The Grass is Greener

Researchers find new ways to purify contaminated soil

Photo: Mike Peters

Professor Dibyendu Sarkar (right) in the greenhouse with post doctoral scientist Ramesh Attinti.

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 can end up contaminating the surrounding soil. Lead contamination is a nation-wide problem, particularly in blighted urban areas.

It’s just the kind of problem that Montclair State University professor and director of the PhD program in Environmental Management Dibyendu “Dibs” Sarkar relishes tackling. Sarkar is in charge of scientific operations at SIROM Scientific Solutions, a company that specializes in developing environmentally friendly solutions to environmental contamination problems. In March, 2011, the company received a $500,000 federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue its work with a cost-effective “green” technology that can significantly reduce the amount of lead in soil.

In Sarkar’s field, science and pragmatism go hand in hand. “Environmental management is not only about research for the sake of research,” Sarkar explains. “If it doesn’t result in protecting our environment, then it’s not environmental management; it’s just research.”

Sarkar and a colleague, Rupali Datta established SIROM in 2007 when they were both at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The company was relocated to Montclair State when Sarkar became a faculty member here in 2008.

Since then, SIROM has become one of the first incubator companies (see below) within the University’s College of Science and Mathematics (CSAM). Serving as a sponsor for incubator companies is a new direction in CSAM’s strategic plan, making it possible to expand the University’s reach into the business community and develop partnerships to support the College’s mission.

The lead remediation technology SIROM employs involves planting vetiver grass (a tall, tropical, non-invasive grass with roots that extend 2-4 meters into the soil) and then applying a natural, biodegradable chelating agent, which binds with lead in the soil so the grass can absorb it more easily through its roots. Tests are currently being conducted on lead paint-contaminated soil samples from Baltimore and San Antonio.

According to Sarkar, traditional methods, such as soil excavation, treatment and replacement, are neither economically viable nor ecologically sound for lead remediation in residential properties.

“Our aim is to develop a technology that works in different environmental conditions,” says Sarkar. “San Antonio and Baltimore both have lead problems, but they have different soil types and climate differences.”

Juggling his company, teaching duties and research suits Sarkar’s workaholic nature. The 43-year-old has more than 225 publications to his credit, including two books and around 100 journal articles and book chapters.

Looking ahead, he sees lead uptake as one of a long line of potential uses for vetiver grass. The hardy plant could also be used to remove nitrogen and phosphorous (from fertilizer run-off) as well as antibiotics from wastewater. Sarkar is excited by the possibilities. “These are huge uses,” he declares. “We are just scratching the surface.”

CSAM Dean Robert Prezant considers incubators as 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 said.

The University also shares in the revenue from the incubator companies. The contract between SIROM and Montclair State calls for a 50-50 profit-sharing arrangement, with the University providing lab space for a nominal fee and financially supporting the process of patenting the company’s ideas. SIROM subcontracts a significant portion of its current million-dollar-plus total in research grants to Montclair State and also financially supports University students, creating a “win-win” for the University and its business partners.

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What’s an Incubator Company?

An incubator company is a start-up that joins a business incubator program, which helps it develop by providing services and resources to support its growth. These may include office, laboratory, or manufacturing space, administrative assistant services, business consulting, and networking opportunities. The sponsors generally provide these facilities and services at a reduced rate in exchange for a share of the incubator’s profits.