Chemical spills on a river, lake or ocean shoreline are a top priority for Calgary entrepreneur Stephen Neal. He likes to tackle these accidents as quickly and completely as possible using his highly-effective containment technology. Now, with the help of the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), he has been able to expand the potential of his approach and bring it to clients all over the world.
Neal's company, Canadian Floating Fence Corporation (CFFC), employs a portable containment system called XBOOM, which is made up of polypropylene mesh filters that can separate water and oil, as well as collecting material on and below the water's surface. Originally developed by his father in the 1990s, Neal established the firm in 2010 to commercialize and patent the system with his brother Mark. Since then they have found themselves travelling from one watery mess to another, where local observers have been regularly impressed with the speed and effectiveness of the resulting clean-up. In one case hydraulic fluid from a construction site had leaked into the North Saskatchewan River, a problem that was reported in mid-afternoon and mopped up by Stephen and Mark before noon the next day.
"When the emergency management officer called back Alberta Environment to say the work was done, the gentleman on the other end of the phone said ‘What did you do, send elves?'" Neal recalls.
Nor does he mind being regarded as the elf who magically meets even the most daunting of pollution challenges. Even when the problem does not look all that serious, the impact of his efforts can be profound. In 2016, he was invited by representatives of the James Smith Cree Nation in Melfort, Saskatchewan to help them deal with an oil spill on the Saskatchewan River that was blamed on Husky Energy. From shore it was hard to see anything was amiss, Neal says, but the XBOOM and a sphagnum moss product called Peat Sorb sopped up large amounts of emulsified oil in short order. Just as importantly, he adds, the recovery shed new light on the scale of the problem.
"We weren't just containing an oil spill," he concluded. "We were collecting critical evidence!"
Peter Beaulieu, the IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) who has worked with Canadian Floating Fence since 2012, has watched XBOOM grow from something Neal was tinkering with in his garage to a sophisticated tool with a number of different applications. It can be deployed in a matter of minutes with only a few people and a simple towing vessel, which makes it inexpensive to operate.
"It's very compact and out-of-the-way, but when they need it, it's there," explains Beaulieu. "They can just throw it in the water and it just shoots out. It's very quick and the technology is just incredible. Their customers and their partners really like it."
He worked through the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), an organization that collaborates with IRAP to help the business community with its research and development needs. SAIT offered Neal the use of its facilities to refine the XBOOM design and test a prototype with new capabilities, such as removing bacteria from the water. The City of Edmonton was grateful for such progress in 2015, when a pond selected as part of an international triathlon event became overgrown with toxic blue-green algae that would have prohibited swimming. XBOOM made it possible to restore the water quality and allow the event to proceed.
"Our product, by design, can catch so many things, and not just cyanobacteria," says Neal. "We found that we can put a coating on it to pull out mercury."
That prospect has drawn attention from far and wide, including Canadian pulp mill operators who want their wastewater flow to meet government standards and American indigenous groups coping with the remediation of mining sites. CFFC has recently partnered with 2 First Nations business groups and have just been awarded a contract from the United Nations Environment Programme to remediate the Ogoni Land oil spills in Nigeria.
Neal, for his part, has been logging a lot of air miles to meet the demand.
"We're cleaning up tailings ponds in Mexico, spills in Trinidad, we're doing a demonstration for the US Navy in Guam and Puerto Rico, it doesn't stop," he says.
Neal was impressed by his ITA's input into the project, bringing sound advice, linking the company with other industries in the sector and making sure of all business details.
"Peter Beaulieu, our IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor, became a Mentor — someone who hounds you, in a caring way, to get things done."
"He was of invaluable help with paperwork, a necessary evil that most innovators fight. I remember one day that he called me and said "you must come to my office and bring your papers". It felt like I was going into the principal's office. But Peter persisted and I now realize that he was a critical link to our success. And for that I'm thankful!"