Applied Research and Innovation Services

Environmental clean-up a family affair

Environmental clean-up and the XBOOM

Canadian Floating Fence Corporation (CFFC) is a private Canadian Corporation based in Calgary, Alberta. Their XBOOM® product line is used globally for the containment and environmental clean-up of water and soil contamination. SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services department partnered with CFFC in 2011 to test, validate and verify the efficacy of XBOOM’s polypropylene mesh components for go-to-market.

It was February 1970 when James Neal turned on the news and watched as disaster unfolded at Chedabucto Bay. The SS Arrow had encountered rough seas and ran aground off the coast of Nova Scotia, falling victim to the notorious Cerberus Rock.  Her cargo: 10 million litres of “Bunker C” oil.

Within a day, a mile-long oil slick was headed for Cape Breton in what would eventually become one of the worst oil spills in Canadian history. All said and done, 8,000 tonnes of oil spoiled 300 kilometres of shoreline and killed 2,500 sea birds.

Who wouldn’t be angry? The event was predictable, yet there seemed no remedy available to mitigate its consequences.

A telephone engineer by trade and a mad scientist at heart, James was never short on ideas. And wife Pauline, surrounded by the chaos only four sons can create, was all too willing to embrace the madness – so long as nobody burned the house down.

The Neal family set out to prove more could be done to lessen the impact of maritime incidents like tanker spills. Today, their invention is disrupting the environmental clean-up industry globally.

It all started with a half-dozen tubes of Pauline’s lipstick.

“There are lots of unproven ideas out there. Developing an idea is a big deal – everybody wants proof. We need proof the marketplace was willing to accept.”

-Stephen Neal, President and CEO, Canadian Floating Fence Corporation

Lipstick and rouge

The prototype was crude but ingenious. It consisted of excavated lipstick tubes connected by J Cloths that Pauline sewed together to approximate a mesh barrier.

Perhaps even more ingenious was the test mission, a simple experiment in the Neal’s backyard. Armed with a broken toy boat, a bucket of crude oil from Esso’s Lynwood Ridge operation, and a plastic kiddie pool, the family gathered for the moment of truth.

They filled the pool with water, tossed in the boat and surrounded it with their mesh barrier prototype. Slowly, they poured the oil into the pool. They watched as the minutes passed and the plastic ship, aside from already being broken, lay unscathed.

With much glee, James pulled out his 35mm camera to document the evidence. His invention had worked. The oil was successfully contained by the mesh barrier to the outer perimeter of the pool.

Breaking into the environmental arena back in the 70s was near impossible. The Exxon Valdez hadn’t happened yet, and the concept of environmental protection was in its infancy. James patented his idea, but there was no interest from industry for development.

The world just wasn’t ready for James and Pauline Neal. Their innovation would lie dormant for more than 30 years until tragedy struck the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Neal’s sons, Stephen and Mark, established Canadian Floating Fence Corporation (CFFC) in 2010 to revive their parents’ dream of building oil containment booms.

“SAIT is extremely recognized in these circles. It just shows how well SAIT works with the business community. I’m proud that we’re linked to such a successful institution.”

-Stephen Neal, President and CEO, Canadian Floating Fence Corporation

SAIT: the perfect research partner

Coined “XBOOM,” the Neals’ invention was intended to address three spill containment issues: ease of deployment; effective containment of hydrocarbons; and, efficacy in rough waters. They developed a few iterations of the mesh barrier, and they were sure the product would work. But they had no means to conduct testing for proof of concept.

As SAIT graduates, Stephen and Mark Neal knew SAIT had the facilities, the expertise and the resources to bring XBOOM to market. They reached out to the Applied Research and Innovation Services department (ARIS) for help.

Working in collaboration with ARIS’s Environmental Technologies research area, the Neal brothers secured laboratory testing and validation of several prototype mesh filters. SAIT researchers verified a 94 per cent hydrocarbon containment rate. Field testing then confirmed the XBOOM could be easily deployed and used to contain small floating objects and algae blooms. Finally, ARIS’s Design, Fabrication and Testing researchers furthered the prototype design, creating a unique spar-anchor system that can withstand wind, waves and water currents.

“Without SAIT, this would have been an unproven idea. We wouldn’t have had the time, money, and resources to bring our product to market.”

-Stephen Neal, President and CEO, Canadian Floating Fence Corporation

Literally changing the world

In 2016, CFFC joined forces with US-based tech company, Advanced BioCatalytics (ABC), and Canadian manufacturer, Peat Sorb Inc., to submit a bid for the Ogoniland clean-up project in Nigeria.

Through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the CFFC and its partners were selected as one of 12 contractors to reclaim more than 260,000 acres of oil spill disaster areas in the Niger delta. Work began on the project in July 2017.

Decades of inadequate regulation, oil spills, abandoned infrastructure, conflict and black-market activities have left Ogoniland communities devastated by contamination. Layers of oil, some as thick as 8 cm, float atop rivers and creeks. Oil fires have left a crust of ash and tar over the land. Soil pollution is extensive, with some groundwater samples showing levels of benzene more than 900 times World Health Organization guidelines.

The clean-up is complex and requires a mix of remediation techniques.

In July, each contractor was assigned a test plot of land to determine their speed of environmental clean-up and to apportion the remaining sites. The target was 30 days to achieve “zero detect” for hydrocarbon on the test plot. Together CFFC, ABC and PeatSorbTM created clean water within 24 hours, earning them high praise from Nigeria’s Minister of Environment and placing the group’s technologies in the top three among their peers.

CFFC is working collaboratively with Ogoni Indigenous leadership, and the Ogoniland operation will train and employ hundreds of Nigerians. Social responsibility is a big part of CFFC’s value proposition.

The Neals aren’t just making an impact in Nigeria. CFFC has worked with the City of Edmonton to contain and quarantine blue-green algae, and they have an MOU with James Smith Cree Nation for ongoing clean-up of an oil spill in the Saskatchewan River. Like the Ogoniland project, CFFC is building a relationship with the Nation and working to create more than a dozen jobs in the community.

XBOOM technology is also showing its flexibility, expanding into vegetation containment in Ontario wetlands and exploring land-based applications to control seepage.

 From napkin to prototype

In the years since Stephen Neal approached ARIS to get his product off the ground, he’s remained an active supporter of innovation and research at SAIT. Establishing the official “napkin-to-prototype” award for applied research, the Neals are paying it forward to help fund other inventions.

These days, James and Pauline Neal are enjoying retirement from either the 18th hole or the cab of their Winnebago. Their family innovation has come a long way since the kiddie pool experiment in their northwest Calgary back yard. For them, it’s been a true blessing to watch their sons turn a father’s mad science experiment into a first-rate product with global applications.

The ideas are still flowing.

Next time you head down to Okotoks to check out The Big Rock or the Chinook Honey Company, consider stopping for lunch at the local McDonald’s. You might just catch a glimpse of James and Stephen Neal, chatting about their next big idea over coffee. Thankfully, McDonalds stocks plenty of napkins.

 “This project with SAIT became a mentorship for me. They guided me through the process. I needed that prodding with the paperwork and the reports. I’m very thankful. We can’t wait to do another project with SAIT.”  

-Stephen Neal, President and CEO, Canadian Floating Fence Corporation