Wouldn’t it be cool if you could wipe away pollution with a sponge? Turns out you can, and a new company in Northeast has developed the technology to do it.
A spinoff of a University of Minnesota research program, 15-employee Claros Technologies just recently moved into 1600 Broadway NE. This little group of scientists has come up with a way to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAs) from waste water. It’s a major game-changer.
PFAs (pronounced “pea-faws”) are man-made chemicals used to make materials water-resistant (think of fabric protectors) or non-stick, such as pots and pans. PFAs have been used to manufacture carpeting, clothing, upholstery, food paper wrappings, fire-fighting foams and in metal plating applications. DuPont and 3M are major manufacturers and users of these “forever” chemicals and have been involved in several lawsuits.
The trouble with PFAs is, they don’t break down in the environment. And even though the particles are so tiny they can be measured in parts per trillion, they can cause a great deal of harm. Studies have linked PFA chemicals to testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer; weakened childhood immunity; low birth weight, endocrine disruption; and increased cholesterol and weight gain in children and dieting adults.
To give a reporter an idea of what parts per trillion looks like, Ryan Corcoran, business development manager, reached up on a shelf and took down a one-gallon glass jar filled with tiny yellow beads. “This represents parts per million,” he said. “There are a million yellow beads in here and one black bead.” With one trillion equal to one million million, Claros’ search for PFAs is more elusive than the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Claros’ solution, like all good inventions, is incredibly simple, based on a humble grocery-store sponge, according to John Brockgreitens, director of research and development. He was working under the direction of Dr. Abennour Abbas at the U when he took a sponge, figured out a different way to put selenium on it and captured mercury, a heavy metal, from water. (Mercury is particularly harmful to pregnant women and fetal development.)
A common treatment for removing heavy metals from water uses silver activated carbon filters, which are not efficient and disposing of them in itself causes more problems. The group began applying their method to other heavy metals such as lead and arsenic and found that a small filter did a superior job of capturing metal nanoparticles. Brockgreitens said he could clean St. Paul’s 70-acre Lake Como with a filter the size of a basketball.
The group also began to experiment with “smart” textiles. Manufacturers of antimicrobial clothing use chemicals to block odors. These often wash out before the garment reaches the end of its useful life. To create “technical textiles,” Claros scientists figured out how to embed their technology into the fibers at the molecular level. These composite fibers last throughout the life of the clothing, surviving more than 100 washings without losing their effectiveness. (Imagine a hockey jersey that doesn’t stink!). The U.S. military took notice.
In 2019, Abbas and crew moved out of their U of M lab and into a facility in St. Paul. Abbas became the company’s chief technology officer. Michelle Bellanca, a former 3M executive who was recruited to help Claros commercialize its technology, was named CEO. They share the title of founder.
“We were really focused on the sponge idea,” said Brockgreitens. “She got us to take a look at other applications, especially the textiles.”
The company received a grant in January 2020, just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. While others worked from home, Claros employees went to work every day. “You can’t take chemicals home with you,” said Brockgreitans. “Remote work is not an option when you’re working on the molecular level.”
They also received a grant from the Center for Disease Control for an anti-viral facemask. The result was mask that that inactivated 99.9% of viruses – including coronavirus – within ten minutes. Claros worked with another Northeast company, Airtex Group (now their neighbor at 1620 Broadway), to manufacture the masks. A majority of them were given free to people who needed them.
Claros has also embedded ultraviolet protection into textiles, which is of great interest to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers spend many long hours in the sun. The textile blocks 98% of the sun’s UV rays and allows less than 1/50th of those rays to reach the skin.
None of these textile applications requires a huge investment in equipment on the part of manufacturers, and they eliminate toxins from the workplace.
Taking the technology to the next level is Corcoran’s is the job of an expanding business team. They are tasked with finding manufacturers who will take the company’s processes and scale them up. The company recently entered a multi-million-dollar partnership with Japan-based Kureha Corp., a maker of chemicals and plastics for agricultural, pharmaceutical and wastewater treatment industries.
Back to those pesky PFAs. Claros devised a filtering technology that’s 40% smaller than traditional activated carbon filters. The filter adsorbs polluted water, collecting PFAs, then the water is released. The PFAs stay on the filter, concentrated by more than 100,000 times. Concentrating the PFAs makes them easier to defluorinate and return them to their naturally occurring elements. The filters can be destroyed at the manufacturer’s facilities, or sent to a Claros destruction site.
The company also offers testing for all 40 PFAs, using a mass spectrometer to detect PFAs in parts per trillion.
Despite its success in industry, Claros, said Brockgreitans, is strictly focused on research and development, finding new ways to develop sustainable use, recovery and reuse of natural resources.
In the words of Dr. Abbas, “We solve problems without creating new ones.”
Below: Andrew Gonzalez, Claros lead materials engineer; John Brockgreitens, director of research and development and Ryan Corcoran, business development manager, tested a treated textile. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)