Environmental cleanup technology for the space program earns NASA’s Quinn a spot in Inventors Hall of Fame

Monday, February 19, 2018
Jacqueline Quinn explains how Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron works to clean contaminated groundwater in this video produced for her induction into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame in 2016. Quinn is part of the 2018 class of inductees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She earned her bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech in 1989.
Jacqueline Quinn, an environmental engineer with NASA and a 1989 graduate of Georgia Tech, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May. (Photo Courtesy of Jacqueline Quinn)

The National Inventors Hall of Fame will add Georgia Tech civil engineer Jacqueline Quinn to its list of “the greatest innovators” in our country in May.

Quinn, who earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering in 1989, is part of the 2018 class of inductees announced Jan. 23 in Popular Science. She’s being honored for her role in developing a cleaning technology to remove chlorinated solvents from the groundwater around Kennedy Space Center in Florida left over from the early days of the space program.

“I’m definitely humbled by the enormity of impact generated collectively by my fellow Hall of Fame inventors,” said Quinn, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental engineering at the University of Central Florida and worked with scientists there to develop their technology, called Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron.

“Our team had a special energy that has repeatedly been successful,” she said. “People have asked me many times about our team dynamics, and what I point back to is how we all are very different in our approaches. Because of this, we each bring a unique perspective. Our diversity is what has made us successful.”

NASA used chlorinated solvents to clean rocket engine parts during the Apollo program, contaminating areas around the missions’ launch pads. Similar chemicals also pollute the environment at other government and commercial facilities, so Quinn’s team wanted to find a new way to remove them. Their solution was quick, efficient and cost-effective.

“Our team chose to take a different approach to using reactants in the subsurface,” Quinn said, “trying to encapsulate them in a system that would behave like the contaminant of interest so they didn’t repel each other.”

Their process puts nano-sized iron particles in a biodegradable emulsion of water and oil that’s injected into contaminated groundwater. The emulsion pulls in the contaminant, breaking it down into nontoxic hydrocarbons that further break down organically underground.

The EZVI works so well, it’s licensed commercially and used by companies around the world. At one time, it was NASA’s most-licensed technology.

Quinn started out at NASA in the space shuttle program working on environmental controls and the life-support system. After a few years, she moved into stormwater design and groundwater cleanup.

“When I started the groundwater cleanup work is when I recognized how ‘youthful’ the science surrounding environmental cleanup really was,” she said. “It was during this time that I started to do technology development. I always wanted to work in the environmental field, and having the opportunity to do that while also working for NASA was an incredible opportunity. I feel extremely lucky.”

Quinn currently works on environmental and lunar-focused research, including her current role as the payload project manager for a lunar water mining mission in development. NASA is evaluating the mission for an early 2020s launch. Meanwhile, she also has created other innovations with the UCF team.

“I have worked with this team on a number of environmental technologies over the years, and as a [Hall of Fame] inductee, I was asked to select one technology to be highlighted. This was an easy choice, given EZVI’s commercial success,” she said. “Our team has another technology just entering the commercial sector that I hope proves to be equally as impactful.”