The U.S. Justice Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have reached an agreement with a Houston company on alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act. Photo via Getty Images

Officials have reached an agreement with a Houston-based company over alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

Under a proposed settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Derichebourg Recycling USA Inc. will prevent the release of ozone-depleting refrigerants and non-exempt substitutes from refrigerant-containing items at its 10 scrap metal recycling facilities in Texas and Oklahoma. Derichebourg also will pay a $442,500 penalty.

Derichebourg Recycling USA’s parent company is France-based Derichebourg SA, an operator of scrap metal recycling facilities.

A complaint filed in federal court alleges Derichebourg Recycling USA failed to recover refrigerant from appliances and motor vehicle air conditioners before disposal, and failed to verify with the supplier that refrigerant had been properly recovered before delivery.

The complaint focuses on alleged Clean Air Act violations at three Derichebourg scrap metal recycling facilities in Houston: 7501 Wallisville Rd., 8202 W. Montgomery Rd., and 1 Wharf St. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspections in 2018 led to the complaint.

Derichebourg operates three other facilities in the Houston area: 3515 Almeda Genoa Rd. and 6648 N. Eldridge Pkwy., both in Houston, and 13319 FM 1764 in Santa Fe.

“To continue protecting stratospheric ozone, we need companies like Derichebourg to comply with the Clean Air Act when recycling appliances and motor vehicles containing harmful refrigerants,” Todd Kim, an assistant U.S. attorney general, says in a January 7 news release.

The refrigerant, R-12, is one of the most destructive ozone-depleting substances and has a global warming potential greater than 10,000 times the power of carbon dioxide, according to the news release.

“Refrigerants that are not captured properly can be damaging to the earth’s ozone layer and are known to increase greenhouse gasses, which leads to climate change,” says Larry Starfield, acting assistant administrator of the EPA.

The agreement, called a consent decree, still requires approval from a federal judge in Houston. The consent decree is signed by two EPA attorneys and the CEO of Derichebourg Recycling USA, Philippe Leonard.

The City of Houston has held the No. 1 spot on the municipal list since 2014. Photo via Getty Images

Houston continues its reign as the top city using renewables, per the EPA

seeing green

The City of Houston continues to electrify the country when it comes to the use of green power.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks the city first among municipal entities for the highest annual consumption of power from renewable sources. The list features participants in the EPA's Green Energy Partnership.

The EPA pegs the City of Houston's annual use of green power at a little over 1 billion kilowatt-hours. That's enough electricity to power more than 94,000 average U.S. homes in a year's time. No other municipal entity uses more than 1 billion kilowatt-hours of green power per year.

The City of Houston has held the No. 1 spot on the municipal list since 2014. Among all users of green power in the U.S. that participate in the EPA's Green Energy Partnership, the city ranks 19th.

Since July 2020, all City of Houston facilities have been powered by 100 percent renewable energy derived from solar and wind sources. Houston-based NRG supplies the electricity for those facilities.

In an August 11 news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the EPA recognition is "great news for the city of Houston and, by extension, for the rest of the world. We are going big to set the example for cities around the world. If 100 percent renewable energy can happen in Houston, it can happen in any other city."

The news release points out that green power helps offset damage from ozone, acid rain, haze, fine particles, and other harmful pollutants. Fine particles come primarily from exhaust produced by vehicles, as well as from the burning of coal, wood, and heating oil, and from forest fires and grass fires.

