T-2: Faces of Technology

Jackie Quinn had an idea. What if the system NASA developed for removing contaminants from building paint could also be used to clean up the environment? The engineer demonstrated NASA resourcefulness, starting out with a couple of plastic drinking straws she grabbed from a cafeteria at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

To remove PCBs from paint and other elements in its buildings after hurricane damage in the early 2000s, Kennedy devised a system that uses a benign reagent, or a reaction-causing substance, to attract and trap the contaminants. Quinn wanted to see if the technique could be adapted to get the contaminant out of the water near the buildings, too. As a first attempt, she heat-sealed the ends of her drinking straws, filled them with the reagent, capped them and placed them in a liquid containing PCBs.

It worked in a matter of hours.