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N.J. firm buys environmental technologies


Research into solutions for dealing with hazardous wastes is an expensive and time-consuming process. Equally challenging once the research is completed, is taking a technology and putting it to work for one of the more than 400,000 generators of hazardous waste or at one of the more than 30,000 hazardous waste sites in the United States.

Although most companies prefer to take their own technologies to market, one company has chosen to focus on the second part of the equation by acquiring the technologies of others.

SDTX Technologies Inc. of Princeton, N.J., is a small company with a big appetite for new technologies. Conceived as a "problem-oriented" rather than a service-oriented site remediation company, this venture capital start-up firm has plans to assemble a broad portfolio of technologies in a cross-section of hazardous waste clean-up niches.

SDTX collared more than 10 U.S. patents in 1989 from the Franklin Institute Research Laboratory in Philadelphia, where original research on dechlorination was done and 32 foreign chemical and biochemical patents. Three additional patents were acquired in 1990 and six more applied for, all in the dechlorination field. SDTX plans to take the most promising technologies to pilot scale and full commercialization. "Our goal is to identify a critical mass of technology," says R. Douglas Hulse, president and chief executive officier. As these technologies are acquired, SDTX will work with "conventional remediation companies by offering technical expertise and joint bidding on contracts." Also targeted as clients are waste generators for end-of-pipe projects and pollution prevention.

SDTX was created by 6-year-old Captiva Capital Ltd. of Denver, a private merchant bank controlled by the Frederick Mayer family. Captiva has invested $1.25 million in SDTX, set up originally to commercialize research at Texas A&M; University, and the company is looking for additional financing from venture capital and other sources. With an "an active interest" in environmental companies, Captiva has also invested in Tetra Industries of Houston, Rooney Cos. of Denver and fellow investment firm First Analysis of Chicago, according to Vice President Robert Sawyer, who runs Captiva's Houston office.

Initially, SDTX will focus on the destruction of halogenated organic materials, including PCBs, dioxins, other chlorinated aromatics and chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents such as TCE -- all of which are found at many hazardous waste sites. The company is currently developing three families of technology, offsprings of the chemical process development industry. Both Hulse and Vice President of Technology Robert Hoch have strong backgrounds in the chemical process industry and, more recently, in venture capital activities.

One technology involves a superoxide ion. Until now, the superoxide ion process had only been used commercially to generate oxygen in submarines. The SDTX application will be the first to use it to destroy PCB molecules, hexachlorobenzene and other chlorinated hydrocarbons. Hulse says that SDTX is close to commercializing this technology. The superoxide ion can be generated electrochemically and by an in situ chemical method.

SDTX is also working on active hydrogenation, a family of processes which uses a hydrogen carrier to dechlorinate PCBs but leaves the hydrocarbon structure intact. The company is now negotiating a contract for a demonstration project to handle chlorinated waste at an offshore vinyl chloride plant. The third technology was developed in 1978 at the Franklin Institute and acquired by SDTX in 1989, is now being licensed to SoilTech Inc., a subsidiary half owned by Canonie Environmental Services. The KPEG technology reacts sodium or potassium hydroxide or metals with polyethylene glycolate, and the reagent is used to detoxify PCBs and dioxins.

Because technology development entails a considerable amount of capital, SDTX "is trying to piggy-back on larger organizations" such as the National Environmental Technology Applications Corp. of Pittsburgh, which is now engaged in process development and treatability studies for the company.

"Part of our intent is to leverage off other people's research. . . and to get access to talented people at a reasonable cost," says Hulse. This way, when business is slow, SDTX doesn't have a huge staff to support, he adds.

Grant Ferrier is editor of the Environmental Business Journal, San Diego.

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