By Candice D McLeod
Each week leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) finals on June 5th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will feature two articles on an SBIO semi-finalists. Meet semi-finalist Blue Box.
James Metropoulos founded Blue Box as an innovative method of cleaning industrial equipment with very few chemicals and at very low cost.
The product relies on a foam process, which allows companies to reduce their environmental footprint, and decreases cleaning downtime. It also increases energy savings for companies, because the less buildup there is on industrial equipment, the less energy is needed to operate.
“Three and a half years ago, I was studying oil refineries, and came across a foam process that they used to clean fin fans, which are everywhere in refineries. The fans get really dirty – you can’t dismantle them, and you can’t pressure wash them,” says Metropoulos, “This foam that they were using to clean the junkets caught my attention. But what also caught my attention is how well fin fans worked when they were clean.”
He then set out to develop a system that was compact, low-cost, and easy to use. The primary focus was on using the least amount of chemicals possible, as too many chemicals can be damaging to industrial equipment, and of course, also leave behind hazardous waste streams.
Several iterations later, he has been successful in designing Blue Box, a system that is able to reduce the amount of chemicals used in the cleaning process by approximately 90 percent, and at a much lower cost than traditional cleaning methods. In addition, this lower price tag combined with the ease of use and efficiency of the Blue Box foam process allows industrial users to clean their equipment more frequently, which reduces their energy bills and increases bottom-line profits.
“The current Blue Box is version number fifteen,” says Metropoulos. “The first system weighed 750 lbs, was designed to ﬁt in back of a pickup truck, required a forklift to load and unload. The current system weighs 25 lbs, can be brought on an airplane as carry on luggage, and costs 96 percent less than ﬁrst system.”
Blue Box’s foam process can also handle any type of required cleaning from degreasing to disinfecting. The system injects the equipment to be cleaned with air and the special foam, creating a washing machine effect.
Metropoulos says, “How the process works is proprietary, however, what we do is use a combination of a great property of micro bubbles, which acts as a micro jack hammer to break apart the buildup. The foam (or bubbles) also work to grab hold of the residues [on the equipment] and ‘carry’ them out. When the process is working, its remarkable how much junk gets pulled out. It just oozes out and is much different if you try to flush out [the equipment] with straight water – which will not ‘pull’ anything out.”
Finally, Blue Box defoams and then neutralizes the resulting solution, producing a byproduct that is essentially pH-neutral, dirty water. This “dirty water” is still treated as hazardous waste, however, and is disposed of properly.
His design has also ensured that Blue Box can handle a range of industrial equipment.
“A key thing I did which was really important, was that I took the time to get BlueBox used in several categories of industrial systems, such as cooling towers, heat exchangers, tanks, pipelines, compressor headers, water jackets, scrubbers, heating coils, evaporators, etc. And I did this with some pretty well-known companies and organizations, such as UCLA, Raytheon, Linde Corp, General Motors, and Moog Aircraft,” says Metropoulos.
However, he currently primarily uses the Blue Box system on cooling towers, which as the name implies, are systems which provide evaporative cooling for industrial processes.
“The reason why we are focusing on cooling towers is that 1) there are a lot of towers out there – 800,000 in U.S. alone. 2) There is no good way to clean a cooling tower. The current process is to use pressure washers, which destroy the tower’s packing. This practice is used because there is no other solution. 3) As there are no good ways to clean cooling towers, they often are neglected. Yet, if you get a tower clean, you can dramatically improve a facility’s operations. For us, we are looking at cooling towers as an ideal intro to plant managers and companies for them to see what Blue Box can do and gain their trust,” says Metropoulos.
In fact, the biggest challenge for Metropoulos and his team has been trying to convince industrial facilities to use Blue Box on multi-million dollar pieces of equipment.
He says, “I had to explain that it was safer [than traditional cleaning methods], and that I have full insurance. I said, ‘Give me your worst case scenario, where you have nothing to lose.’”
He presented this argument to the folks at Linde Engineering, a global industrial oil and gas company. They gave him a cooling tower, where the tower packing was due for a change, and Blue Box was able to clean 3,000 lbs of calcium compound buildup from the packing.
“It came out shining, then it was ‘Wow!’” he says.
The bonus was, however, the energy cost savings. When Linde operators turned the plant back on, they saved 20 percent in energy, because the cooling tower now required less energy to operate.
“We reduced their energy bill by $220,000 for the year. We also saved them $50,000 because they didn’t have to replace their packing,” says Metropoulos.
These days, Metropoulos and his team have to do less convincing, and are busy signing on new customers.
“Now we don’t have to prove that it works. Now it’s the phase where we are getting customers,” he says. “So, with our track record intact, we are now in pretty serious growth mode.”
These new customers include automotive giants such as General Motors and Chrysler.
Metropoulos says, “We are rolling this thing out. I have just arranged for a $2 million line of credit to go after large contracts and I am in the process of establishing operational partnerships in different parts of the country, including Detroit for the automotive industry. General Motors and Chrysler will most likely be our first ‘big’ adopters of Blue Box.”
Other key partnerships include chemical services company, King Lee Technologies, to oversee all of the chemistry and chemical procedures, as well as with environmentalist, Jean-Michel Cousteau, who assists the Blue Box team in introducing their product as part of “business sustainability programs” with current corporate clients.
Metropoulos says, “Another key partnership I have is with Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacque Cousteau and a leading world recognized environmentalist and ocean explorer. Mr. Cousteau, who fully endorsed Blue Box because of its reduction in the use of water, chemicals and hazardous waste streams, is very interested in introducing Blue Box and its concept of a new approach to solving environmental problems to business leaders, political leaders, and other environmentalists who are interested in finding new solutions.”
Overall, the Blue Box team considers themselves much more than an industrial cleaning services provider. Metropoulos states that BlueBox was created to be a platform that improves both sustainability and profitability for the industrial sector.
“It is not so much what Blue Box does, by what can it do the bottom line. Seventy percent of energy in the US. is consumed by the industrial sector; 50 percent of that energy is because these systems are running dirty,” says Metropoulos. “We are positioning Blue Box to be a new way of looking at how industrial users can clean equipment. The ultimate goal will be for people to ask, not if whether a company is green, but, are they Blue?”
Visit BlueBox to learn more about this innovative industrial cleaning system. You can also meet founder James Metropoulos at the Sustainable Brands Solution Expo at SB’13. Enter the discount NW3pSB13 for free entry.
Candice D. McLeod is the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open Co-Coordinator. She received a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies, concentrating in Energy Management & Policy, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @candicedmcleod.