We’ve come to think of the tech world’s heroes as well-educated, creative people who dream of saving our world with their ideas. In the popular imagination, their stories follow a similar path, one that involves dropping out of Harvard or Stanford to create the next big thing.

Ruben Garcia’s story is nothing like that. Born in Mexico, he grew up as an undocumented farmworker, picking onions when he was just 5 years old, and never attended college. But Garcia’s remarkable innovations are helping to clean up the shipping industry.

“We can make a huge difference,” Garcia says of his company, Advanced Environmental Group, based in Long Beach, Calif. “And we want to make a difference.”

Massive container vessels, like the ones that sail to the Port of Long Beach, are among the planet’s super polluters. One estimate said particulate matter from their exhaust caused 87,000 deaths from cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer in 2012. The Guardian estimated that the world’s 15 biggest ships belch as many emissions as all of the cars on the planet.

The AMECS connects to an ocean vessel at the Port of Long Beach .
The AMECS connects to an ocean vessel at the Port of Long Beach.Advanced Environmental Group

At sea, their engines run on bunker fuel, the leftover muck at the bottom of an oil barrel. Once ships get 200 feet from a U.S. port, they switch to cleaner diesel, but they’re still polluting. Even at rest, a ship still emits as much diesel exhaust as roughly 12,500 cars. Here’s where Garcia’s company steps in, capturing most of the ship’s exhaust while it sits in port.

Crowded onto a small barge on the Port of Long Beach, Garcia’s crew hooks up a gigantic hose to a ship’s exhaust. “It’s basically a big scrubber,” Garcia says. His engineers always frown at that description, arguing that the technology is much more complicated than that. The integrated emissions-control process, which Garcia has patented, sucks more than 90 percent of the particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides out of the ship’s diesel engine.