In a tired, tucked-away building on AgResearch's Ruakura campus, a tiny team is gearing up to help in a daunting task – cleaning up India's holy, and horribly polluted, Ganges River.

They're the chemists, process engineers and support staff of Ligar Polymers, and their contribution will be to use Ligar's technology to extract chromium from an Indian tannery's waste and recycle it before it gets flushed as usual into the Ganges.

Chromium is a naturally-occurring heavy metal, but its unmanaged discharge by industry threatens the health of 16 million people at 300 sites around the world. Tanneries which use chromium are rated number four among the world's top 10 polluting industries by Pure Earth Blacksmith Institute.

More than 80 per cent of the world's leather is made by tanning hides and skins with chromium, and India has whole tannery districts on the Ganges - or Ganga, as it's known there.

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Ligar chief executive Nigel Slaughter says most Indian tanneries aim to be very low-cost leather producers, so they reject the expense of managing chromium waste.
"We're saying, you can recover that chromium in a way you can re-use it in a closed loop system so there's an economic reason to do it. In a well-run tannery about 20 per cent of the chromium you're putting in ends up in the waste stream. In others it's more, so [at least] 20 per cent of the value of your input cost is going down the drain."

Or in India's case, down the sacred Ganges, main water source for 400 million people.

Chromium is being found hundreds of kilometres downstream from tanneries, and at high levels in soil and ground water. It's in the food chain and is linked to serious illness and deaths.

One of the world's most polluted rivers, the 2525km Ganges is deemed by scientists to be still "alive".

The great waterway's health is a political issue, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Government under fire for slow progress on its pre-2014 election promise to clean up the river. There's a general election next year.

Ligar is poised to sign a memorandum of agreement with the agency co-ordinating the clean up bid, the Centre for Ganga River Basin Management Studies, or CGanga.

Ligar, which got on its feet about four years ago with the backing of current major shareholder Sir James Wallace's Wallace Group, is due to start its Ganges work by October, with a pilot installation at a so-far unspecified tannery.

"The pilot will help to build partnerships that will enable us to install a number of full scale systems should the pilot be effective," says Slaughter.

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"There are no guarantees though – it has to prove its commercial worth alongside its environmental impact."

The installation will be like a show home for what Ligar believes is a world-first method of using molecularly imprinted polymers at scale.

"Other methods have been developed for recovering chromium but none of them, as far as we've seen, have scaled up. There's one other company in the US doing it at scale but they're looking at mining applications and lithium and separating gold," Slaughter says.

Ligar – Latin for "to unite, to bind" – has several projects in the commercialisation pipeline using its secret technology to extract problem molecules from liquids.

Extracting and inserting good molecules is also on the agenda.

Areas of focus include removing smoke taint from wine made with grapes toasted by bush fire – the Australian wine industry recently lost $100m-plus to smoke taint - extracting pesticide from oil, alcohols and juice without losing flavour, removing arsenic from drinking water and medicinal molecules from liquidised plants. Recovering metals from treated timber is another project.

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Ligar is also trying to answer demand for natural flavours and aromas.

Slaughter says: "It's like we have horses all running at the same time, going into markets all at the same time."

But the Ganges project will be Ligar's biggest because of its size and complexity, he says.
"As a company just scaling up and taking this technology to market, having this as a demonstrator for us is huge."

With a background at the business end of tech start-ups rather than the science, Slaughter can helpfully speak polymer chemistry 101.

"The definition of a polymer is a molecule composed of many sub-units. You take your target molecule, the thing you're after, and add it to a mixture of other molecules that can wrap themselves around it. Like an octopus.

"It becomes a polymer once you fix the octopus in place. Essentially, you're tying a rope around its legs which technically is called cross-linking. You fix it in place so it can't move.

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"When you take the molecule out you have a hole left or an imprint shaped like the molecule you're trying to capture. When that molecule comes into contact again with the polymer, it's attracted to the hole, fits in the hole and gets caught in the hole.

"That's the basic concept, working at an incredibly small scale, molecules being tiny things. We are making polymers as beads. You flow the liquid containing the [captured] molecules through columns of beads or filter plates and you recover the molecules off the polymers.

