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Blue Box Cleaning Up Equipment, Bottom Lines for the Industrial Sector

Image credit: Blue Box

In the final week leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) finals presented by Target on June 5th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will feature daily articles introducing our semi-finalists. Today, meet Blue Box.

Blue Box is positioning itself as an innovative method of cleaning industrial equipment with very little chemicals, at very low cost.

The product utilizes a foam process, which allows companies to reduce their environmental footprint and decrease cleaning downtime, as there will be no dismantling required. It also increases energy savings for companies, because the less buildup there is on industrial equipment, the less energy is needed to operate.

Founder and CEO James Metropoulos says the overall goal is not to simply be an industrial cleaning services company, but to be a platform where companies can dramatically improve their sustainability and profitability for the industrial sector.

“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 creating a product that used the least amount of hazardous chemicals possible, as too many chemicals can be damaging to industrial equipment and leave behind toxic 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. 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, designed to fit in the back of a pick-up truck, and 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 the 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 build-up. The foam (or bubbles) also work to grab hold of the residues [on the equipment] and “carry” them out.  When the process is working, it is 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 by-product that is essentially pH-neutral, dirty water. This “dirty water” is still treated as hazardous waste and is disposed of properly, however it is much safer than the waste streams produced by traditional cleaning methods.

Metropoulos' design has also ensured that Blue Box can clean a diverse range of industrial equipment.

“A key thing I did, which was really important, was that I took the time to get Blue Box 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, systems that provide evaporative cooling for industrial processes.

“The reason 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 towers' 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 was trying to convince industrial facilities to use Blue Box on multimillion 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 3000 lbs of calcium compound buildup from the packing.

“It came out shining, then it was wow,” he says.

The added bonus was the energy cost savings. When Linde operators turned the plant back on, they saved 20 percent in energy, as the removal of the calcium build-up allowed the cooling tower to require less energy for its daily operation.

“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 operation 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 Blue Box’s work with environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Metropoulos says, “Another key partnership I have is with Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau and a world-recognized environmentalist and ocean explorer. 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, Metropoulos says that Blue Box is not only about cleaning industrial equipment, but rather the company seeks to improve industrial efficiency.

“It is not so much what Blue Box does, but what can it do to the bottom line. 70 percent of energy in the U.S. is consumed by the industrial sector; 50 percent of that energy is because these systems are running dirty,” says Metropoulos. “The objective of Blue Box is to introduce a whole new way of thinking about how to address big environmental issues by re-thinking and innovating how we actually consume energy. Since industrial systems actually consume most of our energy (and waste it), introducing new innovations into this space makes sense and opens up a whole new set of opportunities for industry that is both profitable and good for the environment. The ultimate goal will be for people to ask not whether a company is green, but are they 'Blue'?”

SB '13 See Blue Box and our 11 other SBIO finalists present live at the SB Solutions Expo, June 4 at the SB ’13 conference. Enter the discount NW3pSB13 for free entry.

Candice D McLeod is the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) Co-coordinator. Before joining the Sustainable Brands team, Candice worked on energy, sustainability, and international development issues for both non-profits, and private companies. Originally from Trinidad & Tobago, she now calls… [Read more about Candice McLeod]