CSAM Incubator Firm Tackles Lead-contaminated Soil

Lead-based paint was banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1978 but it remains a hazard in many old, deteriorating buildings. When the paint starts to flake and weather, lead particles can end up contaminating the surrounding soil.

Children who play in the soil are exposed to the harmful effects of lead and lead-contaminated dust tracked in from outside is a major source of lead pollution in homes.

SIROM Scientific Solutions LLC, a business incubator established in the College of Science and Mathematics (CSAM) at Montclair State University specializing in environmentally-friendly solutions to environmental contamination problems, has developed a new, cost-effective “green” technology that can significantly reduce the amount of lead in soil.

The technology involves planting vetiver grass (a tall, tropical/sub-tropical, non-invasive grass with roots that extend 2-4 meters into the soil) and then applying a natural, biodegradable agent known as EDDS. Tests are being conducted on lead paint-contaminated soil samples from Baltimore, Maryland and San Antonio, Texas.

“Our aim was to develop a technology that worked in different environmental conditions. San Antonio and Baltimore both have lead problems, but they have climate differences—Baltimore is much colder than San Antonio.  Also, the soil in Baltimore is more acidic and in San Antonio more alkaline,” said Dibyendu “Dibs” Sarkar, a Principal with SIROM in charge of scientific operations who is a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies at Montclair State and director of the PhD program in Environmental Management here.

During Phase I of the research which was conducted under greenhouse conditions, the vetiver grass absorbed 14% of the lead in soil samples from San Antonio and 24% from the Baltimore soil samples per EDDS application. Sarkar said repeated applications of EDDS may be necessary to reduce the lead to below the Environmental Protection Agency’s permissible limit of 400 mg/kg.

In March, 2011, the company received a $499,694 federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development – Lead Technical Study Grant Program (HUD-LTS) to continue its research for the next two years.

Phase II, which will make use of the HUD-LTS grant, involves validating the lead remediation results under natural field conditions in simulated field plots, while Phase III will take the vetiver grass project directly into affected neighborhoods in Baltimore and San Antonio.

SIROM Scientific Solutions is the second incubator company at CSAM (the first, a biomedical firm, left in 2010).  The company was established in 2007 by Sarkar and a fellow colleague, Rupali Datta, at the University of Texas/San Antonio. SIROM was relocated to Montclair State when Sarkar became a faculty member here in Fall, 2008. It had an $848,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a green technology for removing metals from shipyard storm water.

The construction of CSAM’s 100,000-square-foot Center for Environmental and Life Sciences (CELS) will make it possible to host more incubator companies on campus. “We would have space for two to three additional companies,” said CSAM Dean Robert Prezant, who added such firms represent an important future direction for the University.

“They give our students an opportunity to see the start-up of a real-world science enterprise. They also give start-up companies a place to incubate and hatch and in return help the economy of New Jersey if they are successful,” he explained.

In exchange for lab space at a reduced rate and financially supporting the process of patenting the company’s ideas, the University will split any revenues earned by the company 50-50. Revenues could potentially reach six or seven figures after Phase III is completed in 2014 and the company’s products hit the market.

Sarkar, however, enjoys the intellectual satisfaction he gets from his business too much to put much emphasis on commercial growth or expansion. “Primarily, we want to stay as an R& D company,” he said. “This is an avenue for us to use our creative juices and to take our ideas from the laboratory out into the world.”