Could a 100-foot robotic arm be the answer to the seemingly intractable pollution problem at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach?
Ruben Garcia thinks so, and he's piqued the interest not only of terminal operators but officials at the powerful--and often skeptical--California Air Resources Board.
Garcia is president of Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc., a $30 million Rancho Dominguez-based business that develops technology and provides services for cleaning up environmental mishaps, such as oil spills. Now the company is developing a technology that it claims could dramatically reduce air-borne pollutants in Southland ports.
The technology is essentially a large arm that reaches out and places a bonnet over the smoke stack of an idling ship or train. It sucks the exhaust into a system that filters out 95 percent to 99 percent of the harmful sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.
"We see this technology being implemented around the globe. It could dwarf the rest of our business if we can get it certified," Garcia said. His 12-year-old firm, which he runs with his wife and brother, expects to pour up to $5 million into the venture by this summer.
The technology, called the Advanced Maritime/Locomotive Emissions Control System, is still in the development stage but is scheduled to be tested at the Roseville Rail Yard outside of Sacramento in June under the auspices of the Air Resources Board.
Should the test be successful, the technology could help solve a tricky problem at the ports: how to reduce pollution generated by ships that can't shut off their engines while idling.
It's a sore point because the question of how to reduce port pollution while encouraging imports and exports has become a political issue, with nearby residents on one side and business interests on the other.
According to the Coalition For Clean Air, residents living near the ports are exposed to some of the highest levels of pollution in the state, with the amount of air pollution blowing inland every day from the two ports equal to the amount of air pollution generated by 3 million cars.
"We understand we have to be business friendly at the port but we also have to be more environmentally friendly," L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, recently told the Business Journal. "But we must also green our ports, or the people around the ports will sue us to stop growing the ports."
The system involves the use of integrated technologies developed by three partners: Loveland, Colo.-based S.A. Robotics, Alpharetta, Ga.-based Argillon LLC and Owosso Owosso (owos`o), city (1990 pop. 16,322), Shiawassee co., S Mich., on the Shiawassee River; inc. 1859. Chief products include auto parts, corrugated containers, and boats. Livestock is also raised. Owosso is the birthplace of Thomas E. Dewey.-Mich.-based Tri-Mer Corp.
S.A. Robotics built the 100-foot laser-guided robotic arm, which the company claims is the longest fully automated robotic arm in the world. It lifts a half ton filtering bonnet, about the size of a small truck, and places it over the smoke stack like a hat. The whole system sits on a barge and is designed to hold the bonnet steady amid sea swells.
Argillon makes the nitrogen oxide filtration device, which produces nitrogen, water and salt as by-products. Tri-Mer is assembling the entire system.
"The filtration isn't the secret here," said Matthew Stewart, Advanced Cleanup's project leader and executive vice president. "It's the technology used in keeping the bonnet secured over the stack that's the most revolutionary aspect."
Currently, a procedure called cold ironing is being used by China Ocean Shipping Co. in the port of Los Angeles to reduce pollution. Cold ironing works by electrically powering the auxiliary engines of large ships while they're berthed at the terminal. However, retrofitting each ship for cold ironing costs well over $100,000, and there's the question of the reliability of electrical supplies given the rolling blackouts during the last several years.
"It costs a shipping company about $16,000 to remove a ton of pollution with cold ironing" Stewart said. "Our system costs about $6,400 per ton."
Garcia estimates that completed systems will probably cost about $4.5 million each and both area ports would need about 30 combined to handle the volume of ships. The current business plan calls for them to be leased to terminal operators for $3 million a year over a 10-year lease; that price includes operations and service.
Advanced Cleanup has been presenting its system to various stakeholders at the ports, including terminal operators, government agencies and environmental groups. Kevin Hayes, a vice president with Long Beach Container Terminal Inc., a 104-acre, three-berth terminal at the port of Long Beach, said, "it seemed like a great idea--if they can prove that it works.
"We'd be interested in something like that because I can see how in the near future having a cleaner terminal could be a competitive advantage," Hayes said.
The presentations also have drawn the interest of the California Air Resources Board, which is awaiting the results of the June tests.
"If those tests come back and reveal this technology does what it says it does, we are definitely following through with it," said Air Board spokeswoman Karen Caesar.
Advanced Cleanup is manufacturing the system at Tri-Mer's headquarters and will have it trucked to the Roseville Rail Yard for testing.
"We thought developing the technology was going to be the hard part," Garcia said with a chuckle. "But getting it implemented is proving to be pretty difficult as well."
However, his optimism is far from universally shared.
Daniel Hinerfeld, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the environmental group has witnessed many visionary proposals aimed at reducing pollution that, so far, amounted to little.
"We've seen several ideas like this and none have yet to materialize," he said. "We don't mean to sound so skeptical, but a lot of ideas end up being these pie-in-the-sky projects that end up helping no one."