Serionix recently received a $750,000 contract from NASA to fund continued development of filters to remove toxic gases from next-generation spacesuit life support systems.
Serionix creates high-performance filters based on a proprietary adsorptive coating technology called Colorfil™, which changes colors as it removes toxic chemicals and odors from air, while killing viruses, bacteria, and mold. Through an intuitive, vibrant color change, Colorfil™ lets users know when the filters are working and when they aren’t.
NASA’s next generation of spacesuit and Personal Life Support System (PLSS) demands ultra-high performance filtration to remove toxic chemicals that include ammonia and formaldehyde. The PLSS is used during extra-vehicular activities to keep astronauts safe, healthy, and comfortable. Because of the unique demands of spaceflight applications, every component of the PLSS must be as small, lightweight, and robust as possible. Enter Serionix and the color-changing air filters they have demonstrated now in applications ranging from pet- and cooking-odor removal to semiconductor chip manufacturing.
“We are excited for the opportunity to work with NASA to send our Colorfil technology into space,” James Langer, Serionix’s President, said.
“What’s truly exciting, however, is how the funding will indirectly support launch of consumer products based on the same core technology,” Langer continued. “For the most part, consumers today have almost no visibility on what filters actually do for them—making purchasing decisions difficult, and making it nearly impossible to determine when it’s time for replacement. With Colorfil, we are looking to change that.”
The first phase of Serionix’s project with NASA SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program began in June of 2016, and overlapped with the successful beta launch of their Colorfil™ air purifier and HVAC filters. In this second phase, Serionix will develop a demonstration unit suitable for incorporation into NASA’s spacesuit life support system. In the meantime, they will leverage partnerships with leading industrial players to launch products in residential, automotive, commercial, and high-end industrial applications.
We know that the air in our homes can have unwanted contaminants in it; that’s why we use filters. But not all filters were created equally. High efficiency furnace filters and portable air purifiers do a great job removing things like pollen and pet dander from the air. Unfortunately, even though pollen and pet dander are small from our perspective, in terms of air quality they are actually rather big when compared to other air contaminants. Other hazards like bacteria, viruses, and irritating chemicals are much, much smaller. Trying to capture them with conventional filters is the microscopic equivalent of trying to catch minnows with a tuna net. The chemicals we can’t capture using filters are often the most noticeable indicators of air quality in the form of malicious odors. When Zipper the cat pees on the carpet or your collard greens go bad it’s easy to notice that your air quality is suffering.
When air passes through a filter, big particles like dust and pet hair get caught in the filter fibers. But, small chemicals pass through the filters and into the ‘clean’ air.
There is a solution, though. Some filters can trap these small bacteria, viruses, and chemicals. But what does it mean for a filter to trap these tiny chemical molecules? What traps them? And do they stay trapped? The answer to all of these questions is adsorption.
Adsorption is a process where a substance in a gas or liquid becomes attached to a solid surface. Of course, if you’re not a chemist this doesn’t mean much. Instead of thinking about the scientific definition, think about Velcro. Some things stick to Velcro and some don’t—and the things that do stick tend to stay stuck.
Courtesy of Amazon.com
Adsorption works kind of like Velcro. The surface of a solid acts as the Velcro, and the tiny chemical molecules in the air act as the things that get stuck in Velcro. So, when air passes over the right kind of solid surface, chemical molecules in the air get stuck to that surface and the cleaned air passes over. And once the molecules are stuck to the surface, they don’t come back off.
When molecules in the air pass over an adsorptive surface, they get stuck to the surface and cleaned air passes over the surface.
There are lots of materials with this special, molecular-Velcro surface. The most common one is activated carbon. Activated carbon is similar to charcoal and naturally has this molecular-Velcro surface, which makes it really good at removing chemicals from the air. But, no one wants piles of charcoal sitting in their home to remove chemicals. So what can the average homeowner use instead to make sure they’re removing unwanted chemicals from their air?
The answer to this question is a coated filter. Think about a typical home furnace filter. These filters are really good at removing ‘big’ particles like dust and pet dander, but not so good at removing chemicals. But, with the addition of a coating that gives the filter the same molecular-Velcro surface that occurs naturally in activated carbon, a standard filter can remove chemicals, too.
