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Poison Detective

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  • | 5:37 p.m. December 4, 2009
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For years, finding the poisonous solvents that leaked from dry cleaners was nearly impossible.

Little wonder some sites were still polluted after years of failed attempts to clean them. That's because environmental engineers used to gather tiny ground samples, hoping to find the source of contamination in a lucky strike. Common sense might tell you that finding contamination by gathering a thimble-full of dirt is as successful as finding a needle in a haystack.

But Richard Lewis thought of a better way. Lewis, the manager of the Fort Myers office of HSA Engineers & Scientists, figured he could find the contamination by using the same equipment used to clean up the mess.

By sucking air out of the ground using a motor and pipes inserted into the ground, he could better tell where the contamination was hidden. That's because dry-cleaning solvent is a volatile chemical that can travel through the air. Cobbling together existing technology, Lewis designed a system that could identify where all the solvent was hidden in the ground by measuring soil vapor over a much wider area.

But in the world of science, new ideas don't get accepted right away. It took nearly a decade of research and marketing to establish his technique.

And Lewis, who earned his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, borrowed a page from software developer Adobe. Like Adobe's Acrobat software, he gives away his new technique for free to competitors as long as they give HSA credit for it, betting that clients and even some competitors will hire him for more complicated high-margin projects.

Besides the revenue boost, the value of the new technique is in the branding and the credit for having developed a new industry standard. “It gets us in the door,” Lewis explains. “You want the guys who invented this.”

Breathing vapors
For years, engineers scooped small samples of dirt to try to find the source of poisonous chemicals such as dry-cleaning solvents. After scooping the dirt and testing it in the lab, crews sucked the solvents out of the ground with a motorized system of pipes inserted into the ground in a process called soil-vapor extraction.

But many dry-cleaning sites were contaminated over a wide area by careless dry cleaners years ago, making the dirt-scoop method unreliable for finding all the solvents in the ground. Every time the water table rose in the rainy summer months, more contamination would appear from a different area of the site.

Landowners grew frustrated that solvents they thought had been cleaned up were reappearing every time it rained. The costs and ongoing liability of contamination never seemed to end.

So Lewis figured he could use the same soil-vapor extraction technology that engineers used to clean up a site to detect the presence of harmful dry cleaning solvents. “I turned a cleanup tool and made it into an assessment tool,” Lewis says.

By inserting tubes into the ground on a site and sucking air out, Lewis could measure the solvent vapors and zero in on the contaminated sites within a 20-foot radius. That proved to be much more effective in detecting contamination than the unreliable dirt-scoop method.

What's in a name
Lewis worked on his method for nearly a decade before it became widely accepted in the last few years. “It was untested,” Lewis says. “It was just me saying it was a good idea.”

But word spread as HSA resolved problems at thorny sites that had seen jack-in-the-box contamination over many years. “Very few people have closed a contaminated chlorinated-solvent site,” Lewis says.

Lewis and HSA colleagues Brian Moore and Steve Kolsom created a manual for the state that outlines how to conduct the tests. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the method has been particularly effective in finding contamination that didn't show up in conventional tests.

Interestingly, recognition became widespread when Lewis gave the technique a name: Modified Active Gas Sampling, or MAGS. “When I gave it an acronym, it took off,” Lewis chuckles.

At a recent environmental conference, a speaker referred to MAGS in his presentation without the need to explain what it was because everyone knew. “That was very exciting,” Lewis says.

Branding MAGS
Lewis thought about obtaining a patent for the MAGS technique. But he knew that paying attorneys to protect the patent would be costly. Besides, he figured rival firms wouldn't pay HSA for the right to use the technique because it used existing technology.

So Lewis said anyone could use MAGS as long as they gave him and his firm credit. He reasoned correctly that ethical rivals would credit him for his work and that this would give HSA more branding value that would lead to more business in the long run.

Lewis says the idea is akin to what Adobe did with its Acrobat software. The software developer gave Acrobat away for free, establishing itself as the expert in that field and creating a valuable brand. Having done that, Adobe could sell more sophisticated software to those who might need it.

It's hard for Lewis to put a specific dollar figure on the brand value of MAGS, but it's much more than the direct revenues HSA has derived from the technique because of the name recognition it has developed. About 50% of the firm's annual revenues of $31.3 million in 2009 came from environmental work. “We're hired for our ability to think,” Lewis says.

That's why Lewis and his team of engineers are working on refining their system and finding new applications. While he doesn't want to tip his hand to the competition, he's working on obtaining about $200,000 in federal grants to conduct research to improve MAGS.

“The Department of Energy and the Department of Defense are very interested in this,” Lewis says. “They spend tremendous dollars to clean up sites.”

To move ahead, Lewis would likely need to hire more highly skilled engineers in Fort Myers. He needs the grants to fund the research. “My clients won't pay me to do research,” Lewis says. “They want to get their sites cleaned up.”

If Lewis gets the grants and can develop more sophisticated technology in this area, he says he's more likely to pursue patent protection. That's because he'd be creating new technology to more precisely detect pollution in the ground. “This is going to be more complex,” he says.

HSA Engineers & Scientists
Year Revenues %Growth
2007 $26.4 million
2008 $29.1 million 10%
2009 $31.3 million 8%

Company. HSA Engineers & Scientists
Industry. Engineering
Key. Giving away something for free might get you more business in the long run.


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