Dr. Jacqueline Quinn is an environmental engineer with NASA’s Surface Systems Office at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 2005, a groundwater remediation technology she helped develop, called Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron (EZVI), won NASA’s Government Invention of the Year and Commercial Invention of the Year awards. In April 2007, she was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame for her part in helping to invent EZVI. Dr. Quinn currently heads up the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) project, which is a prospecting instrument designed to gather and analyze regolith for volatiles such as argon, helium, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water, etc.
NASA Tech Briefs: Dr. Quinn, how long have you been with NASA, and what inspired you to pursue a career with them?
Dr. Jacqueline Quinn: I’ve worked for NASA for over 20 years. I graduated from Georgia Tech with my undergraduate degree and I explored NASA’s opportunities for employment and was so intrigued by all the areas of science research that NASA initiates. You can do research in my field and areas where I have interest in the environmental field, and stretch out all the way to exploration in deep space. I don’t know of too many other agencies or companies that afford such a broad spectrum of career interests for newly graduating engineers. That’s one of the reasons I picked NASA as the first place to take my employment.
NTB: In April 2007 you were inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame for your part in helping to invent an interesting substance called Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron, or EZVI for short. What is EZVI, and how does it work?
Dr. Quinn: EZVI is an environmental clean-up technology. It was designed to treat very high concentrations of chlorinated solvent contamination that ended up in the groundwater. As you may or may not know, the EPA wasn’t established until at least 1970, and NASA had already put a man on the moon in 1969, so there was quite a lag in the United States in regulations regarding the disposal of contamination. So NASA has some problems that it’s addressing with regards to contamination, and one of the problem areas is dealing with real high concentrations of chlorinated solvents. We use the chlorinated solvents in the degreasing of rocket engine parts and followed the guidance for disposal that existed at the time, not knowing that it would perhaps leave a legacy of contamination behind.
So, one of the challenges that we have in environmental clean-up of these chlorinated solvents is how to address the really high-concentration stuff, the stuff that exists as a pure product. EZVI addresses that particular problem itself. EZVI is an emulsion system – Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron. It’s a water-in-oil emulsion, and how it works is, it pulls contamination from the ground water and the surrounding soils in the aquafier inside of each emulsion droplet. These droplets are micron size in diameter. Each little bubble is sort of its own little reactor, or degradation bubble. The contamination is drawn inside the emulsion droplet and it is degraded by the presence of the iron and water inside the emulsion droplet. That, in a nutshell, is pretty much how it works.
NTB: What led you and your colleagues to believe that a simple mixture of iron particles, vegetable oil, water, and a surficant would have the effect it does on these chlorinated solvents? Was this a theory your team developed from the start, or the fortuitous result of research into some other area?
Dr. Quinn: Well, when we first started working on this, which was in the late 1990s, there was a lot of emphasis out there on using iron to clean up chlorinated solvents. Iron and water will degrade chlorinated contaminants when it’s in the groundwater and it’s in a dissolved phase. That means it’s not existing as a pure product, but it’s dissolved in the groundwater. That technology, although it works great and has wonderful applications, does take a long time to clean up a product if you’re dealing with really high concentration contamination because you have a product that has to dissolve into the groundwater, flow through a bunch of iron and water that’s put into the ground – little chiplets of iron – and then come out the other side clean. So it doesn’t really address the high-concentration contaminants.
Our vision was to take the reactants and encapsulate them within an oil bubble. So the reactants are water and iron, and the oil bubble is vegetable oil. If you go by the old adage that “like likes like,” what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to encapsulate the reactants in something that we know the contaminant is attracted to. Because they tend to aggregate together, we knew that the contaminant would move over into the vegetable oil and there would be a concentration thing that would drive into the reactive portion of this bubble. So it really, truly was not just a fortuitous thing that we stumbled upon, but a design element that was implemented with a chemical background.
NTB: How were these chlorinated solvents typically treated before the invention of EZVI?
Dr. Quinn: In the 1980s and 90s most of the accepted remedies were to pump the water to the surface and treat it in some sort of surface reaction chemistry to get the contaminants out of the groundwater, and then you would pump the groundwater back into the ground. That was pretty much the standard status quo. Of course, you know, you’re only getting out a hundred gallons of contamination or a hundred pounds of contamination over a year, or over a lifetime of operations. So you’re only getting that dissolve phase affected.