"If it's something good you recover you can re-use it. If it's bad like a taint or toxin you recover it to be disposed of responsibly."

Nigel Slaughter. Photo / Supplied
Nigel Slaughter. Photo / Supplied

The beads are where the big future dollars lie.

Sir James Wallace became interested in Ligar's technology because his company operates tanneries, but quickly saw its "amazing potential" .

"We support New Zealand innovation and creativity in a broad spectrum from agribusiness to arts and film production ... we learned about the possibility of what Ligar could do and it fitted with what Wallace Corporation is always looking for and really values, science-based innovation, as part of our company strategy."

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Slaughter says the rubber hit the road when Ligar showed it could filter at a scale beyond the lab benchtop.

"Most of this science comes out of the academic world. Their focus tends to be how specific they can be, how to get absolutely the best result without thinking about what's easiest to make because they focus on very small amounts.

"Our approach is to say how can we make lots of this and simplify it – how can we make a lot, fast and cheap."

Ligar's first project began in 2011 as spin-out of Wintec subsidiary LearningWorks.
The technology was developed by Dr Miruna Petcu, now Ligar's chief scientist, while she was working at what was then Hort Research.

After support from Waikato University, Wintec and the Government, Ligar was founded in 2013 and the call went out for venture capital. Slaughter says capital investment so far is "a few million". More capital is being sought and he's cautiously optimistic Ligar will make a profit in a couple of years.

Sir James says that prediction is "reasonably realistic".

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"The only thing that would affect that is the success of the company itself in finding more projects to invest in. That always has a lead time where your initial funding doesn't get a return for a while.

"I'm happy to live with that if we break through in another area where can trap other contaminants or extract valuable items."

Sir James will invest more in Ligar. If the company's decontamination technology can start being used on an economic basis, it is a "fantastic tool" for improving the environment, he says.

"That's what keeps me excited and keeps me investing."

Most of the capital investment so far has gone into learning how to scale up Ligar's method fast and cheaply, and proving its safety to the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority.

Word is getting round.

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"We've had requests from big companies for 100,000 tonnes [of polymer beads] and we have to say just hold that thought. We're not near that yet," says Slaughter.

The pilot Ganges River job will take about two tonnes of New Zealand-made beads.

But Ligar has just 17 employees, is only five minutes old in commercial terms and its work is top secret – the Ruakura building is locked tight against casual visitors and the company isn't contactable by phone – so how come it's getting inquiries from the big end of town?

"Most of it is word of mouth because what we are doing is quite unique," says Slaughter.

"On the flavours and aromas side, there's a huge trend to natural. But natural costs a lot more than synthetic so it's an issue companies know is coming. Word spreads quickly."

Ligar is working with several organisations and companies but on some projects – like finding a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water – it's using its own initiative.

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"One of the biggest natural killers is arsenic in groundwater. Whenever you have a fault line you're going to get arsenic. We're doing that by ourselves to ensure the broadest possible application," says Slaughter.

"If we can do it, we'll possibly go to the Gates Foundation and say 'let's figure out a low cost way of getting that technology in'."

Meanwhile, trial results from wine smoke taint removal are good, he says.

"A lot of people are inquiring around medicinal molecules. They have a plant with a molecule in it that has medicinal effects, and can we extract it?"

But the number one question asked of Ligar is whether it can extract nitrates and phosphorous from waterways.

Not yet. So far, Ligar's results have been no better than others' efforts. But the hunt continues.

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Slaughter sees Ligar employing hundreds of people in the not too distant future, and the plan is to stay in New Zealand.

But Ligar won't get big by taking its products straight to market.

"We are structuring the company so we are working with partner companies which will take our technology and integrate it and take it to markets," says Slaughter.

"We have company partners and we are looking at building more of these ... so that we stick to what we are good at, which is research and development of new polymers and manufacturing beads and filter plates and whatever, and then integrating them into the systems they take to market.

"Ideally, if we had the capital we would take the whole lot to market but that's very expensive and we don't have that capital."