The City of Houston isn't the only municipal outfit in Texas that shines on the EPA list. Here's are four others among the top 30 municipal users of green power:

  • City of Dallas, ranked second, 701.8 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ranked fifth, 450.2 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • City of Austin, ranked sixth, 325.3 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • City of Irving, ranked 30th, 24.9 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Nationally, these five Texas businesses rank among the top corporate users of green power:

  • Dallas-based AT&T, ranked seventh, 2.36 billion kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Irving-based Kimberly-Clark, ranked 18th, 1.03 billion kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Round Rock-based Dell, ranked 46th, 365.6 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Houston-based Solvay America, ranked 61st, 220 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Plano-based Cinemark USA, ranked 95th, 120.2 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Two Texas schools appear on the list of the top colleges and universities for use of green power:

  • University of North Texas in Denton, ranked 17th, 80.3 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Fort Worth-based Tarrant County College District, ranked 25th, 57.1 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Four Texas institutions show up on the list of the top K-12 users of green power:

  • Austin ISD, ranked second, 19.8 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Lake Travis ISD (select schools), ranked 12th, 960,000 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • The da Vinci School in Dallas, ranked 15th, 237,990 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • The Empower School in Austin, ranked 17th, 115,314 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

The EPA's ranking of the largest users of green power across the country "is proof that good business practices can also benefit the environment," says James Critchfield, director of the EPA's Green Power Partnership.

From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

Texas has been deemed inefficient when it comes to energy. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

National report declares Texas dim when it comes to energy efficiency

Power Problems

For a state that's home to the "Energy Capital of the World," Texas falls flat when it comes to energy efficiency. WalletHub, a personal finance site, ranked the most and least energy-efficient states, and Texas was named No. 42 of the 48 states evaluated.

The states were scored on home and auto efficiency out of an available 100 points. Home efficiency was calculated based on the ratio of total residential energy consumption to annual degree days, the days of the year in each region that require buildings to engage heating or cooling. Auto efficiency was established by factoring in the annual miles driven per year, gallons of gasoline consumed, and population. At the top of the national ranking were New York, Vermont, Utah, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

Texas, with its hot climate and underdeveloped public transportation systems, scored only 33.34 total points on the report. The state ranked No. 35 on home energy efficiency and No. 42 for auto energy efficiency. Texans drive over 271 billion miles annually and use over 19 billion gallons of gas, the second worst and worst rankings, respectively, among the states considered for this study.

The Environmental Protection Agency's research tells a different story of Texas' sustainability. The EPA's Green Power Partnership named its 2018 top local governments, and Texas cities claimed three spots in the top five. Houston was ranked No. 1, followed by Dallas at No. 2 and Austin at No. 5. This ranking is based on the annual green power usage — Houstonians use almost 1.1 million kilowatt hours of wind and solar energies annually.

According to the WalletHub report, each American household spends at least $2,000 annually on utilities and another $1,968 on gasoline and oil, which is up $59 from last year. New technologies and energy-efficient measures can reduce household utility costs by up to 25 percent, and a fuel-efficient car could save drivers over $700 annually, says WalletHub. The report's experts advised in properly weatherproofing homes; smart technology, such as thermostats; solar panels; and more.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston entrepreneurial community builder teams up with startup to provide AI-powered founder tools

howdy, partner

A new Houston company has launched to provide a new platform of resources for entrepreneurs powered by artificial intelligence, and the new business already has its first partner.

The Cannon, a coworking community with locations across Houston, and nstAI, a newly launched suite of services for founders, announced a new partnership.

“The opportunity for The Cannon to partner with nstAI to bring a value-driven service offering to growth stage startup organizations is huge for our community. We are constantly looking for areas where we can support every startup, no matter where they are in their journey,” Jon Lambert, The Cannon’s CEO, says in a statement. “The nstAI offering, delivered through The Cannon's platform, will bring tremendous value to emerging companies who are in perhaps the most critical stage of their journey, garnering true market presence and customer share.”

Founded by seasoned entrepreneurs, nstAI's support is targeted aid startup founders during the early phases of business development, including securing non-dilutive funding, creating pitch decks and other materials, as well as making meaningful connections with mentors and potential customers.

"The journey from post-Seed funding to Series B funding is often one of the most challenging phases for founders," John Cooper, a founding partner at nstAI, adds. "We've designed nstAI to be a trusted resource in that process, offering hands-on guidance, leveraging AI-powered tools, and providing access to an unmatched global network of experts and investors."

