Of Furbies and Chlorine Containment

I’ve come to believe that the theory about good ideas spreading on their own merits is hogwash. Well, maybe not hogwash, but perhaps misguidedly optimistic. The Furby craze of the late 1990s should have been enough to prove that bad ideas spread just as easily as good ones do.

And good ideas sometimes fail to spread at all. At AWWA ACE earlier this year in Washington, D.C., I met Rudy Caparros Jr. of TGO Technologies. He told me about an idea that should have easily become the next big thing in the railcar industry. That idea was called Chlortanker.

Designed to prevent releases of toxic chlorine gas from railcar accidents, the Chlortanker would replace the C-kit, which is the current chlorine-transport safety equipment, consisting of various wrenches and other tools that specially trained responders can use to stop the leak. This equipment has been around for 40 years and requires that specially trained first-responders climb up on railcars while wearing heavy suits with breathing apparatus to manipulate the tools to heal the leak. It’s a rough job, and particularly difficult to carry out.

This idea, which Caparros’ father created and patented, sought to make first-responders’ jobs a little safer and easier, as well as prevent the danger that chlorine leaks can present. He took the secondary spill containment technology currently in place in stationary chlorine tanks (such as those in water-treatment facilities) and created a device that would fit around the chlorine tank on a railcar, containing any possible gas releases without work by first-responders.

He said he’s had trouble raising the idea of secondary containment for railcars with industry members and regulators because, he said, industry members don’t want to spend the extra money on more safety equipment, even though it doesn’t require that they purchase new railcars. “Essentially, this technology has to be mandated by DHS or the Transportation Department,” he said. “Otherwise no one will use it.”

Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, introduced a bill in 2007 that would have asked the Transportation Department to study ways to improve transportation of hazardous materials, but it never got beyond the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Coparros Sr. is disheartened by the failure of this technology to take off. He has patents for it in the United States, the EU, Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Japan, and he has yet to sell a single unit. “I’m an inventor. I had high hopes,” he said. How can anybody not accept this as a commonsense solution to improving railcar safety of poison gas?”

And that’s one of the reasons I have little faith that a genuinely good idea can change the world.

Posted by Laura Williams on Sep 23, 2011

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