EPA Awards Funding for Safe Pigment Research
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the award of over $3 million in funding, split between 30 American small businesses with the goal of developing novel technologies to address pressing environmental and public health problems.
“As emerging technologies continue to rapidly change the world, our nation’s small businesses are at the forefront of harnessing these technologies to address today’s environmental challenges,” said Wayne Cascio, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “We are excited to watch these small companies bring innovative ideas to the marketplace and help revolutionize improving our environment, public health and the economy.”
The funding was awarded through the EPA’s annual, two-phase competition for its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. Awarded for the first phase, the 30 awarded companies will utilize their funding for six months for “proof of concept” of their proposed technology.
Companies that successfully complete Phase I can apply to receive Phase II funding of up to $400,000 to further develop and commercialize their technology.
Of the companies awarded, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Kebotix, Inc. received $99,910 for the development of safe diarylide pigment alternatives that do not produce polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or other toxic byproducts.
Diarylide pigments are organic compounds ubiquitous to such applications as commercial and home printing. These pigments usually provide bright colors and good stability at low cost, which reportedly leads to the global production of more than 50,000 tons per year.
“Kebotix’s entire mission is to help solve Earth’s most challenging environmental and sustainability problems, so the EPA selecting this technology platform company to develop safer pigments and synthetic pathways makes tremendous sense,” said Bruce Mulholland, holder of 15 patents in color and appearance technologies.
“As the demand for textiles, plastics, paint and coatings and construction grows, so does the need to expeditiously discover new materials and manufacturing routes that do not produce PCBs and other toxic byproducts.”
The funding was awarded in the programs “Safer Chemicals” category. For the research, Kebotix plans to use its platform that accelerates discovery of new chemicals through artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.
“This is a momentum builder for Kebotix’s existing work in the space of environmentally friendly and non-toxic pigments,” said Dr. Semion Saikin, Kebotix's Chief Science Officer. “The EPA funding enables us to accelerate engagement with companies expressing interest in testing and buying new halogen- and heavy metal-free pigments that our technology discovers and develops.”
According to Kebotix, the platform involves deep-learning algorithms for the prediction of molecular properties, synthetic routes and high-throughput computational modeling of molecules in addition to automated synthesis and characterization controlled by proprietary machine learning methods.
“While our platform is advancing next-generation of specialty chemicals that are sustainable, environmentally friendly and economical, the closed-loop approach to the design and discovery of pigments is uniquely efficient,” Saikin added. “The reason is it intentionally includes UV and thermal stability of materials in addition to their compatibility in the generation of virtual libraries. In turn, this approach will translate into a reduced cost of pigment design and scaled-up production.”
In 2019, the state legislature directed the Washington State Department of Ecology to implement a regulatory program to reduce toxic chemicals in consumer products, known as the “Safer Products for Washington.”
At the time, the legislature identified five priority chemical classes: flame retardants; Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); Phenolic compounds; and Phthalates. The law requires Ecology to identify priority consumer products that are significant sources or uses of the chemical classes.
The law reportedly requires the DOE to designate priority chemical classes, identify products that contain these chemicals, determine regulatory actions and adopt rules to implement regulatory actions.
By September of that year, the DOE officially identified Food cans (bisphenols) and Paints (PCBs). Ecology released a report that provides further details on the program. PCBs as an issue was brought to the surface again in May 2020 when the DOE added paint to the list of priority consumer products under the Safe Products program, citing iPCBs as a reason.
A year later, the DOE announced that it would be moving forward in its inquiry of iPCBs in paint in a slated webinar. During the online event, the DOE shared findings on feasible and available alternatives and outlined potential PCB restrictions on paint (including for architectural wall coatings, spray paints, traffic paints and children’s art paints).
The presentation said that its analysis “currently supports a restriction on PCBs in paints consistent with RCW 70A.350” (The Pollution Prevention for Health People and Puget Sound Act).
The DOE also provided information on the testing that was completed. The DOE suggested that approximately 89% of the coatings it tested for PCBs were below 25 parts per billion and 78% below 10 ppb. The department also suggested that a possible future prohibition level could be based on either the 10 ppb or 25 ppb levels.
The following month, the DOE announced that it would be proposing its decision on whether to prohibit PCB levels in paint in October.
Earlier this month, the DOE published its draft report, defining affected paints as “building paint for indoor and outdoor use, spray paint, children’s paint and road paint.”
While the DOE is not proposing a regulatory approach for the paints at this time, it has included an estimated amount of paints sold within the state with additional studies predicting how PCBs from the paint could leach into the environment.
The American Coatings Association’s Product Stewardship Committee and PCB Workgroup are monitoring the ongoing issue and are reportedly engaged with Washington DOE. In regard to the draft report, the ACA reports that it has commented on whether the listing of paints with inadvertent PCBs meets listing criteria that “safer and feasible” alternatives are available and whether the scope of affected products is adequately justified.
DOE is accepting comments on its draft report through Jan. 28, 2022, and will be hosting related webinars on Jan. 5, 2022.
The department is slated to report back to the state legislature with any proposed regulatory actions by June 1, 2022, and adopt any such regulations by June 1, 2023.