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How Jacqueline Quinn Helped Make Earth a Cleaner Place to Live

Clean groundwater is among our nation’s most important natural resources. From providing drinking water to over half of the U.S. population to growing crops and helping produce thermoelectric power, its significance is difficult to overstate.

Because our clean groundwater supplies are susceptible to contamination from sources including hazardous waste sites, septic systems and chemical storage tanks, environmental remediation solutions that can clean this resource have become essential.

National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Jacqueline Quinn contributed greatly to this field by co-inventing an environmentally safe cleanup technology called emulsified zero-valent iron (EZVI) while working at NASA. Read below to learn more about this incredible invention, and about Quinn’s impressive career.


A Passion for Science

Born on July 19, 1967, in Athens, Georgia, from an early age, Quinn shared a love for science with her parents both of whom were science educators. Her dad taught at a university and specialized in early science education, and to this day Quinn has many fond memories of spending time in his lab as a child. 

“I don’t know that I really had any options but to be pretty heavily involved in science just because it was so natural in my upbringing,” Quinn said in an interview with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Quinn continued to pursue her passion for science and graduated from Georgia Tech with an undergraduate degree in civil engineering. Through this experience, she became interested in environmental engineering, and the ability of technology, mathematics and science to help improve, sustain and preserve nature.


The Creation of EZVI

After earning her master’s and doctorate degrees in environmental engineering from the University of Central Florida (UCF), Quinn began working for NASA on its space shuttle program. Quinn then switched professional gears and in the late 1990s, she and her team began exploring ways to more effectively clean concentrations of the harmful chlorinated solvent contaminates NASA used in the degreasing of rocket engines. During this time, the standard approach involved pumping the contaminated groundwater out of the earth and treating it with iron, and then pumping the water back into the ground. However, the process was slow, and Quinn estimates that at best this method was only able to treat up to 100 pounds of contamination over a year.

In response, she and a team of researchers from UCF developed a more effective cleanup technology called emulsified zero-valent iron, or EZVI.

“Our vision was to take the reactants and encapsulate them within an oil bubble,” Quinn said in an interview with Tech Briefs. “If you go by the old adage that ‘like likes like,’ what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to encapsulate the reactants in something that we know the contaminant is attracted to.”

By injecting EZVI into contaminated groundwater, the system acts like a sponge, pulling the contaminant into the emulsion where it then breaks down into harmless byproducts.

In an interview with NIHF, Quinn explained that while NASA is known for its work in outer space, EZVI is proof that the organization also develops revolutionary technologies to use on our planet as well.

“EZVI is one of the most licensed technologies for NASA to date,” Quinn said. “Most people think of NASA as having space and airspace, and up and out — and one of the technologies that’s been licensed the most is actually one that’s literally down and in.”

Today, the EZVI system has decontaminated groundwater supplies on government sites and near plants that manufacture dyes, chemicals, aerosols, paint and more.


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