Black History Month: An Interview with Valentine Nzengung, FNAI

Orginal interview recorded February 8th, 2022. 

“I have successfully developed and commercialized a chemical product that rapidly neutralizes and destroys explosives into non-hazardous end products. My invention offers a safer and easy-to-use solution for the disposal of military and commercial explosives and chemical warfare agents (CWAs). Rather than dispose of explosives by the traditional open burning and open detonation methods that pollute our air, soil and water, this invention offers a safer and greener alternative. The product is commercialized under the Trademark MuniRem by MuniRem Environmental, LLC and has been applied on four continents.

When I arrived at the University of Georgia in 1995, my goal was to develop an extramurally funded research program with a focus on developing more effective sorbents for hazardous chemicals (building on my doctoral research) and phytoremediation (my postdoctoral research). I was perhaps naïve in hoping that I could determine what research areas to focus on as an assistant professor with no grants. Thus, my first grant awarded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) led me to initially focus instead on the abiotic degradation of chlorinated solvents in groundwater. While I obtained grants to pursue research on developing organoclays for removing perchlorate and halogenated organic contaminants from water, phytoremediation of organic and inorganic contaminants, it is the knowledge gained during my first grant from the DOE that would lead to my most remarkable invention.

Out of curiosity, I asked my first graduate student in 1997 to add trinitrotoluene (TNT) to an aqueous solution of activated hydrosulfite used in her thesis research on abiotic degradation of chlorinated solutions to see what happens. No TNT was detected in the solution after a couple of hours, although the untreated sample showed a high concentration of TNT. I dismissed the results as an experimental error because it was too good to be true.

My research on phytoremediation of perchlorate led to the development of an in-situ bioremediation process for perchlorate, which was an emerging contaminant of great concern in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Anthropogenic perchlorate is used as an oxygen source in propellants and fireworks and may form naturally in the environment. Perchlorate has polluted trillions of liters of water worldwide, particularly at defense sites.

While performing a field demonstration and validation pilot test on in-situ bioremediation of perchlorate in soils at an open burn open detonation site at a former United States Department of Defense (USDoD) site, I observed pink water on the site soils after rainfall. I asked experts on military munitions about it, and they were surprised I did not know what the pink water was. They laughingly told me that the pink water signified

the presence of TNT. Laboratory results confirmed the presence of very high concentrations of TNT and other explosives in the soils. I thought I had a new problem to solve and collected multiple samples of the contaminated soils for my laboratory back at the University of Georgia.

I now had a TNT problem to solve and available soil samples. Meanwhile, attending and presenting my research on phytoremediation and bioremediation of perchlorate at DoD’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development (SERDP) and Environmental Security and Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) conferences informed me of the challenges and growing need for effective green technologies to dispose of explosives at defense sites. I built on the research from my first grant as an assistant professor and the preliminary test that was too good to be true in 1997 to design an abiotic treatment for the explosives contaminated soils that I had brought back to my laboratory. The success of the bench scale tests on chemical treatment of explosives contaminated soils led to an invention disclosure which I submitted to the University of Georgia Research Foundation (UGARF), and a patent was filed.

Efforts by the UGA technology commercialization office to license the intellectual property found no takers. I thought it was my opportunity to create a faculty-led business focused on the cleanup of explosives contaminated soils and groundwater. I approached the UGA technology commercialization office and negotiated an exclusive licensing agreement to develop and commercialize the invention.

I quickly found out that success at the bench scale under laboratory conditions does not translate to success in the field. While the first pilot scale test in the field was generally successful, I was dealing with chunks of explosives of different sizes and composition rather than residual constituents of TNT. I learned many lessons from this test, but I began to doubt my chances of success and feared what I had gotten myself into. I returned to the laboratory and developed an enhanced formulation of the product capable of rapidly neutralizing and destroying different types of bulk explosives and CWAs.

The initial formulation of the reagent I developed consisted of mixing multiple chemicals to initiate the desired reaction. In the dangerous world of bulk explosives neutralization, this process is unacceptable. During neutralization of the most sensitive explosives, specifically the poorly stored and unstable primary explosives such as Lead Styphnate, Lead Azide, Tetracene, etc., rapid 100% success is required all the time or there will be an accident and potentially fatalities. As a result, I had to blend all the chemicals together in proportions that yielded optimum and near instant neutralization and destruction of explosives into the desired non-hazardous end products – a differentiator among chemical methods for explosives destruction.

To date, I have formulated a total of six commercialized products that are optimized to neutralize and destroy commercial and military explosives, CWAs and their precursors, and for the remediation of chlorinated solvents and metals in soil and water. The product is a white powder dissolved in freshwater or sea water at the time of use and added to the explosives to achieve a rapid and moderately exothermic reaction with complete destruction of the explosives.

The saying that people always doubt what they do not know is very true in the explosives manufacturing and use industry. It has taken me almost ten years to convince the demilitarization and explosives remediation community that there is a versatile, scalable, and effective alternative to the destruction and disposal of explosives and chemical warfare agents.

I have learned in this process that to achieve successful commercialization of a disruptive invention requires not only believing in the invention, but also developing an easy-to-use product challenged under different scenarios, maintaining a good amount of patience, and resilience. Despite the many unforeseen challenges, I did not quit.

My advice to other researchers is to venture into new areas and leverage the knowledge you already have. I would never have dreamt that I could develop a solution for the safe disposal of tons of highly unstable dynamite with nitroglycerine oozing out and spreading all over the explosives storage magazines. I am often asked why I put my two sons with engineering degrees in danger by having them work with me in disposing unstable explosives. Well, it is not because I want to put my sons in any danger. I will never do that to my sons or anybody. I believe in my invention, its effectiveness when applied correctly, and the value it offers to get rid of commercial explosives and military munitions on land and in our oceans.

Please refer to this YouTube video to watch a short demonstration of MuniRem’s effectiveness at the bench scale.”