Remediation Technologies Eliminate Contaminants

NASA Technology

All research and development has a story behind it, says Jacqueline Quinn, environmental engineer at Kennedy Space Center. For Quinn, one such story begins with the Saturn 1B launch stand at Kennedy and ends with a unique solution to a challenging environmental problem.

altUsed in a number of Apollo missions and during the Skylab program, the Saturn 1B launch stand was dismantled following the transition to the Space Shuttle Program and stored in an open field at Kennedy. Decades later, the Center’s Environmental Program Office discovered evidence of chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the field’s soil. The findings were puzzling since PCBs—a toxin classified as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—have been banned in the United States since 1979. Before the ban, PCBs were commonly used in transformer oils that leached into the ground when the oils were changed out and dumped near transformer sites, but there were no electrical transformers near the dismantled stand. It soon became apparent that the source of the PCBs was the launch stand itself. Prior to the ban, PCBs were used extensively in paints to add elasticity and other desirable characteristics. The PCB-laden paint on the Saturn 1B launch stand was flaking off into the field’s soil.

“Nobody knew there were PCBs in the paint,” says Quinn, noting that the ingredient was not monitored carefully when it was in use in 1960s. In fact, she says, the U.S. EPA was not even established until 1970, a year after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon. Nobody knew any better at the time, Quinn says, but today, “we have the responsibility to return any natural environmental media to as close to pristine a condition as possible.”

Quinn, fellow engineer Kathleen Loftin, and other Kennedy colleagues already had experience developing unprecedented solutions for environmental contamination; the team invented the emulsified zero-valent iron (EZVI) technology to safely treat groundwater tainted by chlorinated solvents once used to clean rocket engine components. The award-winning innovation (Spinoff 2010) is now NASA’s most licensed technology to date.

PCBs in paint presented a new challenge. Removing the launch stand for recycling proved a difficult operation; the toxic paint had to be fully stripped from the steel structure, a lengthy and costly process that required the stripped paint to be treated before disposal. Noting the lack of efficient, environmentally friendly options for dealing with PCBs, Quinn and her colleagues developed the Activated Metal Treatment System (AMTS).

altAMTS is a paste consisting of a solvent solution containing microscale particles of activated zero-valent metal. When applied to a painted surface, the paste extracts and degrades the PCBs into benign byproducts while leaving the paint on the structure. This provides a superior alternative to other methods for PCB remediation, such as stripping the paint or incinerating the structure, which prevents reuse and can release volatized PCBs into the air.