Stillwater, OK — A company specializing in explosives detection is well on its way to demonstrating how its science also can tackle an ongoing sewage-based nitrogen and phosphorous environmental hazard that plagues ponds, lakes, streams and even the Gulf of Mexico.
XploSafe is among six small businesses that will share $1.8 million in funding awarded through the Environmental Protection Agency's Small Business Innovation Research Program.
The $300,000 XploSafe received will be used by the firm to scale up and demonstrate technology it developed to create a material capable of absorbing ammonium, nitrate, urea and phosphate nutrients from sewage wastewater streams and can be used as a high-quality, slow-release fertilizer.
Currently, wastewater treatment protocols used to recover those nutrients create materials that sometimes are used as fertilizers, but often are trucked to landfills for disposal.
Runoff, seepage and untreated sewage flows containing those nutrients ultimately find a way into ponds, lakes, waterways and even the Gulf of Mexico, where they create issues for municipalities that purify lake water for potable uses and hazards for a variety of different plants and wildlife living within those ecosystems.
XploSafe said the product is expected to reduce or eliminate the discharge of nutrients into surface waters, preventing algae growth that can reduce oxygen levels and negatively impact aquatic life.
Allen Apblett, a co-founder of XploSafe and its president, applauded the EPA for the technologies development program, saying he's been concerned about the hazards posed by those nutrients for a long time.
"I've seen a lot of ponds and various places where there is just way too much phosphorous nutrients resulting in algae blooms and dead fish," said Apblett, who also is a chemistry professor at Oklahoma State University.
"Plus, Tulsa gets all of its water from lakes that are polluted from chicken poop," he said. "And so they have problems in the summer trying to get their water purified."
He said current sewage treatment technology turns those nutrients into pollutants.
"So, I put on my thinking cap and we came up with something where we take essentially a natural product, manipulate it with some mineral additions, and convert it into something that can do a very good job of removing nutrients from water.
"And when we put it in the ground, the product rots and releases the nutrients back" into the soil, where plants can use it to grow.
Shoaib Shaikh, a co-founder of XploSafe who is its financial operations manager, said the material it developed consists of pellets 1 to 2 millimeters in diameter stacked in filters to chemically absorb the harmful nutrients from the water.
He said the used pellets can be stored and can be sold by treatment facilities for use as a fertilizer that provides a slow release of nutrients.
The process also reduces the amount of material produced by treatment facilities that must be hauled to landfills, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions attributable to wastewater treatment, nutrient recovery processes and other materials management activities.
Shaikh said the company demonstrated its product's viability during a first phase of funding from the EPA by working with Stillwater's Water and Wastewater Services Department to collect the pollutants at its sewage treatment plant, and then Oklahoma State University to research the product's use as a fertilizer.
"Our technology gives you the option to not only treat the waste streams, but also to leverage the nutrients you capture from the waste streams" in a beneficial way, Shaikh said.
"You have a cradle-to-grave application where you can continue to use these nutrients," he said.
XploSafe emerged as a fledgling business in 2009 when it created a nanotechnology-based ink that changes color after detecting peroxide, chlorate and nitro based explosives.
Its products are used by bomb squads, first responders, the Transportation Security Administration and military and security personnel.
XploSafe officials said there is an immediate need to address problems caused by more than 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, groundwater and industrial waste that flow into waterways annually.
This research opportunity, Shaikh, Apblett and EPA officials said, enables XploSafe and the other five companies receiving funds through the grant to get their products ready for commercial markets.
"Through this funding, these companies will create jobs and create value in the marketplace, all while developing innovations that protect the environment and human health," Scott Pruitt, EPA's administrator, stated as part of a news release announcing the grants.