (particularly in technology) is often referred to as the “engine of U.S. economic growth”—providing the majority of the country’s new jobs—this idea makes more sense now than ever before.

There’s never been a better time to match the need for economic growth with environmental protection through the creation of “green jobs.”

There is so much potential for developing technology that both benefits the environment and keeps the U.S. competitive in the global market. As EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a recent e-mail to Agency staff, we shouldn’t have a “false choice of a strong economy or a clean environment.” The concepts are mutually beneficial.

New, “green” technologies that use less raw and toxic materials, generate smaller streams of waste, and emit fewer emissions are good for the environment and the bottom line. For example, several of the SBIR companies represented at the meeting are exploring ways to harvest what is now considered waste to create building materials, cleaner energy, or other valuable commodities.

Companies face many hurdles getting their technologies into the marketplace, where they can ultimately have a positive impact on the environment. But the potential is tremendous, and it’s reassuring to know that so many smart people are working on this common goal, and with some help from EPA, can develop technologies which help the planet and the economy.

For more information about EPA’s efforts to match technology innovation with environmental needs, visit: http://www.epa.gov/etop/

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.