The nstAI platform will be integrated into The Cannon's digital platform, Cannon Connect, for its members.

"nstAI is more than just a service provider; we're a community of successful entrepreneurs dedicated to supporting each other's growth and success," Mark Voytek, founding partner at nstAI, says in the release.

Houston researcher advances promising early-stage cancer diagnosis method

hi, tech

Could detecting cancer one day be as easy as taking a blood test? Wei-Chuan Shih, a University of Houston researcher and Cullen College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering, has reported a 98.7-percent rate of accuracy for a method pioneered by his lab to identify cancers at their earliest stages.

The technology combines Shih’s own PANORAMA (PlAsmonic NanO-apeRture lAbel-free iMAging) with fluorescent imaging to view nanometer-sized membrane sacs, called extracellular vesicles or EVs. EVs carry different types of cargo, including proteins, nucleic acids and metabolites, throughout the bloodstream.

“We observed differences in small EV numbers and cargo in samples taken from healthy people versus people with cancer and are able to differentiate these two populations based on our analysis of the small EVs,” reports Shih, in Nature Communications Medicine. “The findings came from combining two imaging methods – our previously developed method PANORAMA and imaging of fluorescence emitted by small EVs—to visualize and count small EVs, determine their size and analyze their cargo.”

Shih introduced PANORAMA in 2020. The technology uses a glass side covered with gold nano discs that allows users to monitor changes in the transmission of light as well as determine the characteristics of nanoparticles as small as 25 nanometers in diameter. For the new publication, Shih and his team just had to count the number of small EVs in order to detect cancer.

“Using a cutoff of 70 normalized small EV counts, all cancer samples from 205 patients were above this threshold except for one sample, and for healthy samples, from 106 healthy individuals, all but three were above this cutoff, giving a cancer detection sensitivity of 99.5% and specificity of 97.3%,” says Shih.

The team was able to report 100-percent accuracy with further testing that analyzed two independent sets of samples from stage I-IV or recurrent leiomyosarcoma/gastrointestinal stromal tumors and early-and-late-stage cholangiocarcinoma combined with healthy samples.

Shih and collaborator Steven H. Lin have founded Seek Diagnostics with the goal of commercializing the technology that they’ve innovated. In 2022, the duo joined the Texas Medical Center Innovation's cancer-focused accelerator.


Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

Meet the Houston innovator setting student startups up for success

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 240

Rice University can barely keep up with the interest of students in entrepreneurial classes and programming — even in the summer.

The university's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship offers around 30 classes a year and over a dozen co-curricular programs — all focused on supporting student entrepreneurs.

"There is a huge desire for this across the campus," Taylor Anne Adams, head of venture acceleration at Lilie, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our class enrollment has just continued to skyrocket, and we've had to add on more classes and programs and that still seems to not be enough."

One of the newest additions to the scope of Rice's offerings is the Summer Venture Studio, which launched last year and returned for 2024 with huge interest in the program that was revamped by Adams, who received her MBA at Rice. She says one of her goals was to attract a wide range of technologies and innovations, which she did with the newly announced cohort.

"In the Summer Venture Studio, we have students from undergrad and from the MBA program — we've got PhDs, we've got master's of data science, and it just creates such a vibrant cohort community here," Adams says. "It's about making sure that we're tailoring our programs across the school year as well to make sure we're touching all parts of the campus."

Adams, who's worked with various Houston organizations, including The Cannon, DivInc, and Mercury, is not only passionate about supporting the Rice startup community, but also the greater Houston network of innovators. She's currently on the founding team of The Collectiv, a Houston-based venture firm that's currently raising its first fund to invest in sports tech.

"The people here are entrepreneurial by nature. Houston was founded by entrepreneurs. Yes, we have a lot of traditional industry here, but that wasn't always the case. People had to build those industries from the ground up," Adams says. "It's in the DNA of the city."