When Iraqi troops retreated from Kuwait 21 years ago following the 1990 invasion by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, they set fire to hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells and opened spigots at others in a wasteful retribution as they withdrew.
The environmental disaster left in their wake has become a $15.1 million business opportunity for a start-up environmental firm in metro Milwaukee that patented a process to separate oil from sand and soil.
"This is a massive job," said Mohsen Amiran, a chemical engineer who spent his career developing environmental remediation technologies. Two years ago, Amiran, 62, founded Amiran Technologies LLC to develop ways to commercialize a lifetime of research.
Amiran Technologies remains small, with 18 engineers and marketers in the office in Oak Creek. The firm is bidding on a raft of other potential projects in the United States and abroad.
But for now, its contract in Kuwait stands as its first big milestone. The United Nations War Reparation Fund, financed mainly from Iraqi oil revenue, recently allocated $3 billion for the long-overdue cleanup.
Until now, Kuwait simply dug up tons of oil-contaminated sand and soil and dumped it into pits in the desert - one pit for each of the 600 Kuwaiti oil wells that Saddam's forces either blew up, spilled or set on fire. Much of the U.N. funding will go to minesweepers, which are necessary to finally begin environmental remediation work in earnest.
And $15.1 million goes to Amiran, specifically to its oil-separation subsidiary called Biogenesis Enterprises Inc.
According to Amiran executives, oil spills are uniquely vexing environmental problems. Many just dump oil-contaminated soil into landfills or incinerators, which can create other environmental problems.
Amiran, who holds two doctorates in chemistry, developed a reactor that uses jets of water and nontoxic chemicals, which are roughly as potent as dish detergent, to separate oil and other industrial contaminants like mercury or PCBs from sands and soils. It's able to strip contaminants at the micron level, meaning the process works not only on sand but on particles of earth the size of talcum powder.
The company already has been testing large-scale versions of the reactor in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The idea is to cleanly separate the oil from the sand and "give the Kuwaitis clean, construction-grade sand and refinable oil for sale," said Phil Skrade, chief executive of Amiran Technologies. "It's a form of recycling," said Paul Chadwick, a marketing executive at Amiran.
The volume of oil to be reclaimed in Kuwait is at least 10 times greater than that from the BP oil spill two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico. In some places, the oil has seeped more than 40 feet into the desert soil, Amiran said.
"The oil spilled by Iraq's troops was about 60 million barrels, or about $5 billion worth in today's dollars," Amiran said.
If Amiran successfully cleans three contaminated pits, Kuwait told Amiran that it likely would give the Oak Creek firm additional work. Skrade said he expects the Kuwait cleanup to become a 20-year project.
The technologies grew out of Amiran's interests as a chemical engineer.
Born in Iran, Amiran left after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah. He took his family, including his son Sherwin, who was 3 months old at the time and now works as a managing partner at his father's company.
The Iranian scientist became a U.S. citizen and academic, lecturing at the University of Essex in Britain and Northwestern University in Chicago. But his work in oil remediation traces back to 1989 following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
He's developing a number of chemical processes to separate metals and industrial contaminants. Other projects could involve the oil sands regions of Canada, where Amiran Technologies is pursuing a contract for oil separation from the tar shale.
The company is also studying the cleanup of the Fox River, where the EPA is dredging PCBs.
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