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Technology Developed by Cal Poly Students Could Change How We Clean Oil Spills

Higea Technologies employees pose with a check for $5,000A Cal Poly startup company whose leadership team includes a student from the College of Science & Mathematics is developing technology to tackle one of the toughest issues facing the oil industry — cleaning up its spills.

Earlier this year, Higea Technologies began looking for a way to make clean up of large-scale crude oil spills less time consuming and less costly, says Parker Sommerville, a junior biochemistry major who serves as the startup’s director of chemical development.

“There is definitely a need to clean up oil spills in a more eco-friendly and cost-effective way,” Sommerville said.

The clean-up method being developed by Higea Technologies begins with pumping contaminated water onto a sea vessel, where it is mixed with a non-toxic chemical that binds to the oil. Because of the magnetic state of the chemical, the chemical and oil combination can then be separated from the water using magnets. The clean water is then sent back out into the ocean, and the oil is kept on the vessel and can eventually be resold.

Higea Technologies employees pose with a check for $5,000
Parker Sommerville (far left) and the Higea Techonolgies members pose
 with a check for $5,000 after winning TechPitch 2015. 
Photos from Cal Poly's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

This solution, Sommerville said, provides an alternative to what he and his partners see as expensive inefficiencies in the current methods of skimming, adding biological agents, or using chemical dispersants to break down oil.

The innovative solution earned the startup first place in this year’s Tech Pitch contest, held Wednesday, Oct. 21, at the Alex Madonna Expo Center in San Luis Obispo.

To win, the student entrepreneurs had to pitch a business plan to a panel of industry experts and investors. The Higea team went into the competition fresh off of a first-place win at Cal Poly’s Innovation Quest competition.

“Winning TechPitch further validates that we have a great idea,” Sommerville said. “We’re really excited to share this with people.”

Work on the project began around the same time as a ruptured pipeline released more than 100,000 gallons of oil into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Barbara.  Cleanup efforts in that spill stretched into August.

The company sees their technology not only as a benefit to the environment but also as a useful tool for oil companies.

“There’s an enormous amount of money that goes into cleaning up oil spills,” Sommerville said. “Providing an eco-friendly way to clean up these spills saves oil companies billions of dollars.”

Sommerville credits Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing approach with giving him and his partners the resources to excel in this innovative area.

“Being a part of this startup company and working with Cal Poly faculty has taught me how to run a business, how to research a new field, and how to develop a new technology,” he said. “It’s fantastic that there’s an environment that enables students to do that and pushes us to be greater.”

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