Global Fair Shows Off Cleanup Technology

FOUR fish tanks filled with cloudy, smelly water are the draw for one stand at the International Environmental Technology Fair here, a half-hour plane ride from the bustling Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The fish tanks stand out in the spacious Anhembi pavilion, housing one of the biggest-ever fairs of this kind, with 500 exhibitors from all over the world occupying 180,000 square feet. Containing water from some of Sao Paulo's polluted rivers and reservoirs, they provide samples for new technologies being introduced outside the United States for the first time. These technologies monitor industrial pollution and detect water-borne diseases such as cholera, now plaguing much of Latin America.

"[The Earth Summit] was a catalyst for all this," says Fernando Valente, director of Bio Centro do Brasil, a joint venture partner with Intelligent Monitoring Systems (IMS), based in Las Cruces, N.M.. "It is a great detonator of technology for [water pollution] needs." IMS has been researching possible market niches in Brazil and Latin America and decided to officially enter the market via the technology fair. Already, IMS says, the local pollution control and water treatment agencies and the state in dustrial federation have expressed interest in their products.

Algae are the common denominator for IMS products; while one machine uses them to remove heavy metals from industrial effluent, at a price tag of only $2,400, another tests water for cholera in only 20 minutes and can be plugged into an automobile cigarette lighter. Their low cost and simple technologies, says IMS senior research scientist Glenn Bedell, are practical for developing countries.

Dr. Bedell has also found a kind of nontoxic algae that can be used to separate gold from the mud where it is found on Brazilian river bottoms. He says this could end the dangerous and widespread use of mercury for this purpose.

A stroll across the pavilion - past computer terminals, flashing lights, strange noises, video displays, a mockup of environmentally sound highway embankments, a bus that runs on natural gas, an acid-rain collector, a more efficient combustion engine, and an enormous yellow trash truck - finds that technology is also being transferred from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere.

"Our `speedy bus' was tested in New York, and the city is thinking of using it in southern Manhattan, where surface transportation is inadequate and using the subway is very time-consuming," says Aldo de Almeida Junior, president of a business development agency of Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil known for its innovative environmental approaches.

Displayed at the fair, the transportation system consists of a long tube inside which bus passengers go up a ramp and pay their fares before embarking, without having to climb the bus stairs. Mr. Almeida says this removes the need to install the hydraulic mechanism that allows buses to "kneel" for the handicapped, reducing travel time, fuel costs, and air pollution.

The "speedy bus" was developed by the architectural firm of Jaime Lerner, the mayor of Curitiba. The city has also pioneered reclycled trash collection and express-bus lanes in Brazil.

The fair also showcases many high-technology approaches to industrial pollution from the United States, Japan, and Europe. At the booth of CBC Industrias Pesadas, a subsidiary of Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, engineer Kyo Ueno explains a wall panel on research that could reduce global warming.

"You use the algae to absorb carbon dioxide, once it has been filtered out from the gases produced by industry, and then the algae are dried and used for fuel," he says, adding that scientists are also considering storing the carbon dioxide at the bottom of the ocean, because it is heavier than water.

The Amazon rain forest is the focus of Nutrimental, a Brazilian company known best for its dehydrated foods. Together with the Institute for Amazon and Environmental Studies and the National Council of Rubber Gatherers, Nutrimental has developed an "energy bar" made of Brazil nuts, rice, brown sugar, apples, and raisins at an investment cost of $1.5 million.

According to marketing director Rodrigo da Rocha Loures, the bar, which isn't yet on the market, will help prevent worker migration to Brazil's cities and will educate consumers about the environment. A community of 5,000 families who live off the rain forest in the region where murdered Brazilian environmentalist and rubber tapper Chico Mendes lived will get the proceeds of 2.5 percent of all sales.

"Developing countries don't have the money and never will have the money, and financial assistance always depends on the political conditions," says Mr. Loures. "This is an alternative which is more practical, whereby way of a consumer product, you can finance specific projects." Nutrimental's bar may one day compete in the US with the Rainforest Crunch brand bar, which also channels funds to the rubber tappers.

Inaugurated Saturday by Brazilian officials in the presence of US Environmental Protection Agency Director William Reilly, the fair got off to a slow start, despite the variety of its exhibits and their potential applications in the coming decades.

"Someone said to me that he thought the pavilion was empty," says Ruy Moraes, an IMS director standing next to the fish tanks. "But I told him when you consider this is a new area in the world, it's actually quite full. In five years there'll be another fair, with double the number of people."

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