This image demonstrates satellite-assisted toxicity mapping. Image: Crown Bio Ltd.
Most of us are unaware of the hidden dangers that may be lurking in our gardens and parks. A growing number of green areas in Europe are redevelopments of land that used to belong to industrial facilities, such as gas plants and oil refineries that can leave highly carcinogenic pollutants in the soil. There are up to 300,000 contaminated sites that need to be tested and treated across Europe, according to EU estimates.
Developers are required to test and decontaminate the soil on former industrial sites before they can be re-zoned as residential or leisure spaces. Yet the limitations of current technology mean that chemical laboratory tests are expensive, slow, and often miss out on hot-spots of toxicity in the soil. Where most would see a huge problem, Ed Bell saw an opportunity—so much so that he even mortgaged his house in order to pursue his idea: to develop a cheaper and portable method of testing soil for the most common pollutants, carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Over the past ten years a team of six at Crown Bio Technology Ltd, UK, (CBT), led by Bell, has developed a solution that practically anyone could use, including homeowners themselves. Safe Soil Tester (SST) is a high-tech, portable device confined to a briefcase, that is linked up to GPS through the European Galileo satellites, which allows accurate mapping of contamination and quick data transmission for analysis.
"The SST technology is primarily a toxicity screen—a fast way to say that there is a problem and the soil may be carcinogenic," says Bell. Bell is somewhat of a James Bond of the environmental pollution sector, dashing to meetings with government officials who would like him to develop similar technologies to detect bio-warfare agents and nuclear radiation in the fight against bio-terrorism.
This is a satellite view of brownland. Credit: Crown Bio Ltd.
"We got quite a large, one-off grant from EUREKA and had to raise 40% of the costs ourselves. The success of the project was totally down to EUREKA and the British government. They encouraged us to work with researchers from other countries," says Bell.
Instead of collecting samples to take back to the lab, the portable SST can easily be taken to the testing site and provides test results in a matter of minutes. A soil sample extract is mixed with a sample of bioluminescent bacteria, vibrio fischeri, which naturally produce luminescence. "It's a non-genetically modified, natural organism—we weren't allowed to use GMO in the EUREKA project. So it's perfectly safe—it comes from the sea," says Bell.
If a soil sample is toxic, the microorganism dies and the instrument detects the change of luminescence and measures it on the toxicity scale. The test will thus pick up the combined toxic effect of even small amounts of toxins in the soil, which would not have been picked up by chemical testing.
With tests taking only 12 to 15 minutes per sample, the SST device could be used to find out in less than a day whether a field contains carcinogenic toxins, and map precisely where the hot spots of the pollution are. Simply put, it saves time and money.
Apart from being crucial for getting the SST project off the ground, EUREKA also helped link Crown Bio Technology with an important EU verification programme and their biggest customer. The device is among the first to be approved under the EU Environmental Technology Verification (ETV) program. This recognition was a boon to Bell's business, as people take the device more seriously now that it is EU-approved.
What's hidden in your garden? Credit: Crown Bio Ltd.
The main buyers of the kit are National Environmental Agencies, large industry users and their contractors, property developers and consultants. The biggest buyer so far is UK Power Networks, a company that operates almost 80,000 electricity transmission sites across England where, because of the use of oil, they have to monitor and clean up the soil. They recently purchased EDF Energy, a UK electrical distribution company part of the French EDF group, which was one of the initial EUREKA project beta-testers. "Their clean-up contractor tells us we have saved them hundreds of thousands of pounds," says Bell.
An expanding business
In the UK alone, the chemical soil testing business is worth over £220 million a year ($350 million). But with lab tests costing up to £180 and taking up to two weeks to provide results, the SST offers clear cost advantages. At £15,000, the SST is a significant investment, but the initial cost is balanced by the speed and accuracy of the device's results, and the subsequent cost per test is much lower than traditional lab testing.
But Bell's team is not about to stop at testing soil for carcinogens. The SST could be developed to detect other pollutants such as heavy metals, radioactivity, and disease pathogens. Bell is currently negotiating the development of other detectors with partners from Europe, the US, Canada, Brazil, and the Middle East, related to military and government.
"We have also signed a commercial collaboration agreement with the UK Health Protection Agency (HPA) to develop biological biosensors that could pick up highly dangerous pathogens, such as anthrax, but some of this is very secret as it's the government," says Bell, with Bond-like discretion, before jetting off to another hush-hush international meeting.