And just what is it? "We don't know!" says Wong. "We don't understand the chemistry. But we don't understand it in a good way," meaning he believes that his team will figure it out soon. "Our catalyst is doing something really goofy."
Goofy it may be, but Wong's nanodetergent breaks TCE down into relatively harmless ethane and chloride salts. He and his team are now working with engineers to build a real-sized reactor to field-test the nanoparticles at a polluted site. They hope to be scrubbing TCE in about a year, and then they'll see whether they have the cost-efficient cleaner they seek.
"It's very nice research," says Galen Stucky, a chemistry professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Wong did his postdoctoral studies. "Mike is a very creative guy with good insights, and what he is doing is going to have a major impact on the much bigger issue of water and water purification over the next ten years."
Wong was born in Quebec City, Quebec, and grew up in Sacramento, California, where his mother was an accountant and his father ran a restaurant. His father also owned a strip mall where a tenant's dry-cleaning business became contaminated with a chemical cousin of TCE. "My dad was freaked out," Wong recalls. "He got fined, since he owned the mall. He was legally responsible. He really got dinged [for tens of thousands of dollars in fines]. So my dad has a real interest in my work. He keeps telling me, ‘Hurry up, son!' "
William Booth is a reporter for the Washington Post who is based in Los Angeles.