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DERT Success Story - Small Business Grantee Gets NIH Support

By Eddy Ball
February 2007

Chang-Yul Cha
Engineer and Inventor Chang-Yul Cha (Photo courtesy of C-Y Cha)

100 lb /hour Mobile Microwave
When work is finished at one site, a medium-sized truck can move the light-weight, portable Cha field-ready prototype microwave reactor system to a new location. (Photo courtesy of C-Y Cha)

Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP) grantee Chang-Yul Cha, Ph.D., recently received a major business development boost with an invitation to participate in the NIH Commercialization Assistance Program (CAP). This recognition is a tribute both to Cha's ingenuity and to the foresight of grant administrators in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.

CAP, now in its third year, helps some of the most promising life science companies to bring innovative technologies to market. NIH chose Cha, a chemical and petroleum engineer, for the program based on his achievements in developing microwave chemical recovery equipment with extramural NIEHS funding through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I and Phase II grants.

Cha is the founder and president of the Cha Corporation in Laramie, Wyo. He developed and successfully operated his equipment for more than two months at the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. Established in 1935, McClellan was a major arming and storage facility for the U. S. Air Force. When it was closed in 1995, it became a business park, and parts of it were distributed to various federal agencies.

The chemicals used in aircraft maintenance, such as solvents, caustic cleaners, fuel oils and lubricants, caused extensive contamination at McClellan, particularly to its groundwater. Clean-up started in the 1980s. Remediation is still ongoing and expected to take at least another decade. McClellan provided an ideal venue to test Cha's new technology for improving clean-up at Superfund sites, eliminating the secondary air pollution produced in clean-up and making the process more cost effective.

Cha developed a method using microwave technology to recover solvents and other chemicals by adsorption from activated carbon used for cleaning up hazardous wastes. Activated carbon adsorbs chemicals in much the same way that charcoal incorporates lighter fluid: the fluids bind to the surface of the carbon in a thin layer - as opposed to filling the pores of a material as they would if absorbed by it. This quality of adsorption makes it possible for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) picked up by activated carbon from the air stream to be recovered as liquid and the medium reused.

The Cha microwave-based gas cleanup process exposes saturated carbon to microwave energy as it passes through a quartz tube reactor, where the medium is desorbed as vapors rise and become liquid in a two-stage water-cooled condenser system. In its use of energy to isolate VOCs, the process is similar to distilling purified water from tap water or alcohol from a fermented base. By restoring the original adsorptive capacity of activated charcoal, the process eliminates the need for supplying fresh material.

The self-contained system reduces expense in several other ways as well. It eliminates handling and transporting of contaminated carbon, saves energy by eliminating the natural gas used in conventional oxidizers, and recycles fuels and solvents that can be reused after processing. Finally, the equipment is portable, allowing it to be mounted on a trailer and moved from site to site as needed.

CAP supports a select group of SBIR Phase II grantees over a ten-month period with assistance overcoming the obstacles and meeting the challenges involved in turning good inventions into commercially viable products. Cha and other program participants receive individual mentoring and attend a series of workshops on such topics as developing strategic alliances, identifying sources for funding, defining intellectual property rights, creating a long- and short-term marketing strategy, and building a management team.

In addition to guidance and mentoring on commercialization issues, CAP participants are in contact with a number of investors and industry representatives through the course of the program.

At the end of the program, a select group of NIH-CAP companies present their technologies at the NIH Life Sciences Showcase, helping them reach a national audience of investors and industry leaders.

Thanks to Superfund grants, Cha's innovative technology for improving hazardous waste clean-up is several steps closer to becoming a marketable product. According to the SBIR program administrator for Cha's grant, Beth Anderson, Phase I and II grants complement the conventional notion of translational research by encouraging private sector development of life science technologies that can be applied to help prevent diseases by reducing exposures, thus creating a mutually beneficial public-private partnership.

"Dr. Cha's passion for advancing this very novel technology has been a real win for the program and holds great promise for numerous applications," Anderson said.



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