Despite all the new efforts in clean technology, our world still bears the scars of many years of dirty technologies. One particularly nasty leftover is an industrial degreaser called trichloroethylene (TCE), which is found in more than 60 percent of U.S. Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites. Now, a new genetically-engineered poplar tree could provide a cost-effective way to bioremediate — use living things to return the environment to its natural state — the 1,200 remaining uncleaned Superfund sites, and the skyrocketing number of polluted areas created by China’s meteoric economic rise.
The team of scientists, led by the University of Washington’s Sharon Doty, published their findings online in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their trees, pumped up with a rabbit gene for producing enzymes, were able to break down 91 percent of the TCE in a lab test at 100x the speed of normal poplar trees.
Competing technologies generally use a lot more energy and can have deleterious environmental impacts. The transgenic trees face regulatory hurdles in the U.S. (pdf) and Europe, but an even bigger question is whether or not bioremediation companies will be able to attract private capital to commercialize these technologies.
Venture capital firms have largely ignored environmental remediation companies since investments made in the early 1990s failed to deliver the kinds of returns that investors seek. An EPA report from the time (pdf) summarized the problems that befell the remediation industry later in the decade:
“[There was] a fundamental shift in U.S. environmental policy, a growing emphasis on economic instead of regulatory drivers to improve environmental practices, increasing emphasis on pollution prevention instead of pollution control, and a focus by manufacturers on cutting costs.”
Bioremediation was seen as, at best, a modest business, but certainly not a growth market.
But three things have changed in the last decade. First, venture capital has flooded into the greentech/cleantech sector, sending money over the banks of the biofuel river to less-crowded areas like water treatment. Second, new bioremediation approaches, including strategies using plants (known as phytoremediation), are using disruptive technologies that can be implemented across a variety of geographies at relatively low cost and with much less on-site engineering. Third, China has come of age as a world-class polluter to go along with its high-powered economy.
A presentation by Yongming Luo of the Chinese Academy of Sciences last year laid out a renewed focus in China on bioremediation of polluted environments, stating that bioremediation research would be supported in China over the next five years. And for good reason: more than 10 percent of the country’s arable land is polluted. As Bryant Tong of Nth Power said last November, “China will be the driver for cleantech in the future.”
In a cleantech investing environment in which many sectors are seeing overinvestment, bioremediation companies seem likely to get some looks from investors, especially those looking to cash in on the economic opportunity of China’s ecological destruction.