Video: A TransCanada-sponsored R&D project has resulted in an innovative solution that promises a safer and less expensive method of removing PCBs from soil using ultraviolet light in a mobile remediation system.
University of Calgary scientists have developed new technology that promises a safer, more efficient way to clean up hazardous polychlorinaed biphenyls (PCBs) in soil using ultraviolet light – the first technology of its kind in the world.
The university research team in collaboration with TransCanada, Innovate Calgary, SAIT Polytechnic and IPAC Services Corp., created a 15-metre-long, mobile cleanup unit that is ready for field-testing on PCB-contaminated soil.
TransCanada has invested approximately $500,000 in the 13-year research and development project that now promises to provide industry with a safer, more convenient and much less costly way of remediating PCBs in the environment.
“We are confident this technology will work. We’ve established the process, tested it successfully in the laboratory and published many scientific papers,” says Gopal Achari, professor of civil engineering in the Schulich School of Engineering’s Centre for Environmental Engineering Research and Education.
“The pilot, mobile cleanup unit is designed to get this technology into the hands of a company that can bring it forward into regular, widespread use,” says Cooper Langford, professor of chemistry in the Faculty of Science, and an internationally recognized expert in photochemistry.
Globally, millions of tonnes of PCBs were produced and used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications before being banned in 1979. Research showed the toxic organic chemical compounds could enter the food chain and potentially cause reproductive and developmental damage as well as cancer.
Spills, legal and illegal disposal, and uncontrolled use prior to 1979 resulted in an estimated one-third of the total U.S. production of 635,000 tonnes being released into the North American environment.
Currently, the most common way to dispose of PCBs in soil in Canada is to dig up the contaminated soil and transport it to either the Swan Hills hazardous waste treatment plant in Alberta or a similar facility in Quebec, where the PCBs are destroyed in specialized high-temperature incinerators. In addition to potential health and safety risks associated with removing and transporting contaminated soil, this disposal method is expensive, costing as much as $1,000 per tonne of soil.
With the University of Calgary’s new technology, the PCB-contaminated soil can be cleaned onsite – eliminating the need for transportation – and put back in the same place. The researchers estimate the cost to use their system, once brought to commercial scale, will be about $350 to $500 per tonne – one-third to one-half the cost of soil excavation, transportation and incineration.
Innovate Calgary, the university’s technology transfer office, managed the overall project and the patenting in Canada of the new technology.
“We’re now looking for any partners that would like to use the mobile cleanup unit, which is very practical for small PCB spills in soil,” says Jim Wilson, Innovate Calgary’s licensing manager, health and environmental technology.
TransCanada helped develop the technology and will take part in testing it as part of the company’s ongoing efforts to reduce health, safety and environmental risks.
“This is a contribution we can make to help companies in any industry – utilities, pipelines oil and gas – address sites potentially impacted by PCBs,” says Darion Byerley, environmental specialist in the company’s civil and environmental engineering team.
Like many companies, TransCanada used lubricating oils containing PCBs at compressor stations on its natural gas pipeline system prior to 1979. Through its environmental management program, TransCanada has identified historic PCB-contamination at some compressor station sites.
“It’s usually small volumes of PCBs that we are safely managing through our ongoing risk management, monitoring and environmental remediation programs to ensure it is handled properly,” Byerley says. “The main attractiveness of this new technology is that it is a mobile, on-site treatment, so it does eliminate some risk of handling and transporting the soils.”
At SAIT Polytechnic’s Applied Research and Innovation Services department, the Environmental Technologies research group took the University of Calgary researchers’ concept and turned it into a larger, pilot-scale working system, housed in a 15-metre-long shipping container, that is rated to treat one cubic metre of PCB-impacted soil per day.
“This project represents the best of collaboration between the University of Calgary’s fundamental research and SAIT’s applied research, to find a useful and timely solution to a ‘real-world’ problem,” says Vita Martez, senior research associate of Environmental Technologies at SAIT.
TransCanada is an industry leader when it comes to supporting innovation, research and development. Last year, TransCanada invested $13.5 million in R&D to make our operations more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly. To learn more about our R&D activities, visit our Technology & Innovation website.