The Queen's Awards: The catalyst for creating a climate free of chemicals: The winners have demonstrated commercial viability as well as ecological awareness. Lynne Curry reports

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The Independent Online
WOE BETIDE the nursery stockman unwittingly providing bed and board for the vine weevil, a dull black, yellow-bristled pest with a catholic taste in plants. Active only at night and well camouflaged, sight of the vine weevil means one thing: its larvae are most likely already in the compost making a meal of the roots.

The weevil has more enemies than nursery staff, however. One of them is the insect parasitic nematode Heterohabditis, which seeks out the larvae in the root zone, enters them and releases symbiotic bacteria which kill the insect quickly. The nematodes - dubbed 'biological Exocets' - then reproduce inside the insect as it decomposes and a new generation of juveniles moves off into the compost in search of further prey.

The judges were confronted with such lurid tales of nature's vengeance as they sorted through the 240 entries for the new Queen's Award for Environmental Achievement. This one came from the Agricultural Genetics Company, an independent plant biotechnology company based in Cambridge. Its nematodes - other strains see off glasshouse sciarids - were developed in conjunction with Horticulture Research International, of Wellesbourne, Warwickshire.

This entirely natural biological alternative to chemical pesticides met the criteria for the new award, which expects products to not only be of great benefit to the environment, but also commercially viable.

AGC, whose subsidiary MicroBio of Thriplow, Cambridgeshire, receives the award, specialises in identifying useful, naturally occurring organisms and developing them into environmentally acceptable products both for plant nutrition and protection. It has been selling the nematodes across Europe under the brand name Nemasys and Nemasys H for three years and has just started producing a small pack for gardeners. Because the nematodes are alive they have to be stored at a certain temperature and have to be dispatched direct from the manufacturing plant at Littlehampton. 'Because it's quite an expensive product it's mainly used on high value plants through which gardeners can lose a lot of money,' said AGC spokeswoman Tina Rogers.

Dr Peter Innes, director of the division, said the sale value of chemical pesticides was still more than 200 times that of natural products but 'most industry observers predict a dramatic growth in the use of biopesticides over the next decade. Increasingly, public awareness and concern about environmental and health issues has created a very favourable climate for our products and technologies which represent an alternative to chemical fertilisers and pesticides.'

Better known than nematodes are catalytic converters, the devices used to reduce car exhaust emissions. Johnson Matthey, which makes autocatalysts for the entire British market at its plant in Royston, Hertfordshire, has won an environment award at the same time as an award for export achievement.

Worldwide, Johnson Matthey holds a third of the market in autocatalysts - including a third of the US market. It won a Queen's Award for Technological Achievement in 1977 for the development of autocatalyst technology and has won four previous awards for export achievement. At its Catalytic Systems Division in Royston, Hertfordshire, 150 people work on production which contributes to the 20 million devices produced worldwide.

Robert Searles, the market development director, said refinement of the autocatalyst, which converts carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen into less harmful carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water, had not stopped for the 19 years it had been in production. 'We first started for the US market and we have continued to improve them ever since as pollution standards round the world have grown tighter.'

A water system which takes out more than 99 per cent of the metal content of effluent solutions and recover it as a high-quality electrolytic product to be re-used has won an environmental award for BEWT (Water Engineers), of Alcester, Warwickshire. Edwards High Vacuum International, of Crawley, West Sussex, gains the award for a range of rotary mechanical pumps which are unlubricated and have no sliding parts.

Used for processes which operate at reduced pressure, mainly in the chemical process industries, the pumps do away with contaminated water produced by ejector and water ring pumps. Vapours and gases can be reclaimed and solvents recovered and used again.

A high-efficiency oil- and gas-fired range of steam and hot water boilers has won an award for FKI Babcock Roby, of Oldbury in the West Midlands. These have low emissions of nitrogen oxides and work more quietly, using less electricity and fuel.

Pollution reduction has also been achieved by the Non-Ferrous Metal Treatment Team of the Foundry Division of Foseco, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, which has produced a pollution-free foundry degassing unit to remove hydrogen from melts in single ladles, stationary crucibles or furnaces before aluminium or aluminium alloy is cast. This prevents pinholes in the casting and is already in use by the foundry industry.

More efficient industrial cleaning power and the displacement of CFC solvents have won an award for Kerry Ultrasonics, of Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Its systems use aqueous and semi-aqueous cleaning liquids instead of CFC solvents. Sound waves are introduced into the tank of solution, which help it to penetrate small crevices on both sides of a surface.

Once cleaning has finished, the solvent is separated from the rinse water in semi-aqueous systems and the organic spoils and hydrocarbon portion collected for disposal. In aqueous systems, the residue passes through a system of absorption filters and is recirculated. All the systems are free of discharge and have no impact whatsoever on the environment.

Pilkington Glass's Pilkington K Glass offers a 30 per cent reduction in heat loss compared with conventional double glazing. It looks virtually the same as float glass and is tough and scratch-resistant. It can also be processed by any competent processor, making it available to all levels of the building and home improvement industry. Pilkington produces it at its basic glass works in St Helens, Merseyside, where it can also be toughened or laminated and produced to any thickness or size.

Ricardo Consulting Engineers, of Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, have developed a practical application for tumbling air motion in mass-produced gasoline engines for cars. This cuts engine emissions, noise level and price, while maintaining combustion efficiency. Fuel consumption is cut by about 5 per cent. Carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons are reduced by 18 per cent and carbon monoxide by 25 per cent in four-valve engines.

Ricoh UK Products has eliminated CFCs in the production of selenium drums for photocopiers, and mastered the recycling of selenium from used drums. It has cut out the final cleaning of coated drums, which involved the use of CFCs, by using ultra-pure water at high pressure before the coating process. The amount of selenium has been minimised, and reject and returned drums are stripped so that it can be recycled. De-greasing solvent usage has also been cut by 72 per cent by rectifying used solvent.

Water-based screen printing inks, which overcome the emission of volatile organic compounds associated with conventional screen inks, have been developed by Sericol, of Broadstairs, Kent. The inks are cheaper to use and give higher definition print quality than non-water based UV inks. Outdoor posters can be produced using these inks and another water-based range has been formulated to print on plastic.

(Photograph omitted)

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