FORT ST. JOHN, B.C – A local lab won a $10,000 Tech Challenge for its work aiming to break down a freshwater pollutant generally found in the United States.

This week, Fixed Earth Solutions, whose lab is located in Fort St. John, was selected among 18 applicants for its solution to break up poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in water using custom microbes.

These are considered forever-chemical contaminants in freshwater.

President of Fixed Earth Innovations Tim Repas says the main hurdle with the water technology startup is exposure. The company looks to catch the attention of those in need of a solution to alleviate the environmental damage caused by PFAs.

“With this award, and together with (the corporate sponsors) A. O. Smith, Badger Meter and Zurn Industries, we can better overcome these obstacles, helping us share our technologies with those capable of making an impact on the discussion.”

In total, five finalists have been invited to continue to meet with the program sponsors.

According to the Environmental Working Group, the uses of PFAS date back to 1964 after being used in Teflon applications and has been used in other consumer products and commercial applications.

The chemicals are hard to break down and resulted in contamination of water, soil and people and animals’ blood. The chemical has been linked to cancer and other diseases.

Repas said there are several different types of PFAS, some of which were used in firefighting foams.

“[They’re a] very stubborn molecule that’s toxic and parts per trillion. Because they’re so hard to break down, even a little bit of them getting into the environment causes them to quickly spread everywhere.”

Fixed Earth is a Biotech company founded in late 2019 and use living systems and organisms to make products.

Repas said finding the right microbes to break down the chemicals has been a pursuit that took several years.

The company has already begun brainstorming with the sponsors of the challenge to find a way to implement the solution into drinking water treatments.

The organization’s winnings will be used to upgrade equipment and may also be used for meetings.

“It’s also the chance for us to travel to places where we have prospective work to meet our clients and try to get some of these things from something theoretical in the lab to something tangible out in the world.”

In the next year, the company looks to begin field testing in the state of Michigan, which has been in contact with the company for the past year.

Repas adds the companies work also includes ways to benefit its home, Fort St. John.

“Being an oil and gas town that includes things like oil spills, salt remediation and some different technologies like that.”

The Tech Challenge, put on by the Milwaukee-based the Water Council, connects water innovators to users through topic-specific challenges. The winners get a chance to share their innovations with sponsors for prize money, access to corporate resources and the opportunity to partner on the development, marketing, licensing or sale of the technology or idea.