BLACKSBURG — The final inventions of a Virginia Tech researcher who died in 2012 are about to come to life for the first time in one of the university’s labs.
Arthur Squires, a distinguished professor emeritus of chemical engineering, never got the chance to see his air-pollution-capturing system in the real world. But local businessman Steve Critchfield says he’s committed to carrying the idea across the finish line.
The goal is to create a filter for industrial exhaust systems that catches pollutants and then isolates them into a form that can be resold. Companies making rat poison would buy the recycled arsenic; nitrogen would go to fertilizer manufacturers.
Not only would the air coming out of power plant smoke stacks be cleaner, but companies could make money off selling their captured pollution — which otherwise would have disappeared into the atmosphere.
Steve Martin, a Virginia Tech chemical engineering researcher involved in the energy sector, said there’s a lot of political interest right now in Washington, D.C., surrounding what’s known as carbon capture technology.
The problem: It’s expensive and typically offers little incentive to install.
“So if you can make these more economical, utilities — whether that’s coal-fired power plants or natural gas-fired power plants — are going to be much more willing to retrofit or build new facilities incorporating this carbon capture technology,” Martin said.
Squires worked on his so-called panel bed filter through the mid-1990s and up until around the time of his death.
He knew Critchfield at the time through family friends. Squires also invested in Critchfield’s previous electronic payments company, Tele-Works, which was acquired in 2014 for a still-undisclosed sum.
“He made quite a bit of money on his investment,” Critchfield said. “Basically, he was pleased with the business decisions that myself and our board made. So he said, ‘Here’s another thing for you to work on.’ ”
Squires died in 2012, leaving an intellectual property portfolio to the Arthur M. Squires Irrevocable Trust. The trust, in turn, licensed the technology to Critchfield’s new company, Pulaski-based MOVA Technologies.
The deal calls for 25% of whatever profits Squires’ intellectual property generates to be returned to the trust. The trust is then instructed to distribute those funds to local charities focused on the arts, such as scholarship programs and community theaters.
“There’s some very big numbers thrown around,” trust director Luke Allison said. “Let’s just say if we were half correct, given the market study, the trust could be one of the biggest donors in the entire commonwealth for the arts.”
Critchfield said it cost about $100,000 to turn Squires’ provisional patents into full patents. Then he had to hire various experts and engineers to study the opportunity and build early models of Squires’ device.
The first operational prototype is under construction now. It will go to Virginia Tech’s Advanced Power and Propulsion Laboratory for its first round of proof-of-concept testing sometime this month.
Critchfield said he has raised about $500,000 for the company, mostly from local investors. He’s confident the tests will validate the late professor’s idea — but there are no guarantees.
The final version of the panel bed filter will be about the size of a large refrigerator, though the proof-of-concept model will be smaller for these early experiments.
The filter is made up of a series of chambers, each with a different so-called solid sorbent, or a material that latches on to certain chemicals. The sorbents will each be engineered to capture one specific pollutant, such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitric oxides.
Solid sorbents and carbon capture are not new technologies. Squires’ light- bulb moment, however, was the mechanical device that uses these concepts to sort contaminants.
The exhaust gas enters the filter full of various chemicals. It passes through the series of chambers, each filtering out one pollutant. When it’s finished, the gas is cleaner and the chambers each contain just one material.
Other filters on the market today finish with a slurry of pollutants all mixed together, which is typically unusable and must be stored as waste.
“That’s a mess,” Critchfield said. “So if it’s separated, you can sell it, that’s the key thing.”
Joseph Meadows, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering researcher, said the proof-of-concept testing will take about six months. But he plans to maintain the research relationship long after that.
“Through that process, we’re confident it’s going to open up new questions, potentially technical challenges that need to be addressed to provide direction for the development of the technology,” he said.
Both Meadows and Martin agree the invention has potential.
“Really, there’s no one tool fixes everything with this clean energy thing,” Meadows said. “All of these technologies have to come together to build a sustainable society. You really need research going on from every single angle to get this to work.”