Lehigh wins national award for technology commercialization

Wei-xian Zhang

Nanoparticles that clean toxic waste sites 10 times faster than traditional methods have helped Lehigh win an award for technology commercialization from the University Economic Development Association.
Lehigh received the national honor in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month at UEDA’s annual summit. UEDA is a national organization of 134 universities and their economic development affiliates.
The nanoparticles were invented by Wei-xian Zhang, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and commercialized by Lehigh Nanotech LLC, a Bethlehem-based environmental-cleanup company that formed two years ago with help from Lehigh’s office of technology transfer (OTT).
Lehigh, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Penn State University were the finalists at UEDA’s national competition. Each made a presentation; Lehigh was chosen the winner by the audience and the selection committee. The Lehigh presentation was given by William Michalerya, associate vice president of government relations and economic development.
The UEDA award was the second major honor this year for Zhang and Lehigh Nanotech. Lehigh Nanotech was also named one of the nation’s top 25 technology-collaboration stories by the Association of University Technology Managers. AUTM, an international organization, included a five-page article about Lehigh Nanotech in its annual Better World Report.
This was the second consecutive year Lehigh won a major award at the UEDA summit. Last year, the university received the Award of Excellence in Partnership Development in recognition of its work with the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone to support new businesses marketing technologies developed or licensed through Lehigh faculty and students.
“These awards represent national recognition that Lehigh has become a model for universities partnering in economic development,” said Michalerya, adding that Lehigh’s OTT and the AUTM’s Better World Report played key roles in the UEDA award.
Michalerya was elected to a two-year term on UEDA’s board of directors at this year’s summit.
The power of small
Zhang began eight years ago to use iron-based nanoparticles to remove contaminants from soil and groundwater. The particles contain more than 99.9 percent iron and a small amount of a Noble element catalyst such as palladium. They are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, but they have achieved an environmental impact that is disproportionate to their size.
Zhang’s nanoparticles have been used in remediation projects in 10 states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Ohio and Florida, and in several countries in Europe and Asia. Treated sites include landfills, an electronics manufacturing plant, a vinyl chloride manufacturing plant, chemical plants and military facilities. Contaminants removed include pesticides, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE).
Paul Osimo, vice president of Lehigh Nanotech, says the company’s “nanoiron” can remediate a toxic site in less than a year, compared to the 10 to 20 years typically required by traditional “pump and treat” clean-up methods.
“This is a huge breakthrough,” says Osimo.
In its Better World Report, AUTM said, “It takes only six ounces of the tiny nanomaterials, versus a ton of larger compounds, to make sweeping changes in cleaning up contaminated environments. This revolutionary breakthrough in nanotechnology is helping clean up hazardous waste sites and toxic industrial sites faster and more economically than ever before.”
Zhang says the nanoparticles’ size gives them their advantage. Measuring 20 to 50 nanometers in diameter (1 nm equals a billionth of a meter), the particles have a greater proportional surface area than do larger quantities of the same catalyst, giving them more reactivity with toxins. When injected into groundwater, they flow with the water and react with and detoxify contaminants.
Zhang has won kudos for his invention from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has been featured in Chemical and Engineering News, The New York Times, Environmental Science and Technology and MIT’s Technology Review.
--Kurt Pfitzer
Photo by Douglas Benedict