Allied Microbiota is a company using bacteria that literally eat pollution for lunch to clean contaminated soils and turn brownfields into green fields. We spoke with CEO Lauralynn Kourtz about the discovery of the Allied Microbiota strain, ThermO+™.
Watch and read an abbreviated version of the conversation below.
What compounds are in contaminated soils and how did they get there?
Many toxic compounds are the results of industrial processes. For example, a chemical plant or electrical plant may produce residues; these compounds would be really difficult ones, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or petroleum-based compounds like polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They can persist for decades, up to hundreds of years; these compounds have been designed to be really incredibly stable and persist a long time.
How does Allied Microbiota use its ThermO+™ strain to clean contaminated soils?
ThermO+™ is a pretty amazing microbe. It’s a natural microbe, yet it has the ability to break down really tough compounds like PAHs and PCBs. ThermO+™ effectively eats these compounds for lunch; it will take a compound, break the carbon-carbon bonds, and then use that compound to make a building block for cells to grow. The only byproducts are water, CO2, and that’s about it.
ThermO+™ is a natural microbe, but it can degrade these compounds that have been made by man. It was discovered by my co-founder, Ray Sambrotto, who scoured the globe while looking for solutions to these contamination problems. He discovered ThermO+™ and developed ways that we can grow it, make larger amounts of it, so that we can then deliver it to remove these contaminants.
To decontaminate soils, we add ThermO+™, provide it with the necessary ingredients it needs to live—heat, oxygen, and nutrients—and then it breaks down the contaminants. And ThermO+™ really loves heat; as soon as you bring the temperature down to normal temperatures, it won’t grow and the natural microbes in the soil will outcompete ThermO+™.
Working with a commercial partner, we’ve shown we can treat soil on the ton scale in ex situ soil very, very rapidly.
How is contaminated soil treated?
There are 2 ways to treat contaminated soil. One is ex situ, where someone actually comes and takes the soil away back to a facility where it can be decontaminated using various processes. In situ soil treatment is directly on the site of contamination.
These soils can be treated using various processes, one of which is thermal treatment: incinerating it to remove the contaminants. You have to heat it up to about 400 degrees Celsius; that will remove some of the contaminants and other techniques such as oxidation will oxidize the contaminants into something less harmful. Probably the most effective solution is incineration, where you burn dirt at 1800 degrees. That takes a lot of energy and requires you to dig up the soil, chuck it in an incinerator, and create significant greenhouse gas emissions. ThermO+™ is not only much more sustainable, it’s much less costly.
What opportunities exist to treat contaminated soils?
There are over 450,000 Brownfield sites in the U.S and over 1300 Superfund sites; these are EPA-designated toxic sites. Together, they contain about 100 billion tons of toxic soil—enough to cover New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania one-foot deep with soil that is toxic to you and me.
I previously worked across the street from a contaminated site in Boston. It was empty for decades, which is unheard of in Boston. It was considered worthless, because it was toxic. When it was cleaned up, the Genzyme Center was built, and today it’s worth over half a billion dollars and thousands of people work there.
A lot of the Superfund sites are in urban areas, the results of industrial processes which powered the creation of these towns; many of these sites are within the hearts of cities.
What does the future look like for Allied Microbiota?
I hope Allied Microbiota and ThermO+™ become the go-to solution to clean up the soil contaminants and air and water contaminants, and that as we scale, the technology will become much more accessible to people. Right now, people and developers and companies and towns decide based on financial factors that they can’t afford to clean up a site, and it stays vacant. As the technology grows, it will become accessible so that those decisions are shifted to yes, they can clean this up and it can become a productive area of town.
Learn more about Allied Microbiota and all of IndieBio New York Class 1 companies at Demo Day.