Up until the 1980s, Xerox used volatile organic compounds as solvents for cleaning. Needless to say, some of them spilled and ended up contaminating the ground—and groundwater—beneath manufacturing facilities. By the company's own count, there were 68 such sites. When faced with the task of cleaning up, Xerox opted to tinker with the existing technology to do the job—and in the process hit on a way to radically speed the cleanup.

"We recovered in a weekend the equivalent of the mass [of pollutants] that we had removed in the previous three-and-a-half years," says Elliott Duffney, a program manager in Xerox's Environment, Health & Safety Group, who helped create and implement the so-called 2-PHASE EXTRACTION process. "Basically, we go in and remove the contaminants at an expedited rate. That shortens the time and the remediation cost of the overall project."

Now Xerox wants to share that technology with others—and not for a licensing fee as in the past. Rather, the company has made this technology available to anyone with a contaminated site, most commonly old gas stations, dry cleaners and chemical company facilities: as many as 178,000 sites in the U.S. alone, according to Duffney. The offer is part of a green effort dubbed Eco-Patents Commons created by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (a consortium of more than 200 global corporations).

The process involves removing the volatile organic pollutants directly from the water and soil with a 50-horsepower vacuum. The time saver: both the ground and water are cleaned simultaneously, instead of separately, with the vacuum sucking up 98 percent of volatile organic solvents, such as carcinogenic toluene, benzene and others.

The water is then discharged into the local sewer system; the contaminated air is passed through carbon filters that purify it and the contaminants left behind in that carbon filter are burned, Duffney says.

The 2-PHASE process has allowed Xerox to mop up all but two of its polluted sites at a savings of $70 million over what it would have cost, although the vacuum does use more energy than traditional treatment technologies. Duffney notes, however, "that is more than offset by the shorter duration of treatment."

Xerox spent most of the last decade licensing the technology to independent contractors in an attempt to profit from the innovation rather than give it away. But the new Eco-Patent Commons provided a convenient opportunity to get out of that business as it was not part of their normal day-to-day operations, according to Patricia Calkins, vice president of Environment, Health and Safety.

"It's a good framework for getting the information out there about the technology and making it available broadly for anybody to use," Calkins explains. "It's not core to our business, so why not share that with others so we can all help collectively? Through partnerships we can achieve more than on our own."