This image demonstrates satellite-assisted toxicity mapping. Image: Crown Bio Ltd.
of us are unaware of the hidden dangers that may be lurking in our
gardens and parks. A growing number of green areas in Europe are
redevelopments of land that used to belong to industrial facilities,
such as gas plants and oil refineries that can leave highly carcinogenic
pollutants in the soil. There are up to 300,000 contaminated sites that
need to be tested and treated across Europe, according to EU estimates.
are required to test and decontaminate the soil on former industrial
sites before they can be re-zoned as residential or leisure spaces. Yet
the limitations of current technology mean that chemical laboratory
tests are expensive, slow, and often miss out on hot-spots of toxicity in
the soil. Where most would see a huge problem, Ed Bell saw an
opportunity—so much so that he even mortgaged his house in order to
pursue his idea: to develop a cheaper and portable method of testing
soil for the most common pollutants, carcinogenic polyaromatic
the past ten years a team of six at Crown Bio Technology Ltd, UK,
(CBT), led by Bell, has developed a solution that practically anyone
could use, including homeowners themselves. Safe Soil Tester (SST) is a
high-tech, portable device confined to a briefcase, that is linked up
to GPS through the European Galileo satellites, which allows accurate
mapping of contamination and quick data transmission for analysis.
SST technology is primarily a toxicity screen—a fast way to say that
there is a problem and the soil may be carcinogenic,” says Bell. Bell is
somewhat of a James Bond of the environmental pollution sector, dashing
to meetings with government officials who would like him to develop
similar technologies to detect bio-warfare agents and nuclear radiation
in the fight against bio-terrorism.
This is a satellite view of brownland. Credit: Crown Bio Ltd.
got quite a large, one-off grant from EUREKA and had to raise 40% of
the costs ourselves. The success of the project was totally down to
EUREKA and the British government. They encouraged us to work with
researchers from other countries,” says Bell.
of collecting samples to take back to the lab, the portable SST can
easily be taken to the testing site and provides test results in a
matter of minutes. A soil sample extract is mixed with a sample of
bioluminescent bacteria, vibrio fischeri, which naturally produce
luminescence. “It’s a non-genetically modified, natural organism—we
weren’t allowed to use GMO in the EUREKA project. So it’s perfectly safe—it comes from the sea,” says Bell.
a soil sample is toxic, the microorganism dies and the instrument
detects the change of luminescence and measures it on the toxicity
scale. The test will thus pick up the combined toxic effect of even
small amounts of toxins in the soil, which would not have been picked up
by chemical testing.
tests taking only 12 to 15 minutes per sample, the SST device could be
used to find out in less than a day whether a field contains
carcinogenic toxins, and map precisely where the hot spots of the
pollution are. Simply put, it saves time and money.
from being crucial for getting the SST project off the ground, EUREKA
also helped link Crown Bio Technology with an important EU verification
programme and their biggest customer. The device is among the first to
be approved under the EU Environmental Technology Verification (ETV)
program. This recognition was a boon to Bell’s business, as people
take the device more seriously now that it is EU-approved.
What’s hidden in your garden? Credit: Crown Bio Ltd.
main buyers of the kit are National Environmental Agencies, large
industry users and their contractors, property developers and
consultants. The biggest buyer so far is UK Power Networks, a company
that operates almost 80,000 electricity transmission sites across
England where, because of the use of oil, they have to monitor and clean
up the soil. They recently purchased EDF Energy, a UK electrical
distribution company part of the French EDF group, which was one of the
initial EUREKA project beta-testers. “Their clean-up contractor tells us
we have saved them hundreds of thousands of pounds,” says Bell.
An expanding business
the UK alone, the chemical soil testing business is worth over £220
million a year ($350 million). But with lab tests costing up to £180 and
taking up to two weeks to provide results, the SST offers clear cost
advantages. At £15,000, the SST is a significant investment, but the
initial cost is balanced by the speed and accuracy of the device’s
results, and the subsequent cost per test is much lower than traditional
Bell’s team is not about to stop at testing soil for carcinogens. The
SST could be developed to detect other pollutants such as heavy metals,
radioactivity, and disease pathogens. Bell is currently negotiating the
development of other detectors with partners from Europe, the US,
Canada, Brazil, and the Middle East, related to military and government.
have also signed a commercial collaboration agreement with the UK
Health Protection Agency (HPA) to develop biological biosensors that
could pick up highly dangerous pathogens, such as anthrax, but some of
this is very secret as it’s the government,” says Bell, with Bond-like
discretion, before jetting off to another hush-hush international