By SHARON UDASIN 01/01/2015

A technology hailing from the Hebrew University’s chemistry laboratories aims to tackle hydrocarbon contaminants at their chemical core, providing an efficient and affordable solution for cleanups like the country’s December oil spill.

After some 5 million liters of crude oil surged into the Arava Desert sands last month, the Environmental Protection Ministry-led rehabilitation venture is in the process of determining which technologies will be implemented in the newly approved NIS 17 million cleanup budget.

But the brainchild of Prof. Yoel Sasson and Dr. Uri Stoin from Hebrew University’s Casali Institute of Applied Chemistry recently underwent a pilot trial at the Nimra Landfill site in the desert, where the contaminated soils are being stored.

The technology, which was patented and commercialized by Hebrew University’s technology transfer company Yissum, was sold to the Swiss firm Man Oil Group about a year ago. Dr. Alex Mojon, head of Man Oil’s research and development team, oversaw the desert pilot on December 11.

The decontamination of the soil occurs by means of an agent called NHS+, which Mojon describes in a video of the pilot as a “hydrocarbon destructor” – or a chemical intermediate that is capable of completely destroying the hydrocarbons polluting the soil.

In the pilot experiment, the company made use of a 3-by-3-meter plot, containing about half a cubic meter of contaminated soil.

Within two hours, workers applied the NHS+ to the soil in three shifts, allowing the hydrocarbon destruction and chemical oxidation to proceed efficiently.

Afterward, the before and after soil samples were transferred to Sasson’s laboratory at the Casali Institute for examination.

“The first results show that at least 80-90 percent of the oil is fully decomposed,” Sasson said. “This means that it was converted from the hydrocarbons of the original oil, which are toxic of course and disastrous to the environment, to totally benign material – carbon dioxide and water.”

Backtracking slightly to acknowledge that carbon dioxide is not “total benign material,” as it causes global warming, Sasson explained that any carbon dioxide released is no more harmful than what would have been released had the oil been burned for fuel. In at least some part, the carbon dioxide is also converted to benign sodium carbonate.

“So it doesn’t change the balance,” Sasson said.

Using the NHS+ reagent to clean up oil spills provides particular advantages over traditional technologies that typically involve biological process, according to Sasson. In those cases, bacteria are essentially tasked with decomposing the oil, a procedure that can take many months or even years, he said. Such biological processes also require the removal of soil from the pollution site for treatment elsewhere.

His lab’s technology, on the other hand, allows for in-situ cleanup, at the site of the contamination, Sasson explained.

“They can simply inject it on the surface or underground, and do it on site,” he said. “This saves a lot of cost.”

NHS+ works not only on oil spills but on messes caused by any organic compound, Sasson added. For example, the reagent could be useful on the polluted soil at the former air force compounds in Ramat Hasharon or in Beit Hakerem in Jerusalem – both impacted by industrial solvents, he said.

The reagent also does not cause any further harm to the flora and fauna in the affected region, and instead allows after several months for the regrowth of populations destroyed by the oil spill, he added.

“Once you decompose the oil with the reagent, with time you convert the soil back to its original virgin state,” Sasson continued. “With time, after the first rain, it will start to flourish again.”

If the NHS+ reagent is applied to clean soil, it could potentially kill plants growing there. However, when an oil spill occurs, the chemical causes absolutely no further damage to the plants, and instead allows for their rejuvenation.

The reagent works toward “removing the oil and giving the soil the potential to revive again,” Sasson said.

While Sasson said he hopes that his and Stoin’s technology “will get at least part of the job” of cleaning up the Arava, he stressed that moving forward will be up to the Man Oil Group and the government.

Meanwhile, he and his laboratory colleagues are working on several other new innovations, including a self-cleaning wall coating that combines with cement and becomes photocatalytically active – active under radiation from light. A wall coated in this chemical will be able to decompose stains like mold on itself, as well as purify surrounding air polluted by nitrous oxides and other contaminants, Sasson explained.

Another technology that originated in Sasson’s lab is about to be the basis for a start-up that will begin operations in the next few months, with the help of the chief scientist in the Economy Ministry.

The scientists have developed a scrubber that can remove the mercury in flue gas emanating from coal-fired power stations, he explained.

“It’s a very serious global issue,” Sasson said.