Stimulating a Green and Growing Economy

EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program supports innovative environmental technologies.

Green innovations are catching on. A cutting tool coating that mimics the surface of a lotus leaf to provide effective lubrication without the use of environmentally unfriendly cutting fluids has recently entered the marketplace. A newly developed microbial fuel cell generates electricity from organics in wastewater, creating power and cleaner water at the same time. In addition, a new scrubbing technology is helping the semiconductor industry reduce toxic air emissions.

The link between these three examples—and many others—is that they likely would not have made it past the concept phase had it not been for seed money provided by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program.

Eleven government agencies have SBIR programs, each of which focuses on the mission of the particular agency. EPA’s SBIR program, naturally, supports promising “green” concepts. The Agency awards funds totaling approximately $5 million dollars annually to small businesses working on bringing novel products and technologies to the market place that would benefit EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

SBIR is a two-phase program. Initial sums up to $80,000 are awarded in Phase I so that companies can demonstrate the feasibility of their research. Projects that garner Phase II awards are supported with a base amount of $300,000, with the potential for an additional $70,000 for the commercialization of new products and technologies.  “Phase I is proof of concept while Phase II is focused on development and commercialization,” April Richards, Acting Program Manager of EPA’s SBIR program explains.

EPA partners with the National Science Foundation (NSF) SBIR program. The EPA-NSF partnership “leverages our smaller budget and influences another, larger agency with more funds available to fund additional high-quality environmental technologies,” says Richards. Sharing outreach activities and encouraging promising companies to apply to both sources has helped the Agency see more emerging technologies get started. In 2010, the partnership saw NSF fund at least seven projects that also were submitted to EPA’s program, freeing up EPA to fund even more technologies.

An award through EPA’s SBIR program helped a company called NanoMech Exit EPA Disclaimer develop TuffTek, the lotus-leaf-inspired coating that acts as a lubricant delivery system for cutting tools. With more than 100 million gallons of cutting fluids used annually in the United States, the new technology has the potential to make a significant contribution toward reducing the stream of hazardous materials generated by precision cutting operations. In addition, the new coating can improve tool life 300 percent compared to conventional coatings, and has been marketed successfully to cutting tool manufacturers and users in the automotive and other manufacturing industries.

The nanoparticle coating process NanoMech developed has further applications in advanced manufacturing, next generation lubricants, and the electronics, military, and biomedical industries.

Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner
Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner visited NanoMech’s laboratories and manufacturing plant on March 24, 2011

Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner visited NanoMech’s laboratories and manufacturing plant on March 24, 2011, during a trip to showcase innovation and discuss how government and the private sector can work together to out-innovate global competition for jobs. The secretary noted NanoMech as a small business that demonstrates how innovative research can spur economic growth and high-wage jobs.

Another technology that got its start with the support of EPA’s SBIR program isIntAct Laboratories’ Exit EPA Disclaimer microbial fuel cell system. Although ethanol has been hailed as a way of reducing the nation’s reliance on imported fuel stock, it is does come with environmental costs. For every liter of ethanol produced, some ten to 14 liters of distilling waste is created. Across the nation, that adds up to more than 100 billion liters of wastewater per year.

IntAct Laboratories saw opportunity in all that waste. The small business used EPA’s SBIR funding for developing a microbial fuel cell system that can generate electricity from wastewater left over from ethanol distillation—leaving the wastewater cleaner in the process. Now that it is commercially available, the technology offers the potential to make the biofuels infrastructure more sustainable by converting waste to clean energy. The company was recognized with the Ignite Clean Energy Prize Exit EPA Disclaimer in 2009 in recognition of its microbial fuel cellsystem.

In a ceremony held on February 15, 2011, EPA-funded SBIR recipient ATMI Exit EPA Disclaimer was inducted into the SBIR Hall of Fame. The company was recognized for its rapid growth and the worldwide impact that has resulted from the innovative solid scrubbing material it brought to the market. The technology, called the Novapure Dry Scrubber System, provides 30 times the capacity of activated carbon, and was designed especially to reduce toxic air emissions from the semiconductor industry.

ATMI grew from four employees working in a small garage in New Milford, Connecticut, at the time of EPA’s Phase I SBIR award in 1987, to nearly 1,100 employees in numerous locations around the world today.

“The whole point of SBIR is to fund more high-risk projects than the private sector is willing to suppport,” Richards explains. The technologies that NanoMech, IntAct, and ATMI developed may not have gotten off the ground were it not for the seed money provided by EPA through the SBIR program.

This article can be found on the EPA newsletter website