That was pretty much the nominal way of doing things, or through this passive treatment through the iron walls, which is something that was evolving in the 1990s. But as we got to the end of the decade, towards the 2000s, there started to be a lot of emphasis on how do you clean up the product, the really high concentration stuff.
NTB: Will this remediation technique work on any other forms of pollution?
Dr. Quinn: Yes. It works on any halogenated compound, which in basic terms means it works on pesticides. It works on your dry cleaning fluids that may have ended up in the subsurface as well. It will work on Freon and fluorinated compounds. Interesting research has recently come out of similar science compatriots out in Colorado. They’ve done some recent tests that showed that it works for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. They’ve recently been in the news as a contaminant of interest.
NTB: Has EZVI technology been licensed for commercial use yet?
Dr. Quinn: Oh yes. It has at least 7 or 8 licenses now, and it’s been used in over 16 states throughout the U.S. They’re in the process of being used overseas in Europe and Asia as well.
NTB: You are currently working on the RESOLVE project, RESOLVE being an acronym for Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction. What is the RESOLVE project, and what is it designed to accomplish?
Dr. Quinn: RESOLVE is a prospecting instrument. It prospects for volatiles and resources that NASA may be able to use on a different planetary body to help with their exploration or human habitation of the body of interest.
RESOLVE is an instrument that’s mounted on a rover and it has a drill that accompanies it, and the drill takes a meter-deep core sample of soil, or regolith as we call it when you get off the Earth. It takes a core of that regolith; brings it up; crushes it; puts it into a reactor, or an advanced [ ? ]; and heats it up causing any volatiles such as helium, argon, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water ice – which is of particular interest – and it causes those to volatize. We then detect those volatiles of interest using analytical instruments such as a gas chromatograph and a mass spectrometer. We get those quantified and qualified as to how much material, how much resources are there.
In certain instances – if it’s water for example – we can actually capture that water and store it. We also have the capability of taking that soil and extracting the oxygen from the mineral content and collecting it in the form of water, which could be used later to either make propellants for propulsion, or it could make oxygen for human habitation breathing air. So it’s a prospecting tool, kind of like a miner. It goes out and says, “What do we have here that we can use for either continued habitation, or to get to another location, or to return to Earth?”
NTB: Have any promising new technologies come out of the RESOLVE project to date?
Dr. Quinn: Well, we’ve had some interesting challenges with RESOLVE. In order to get the oxygen liberated from the mineral content, we can only take the temperature up to about 1000 decrees Celsius, and getting all the valves to open and close and not get overheated during that process is very challenging. We’re talking about a vacuum system, and keeping those volatiles inside, and being able to detect them and work with that high temperature has been challenging.
Some of the innovative technologies that came out of that are latching valves and also some modifications to some commercial off-the-shelf gas chromatographs for the detection of those volatiles. So yes, we’ve had a couple that have been developed as we’ve taken RESOLVE through the technology evolution stages. A couple of others may even make it into commercial applications, and we’ve actually used some commercial applications to help us make RESOLVE. So it’s definitely been a two-way street.
NTB: NASA’s currently undergoing a change in direction with less emphasis being placed on lunar missions and more emphasis being placed on things like an eventual mission to Mars or landing on an asteroid. What impact, if any, do you think this will have on the RESOLVE project?
Dr. Quinn: RESOLVE was designed with a lunar mission in mind. However, it is a prospector for volatiles and NASA has an interest in utilizing resources whatever its mission destination might be, as is necessary to support exploration and human habitation. So, in my vision RESOLVE, although begun as a lunar prospecting tool, would certainly have application to either a NEO – near Earth object – an asteroid landing, or a Mars landing. We know there’s water ice on Mars, and understanding where it is and how to harvest it is definitely within RESOLVE’s capabilities, just as it is for an asteroid landing. I mean, we could go to an asteroid to look for resources, or to understand what its resources are for planetary protection, for example. If you wanted to move that asteroid out of Earth’s trajectory – should we have that situation at some untold futuristic time – the ability to use the resources to help push it out of the way might be an opportunity to demonstrate the capability of RESOLVE. It’s being able to say we have water there and could we use this water to produce steam, or generate the steam to move it out of its current trajectory.
We could also use the NEO as a stepping stone to get us to Mars by understanding how those resource utilization technologies work in a microgravity situation and testing them out on a NEO. So, although, as you pointed out, it was originally destined to be applied to Earth’s moon and prospect for water ice on the south pole of Earth’s moon, it certainly has the ability to morph into different prospecting tools that can be used in different arenas.
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