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NYSTAR Asset Highlight: Center of Excellence in Healthy Water Solutions

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Two years ago, Michelle Crimi, Interim Dean of the Graduate School at Clarkson University, and her former graduate student, Fiona Laramay, founded RemWell LLC to develop and commercialize technology to remediate groundwater contaminated with toxic compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

At about the same time, NYSTAR was designating Clarkson and SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry (ESF) as partners in its newest New York State Center of Excellence, the COE in Healthy Water Solutions. The idea was to combine Clarkson’s world-class technical and engineering expertise in healthy water systems with ESF’s renowned expertise in monitoring, watershed ecosystem management and solution development to take on the wide range of imminent and serious threats impacting the state’s water systems.

Since then, RemWell and the Center have “operated sort of hand in hand,” Crimi said. The company serves as an example of the technological possibilities, and the Center provides RemWell with the industry connections and visibility it will need to someday sell that technology.

“Water quality has been a focus of ours for many, many years,” said Dr. Stefan Grimberg, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Clarkson and Co-Director of the COE in Healthy Water Solutions. “Water is central to New York State. It is critical in terms of the health of the state and has a huge economic impact. If we want to develop state-of-the-art technologies to ultimately make our water system more efficient, we need to support the research – and that is the Center’s mission. Solutions are incredibly needed, and I think we have the opportunity to make a big impact.”

Grimberg said part of the Center’s first two years of life focused on developing a governance structure as the only COE shared by two universities—one public and one private. His Co-Director is Dr. Steven Shaw, Associate Professor in Environmental Resources Engineering at ESF. There is a steering committee made up of an equal number of faculty from each school—including Crimi—and an advisory panel of industrial and nonprofit experts who “provide insight on what is pressing in terms of research needs from their perspective,” Grimberg said.

All research is conducted on behalf of a company or nonprofit, such as a utility or municipality, with the goal of solving a problem and creating a positive economic development impact through technology transfer.

“We have a seed grant program where we invite faculty from ESF and Clarkson to work together to propose small research projects and ideally companies,” Grimberg said. “We funded three projects last year and we have another five this year that included collaboration with Ramboll, Environmental Engineering Solutions, PC, GSI Environmental Inc. and Arcadis.”

Since much of the research is handled by undergraduate and graduate students at the two universities, under faculty guidance, the Center also is training the water quality workforce of tomorrow.
As a new COE, the Center’s state funding has been limited, prompting it to focus its initial research in two areas: harmful algal blooms (HABs) and emerging contaminants.

HABs occur on lakes and other bodies of water impacted by heavy nutrient loading from agricultural runoff. They can produce toxins which can make both people and animals sick.

“It is a big issue around the state and the Governor has made it a priority to find technology to clean up the HAB-contaminated lakes in the form of an emergency response and in the long term to reduce nutrient discharge,” Grimberg said.

He said there are a few research projects and field demonstrations underway at both Clarkson and ESF, testing ways to treat HABs in an emergency response capacity. One of those innovations, from Grimberg and a colleague, resulted in a company called ResET Water, which uses a clean electrochemical oxidation (EO) process to safely and effectively remove HABs from water. With the help of a grant from FuzeHub, ResET Water will engage a New York company to manufacture equipment currently made in China.

The second area, emerging contaminants, primarily centers on PFAS. These harmful, flame retardant chemicals are found in many everyday products, including Teflon cookware, microwave popcorn bags, cosmetics, carpeting and firefighting foams. They are pervasive in ground and surface water and can be toxic even at very low levels. The challenge lies in the fact that they are not biodegradable and require targeted remediation efforts. The problem is so large that the value of the global PFAS remediation market has been estimated at roughly $1 trillion.

Crimi’s RemWell is one of the newer companies working for a piece of that market. The company, which has received FuzeHub funding, developed the InSRT Reactor, which uses ultrasound to destroy PFAS at the point of contamination. The technology currently is part of a field demonstration with backing from the U.S. Department of Defense.

About four years before RemWell was formed, Dr. Selma Mededovic Thagard, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Clarkson, and Dr. Tom Holsen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Clarkson, launched DMAX Plasma, which produces plasma-based reactors for the treatment of water contaminated with PFAS.

“We discovered some years ago that our process, which is based on electrical discharge plasma, is very effective in degrading these compounds,” Thagard said. “Plasma is essentially lightning, so if you can imagine that you can control this lightning over the surface of contaminated water you can very effectively degrade these compounds–transform them and destroy them.”

Over the past six years, DMAX has grown to employ two engineers and a company president, and is working on several remediation projects, most of which are funded by the federal government.
“We have gone from a bench-scale system in the lab, literally in a glass jar, to where now we are at a 10 gallon per minute flow-through system,” Thagard said. “We have our reactors installed into a mobile trailer that we can take to those different sites.”

Grimberg said that while the COE in Healthy Water Solutions cannot take credit for the existence of either RemWell or DMAX, both companies sprang from the research and expertise that made Clarkson the right partner for the Center.

The main role the Center plays with both companies is supportive and promotional, highlighting their technologies in published materials sent to the state and including them in industry events.

“One of the activities we did early on as a Center is hold a PFAS workshop, where we invited a number of practitioners and folks involved in the policy world to Clarkson’s Beacon Campus,” Crimi said. “We discussed PFAS-related issues, research, technology needs and opportunities. Certainly, we brought in the technology our companies are working on as potential solutions. As a result, we were able to promote our technology to future customers and hopefully they will translate into early adopters when we are ready to sell broadly.”

She added that the workshop represented one of the goals of the Center, which is to bring different stakeholders together to come up with “holistic” solutions to the state’s water issues.

The COE in Healthy Water Solutions recently received the welcome news that its funding will triple in the next state budget, giving it the ability to broaden its scope and outreach.  Grimberg said the focus will be on finding more businesses to fund and support with research.

“Those partnerships can be in water treatment, water assessment, flood control…all of those fall within our purview of creating a waterbody that is useful to, and safe for, New York citizens.  We have expertise in all those areas and will be offering our expertise to companies to develop impactful technology solutions.”

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