When the filter fibers are coated to make their surface adsorptive, airborne chemicals stick to the fibers. That way, all of the contaminants—including small chemicals—are trapped.
Serionix makes filters like this. At Serionix, we’ve created a ‘special sauce’ that we add to typical home air filters. That way, our filters not only filter out the big stuff that typical filters handle but also the tiny chemicals that cause odors and irritation. With this combination of features, our filters ensure fresh, clean air in your home.
On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, meet JAMES LANGER, 36, president of Serionix, which makes high-performance filtration materials for removal of toxic chemicals from air and water, with a large number of customers — from the Army to an appliance maker.
My co-founders are Weihua Zheng and James Economy. Dr. Zheng and I both graduated from Dr. Economy’s research group in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Illinois. Weihua and I met in 2008 when he joined the group, and we just clicked right from the beginning. Our friendship and mutual respect grew over the next several years and eventually led us to start Serionix together. Since starting the company, we have expanded the team to include several additional engineers each with ties to UIUC. Tim Hoerr of Serra Ventures has been a great help to us — influential as both an investor and adviser since the advent of the company.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
I think I have been intrigued by the idea of starting a company ever since I saw my dad start one when I was in middle school. His startup never took off like he’d hoped, but his experience inspired me to see entrepreneurship as a possibility.
To that end, I came to graduate school in 2006 with a vague idea of working with a startup or starting a technology company, but lost that vision somewhere along the way — mostly because I didn’t really know where to start. In January 2011, Weihua and I entered into the Cozad business plan competition on campus and instantly got hooked on entrepreneurship! Through extensive networking and pitching our business concept, we became more connected to the local entrepreneurial community and received a lot of support and feedback to refine our business concept. Over the next year, we generated significant financial support for the business through Small Business Innovation Research grants and extensions of those same grants that have provided over $2 million in total funding that we have used to bring our air filtration technology to a commercial-ready state.
What does your product do that nothing else does?
Our filtration product removes toxic and smelly compounds from air, far more efficiently than conventional products, at a price point three times cheaper. As an added kicker, the filter changes color when it runs out of life to remind a user to replace it.
What’s in the future for Serionix?
We are preparing to bring our product to market in the next year, in applications ranging from electronics cleanrooms to vehicle cabin air filters, residential pet odor removal and beyond. We are currently working with a major appliance manufacturer to design an odor filter for one of their products, and are on the cusp of getting sales and development agreements with several corporate partners.
Tech tidbits …
from JAMES LANGER
Twitter handle? None, yet
Favorite app? Cooks Illustrated — the recipes always work!
Book or Kindle? Book for sure. I retain information better and enjoy the feel of a book in my hand.
CHAMPAIGN — Serionix took the top monetary prize at the Cozad New Venture Competition this past weekend.
The company — which has come up with filter materials to remove perchlorate from drinking water — took first place in the Most Fundable Venture category, earning the firm $15,000.
Jim Langer, the firm’s president, said he hopes to use the winnings for intellectual property development, such as filing patent applications, or business development, such as meeting with customers on the West Coast.
Langer said Serionix started a year ago as a result of taking part in the 2011 Cozad competition. But last year, the firm didn’t make the finals.
“That served as motivation for us to work hard, and the results this year indicate it paid off,” he said.
Before taking part in last year’s competition, “we had no clear direction of what we really wanted to do, but as a result of the competition, and exposure to and connection with mentors, we were able to craft pieces for what ultimately became the company,” he said. “Cozad was the spark that set it off.”
Serionix recently won the Student Startup Award at Champaign County’s Innovation Celebration and was a finalist for the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize.
Other monetary winners at this year’s Cozad competition included:
— GlucoSentient, which won a $10,000 prize as the Burrill Best Digital Healthcare Application. GlucoSentient aims to improve the lives of patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who take theophylline. It proposes home monitoring through use of a blood glucose meter.
— Transplants Without Donors, which won a $7,500 prize as Best Social Venture. That team invented a life-saving therapy based on the creation of artificial organs from the patients’ stem cells and biomaterials.
— HigherMed, which won a $5,000 prize for second place in the Most Fundable Venture category. That team plans to develop and market an easier-to-use prescription pill bottle cap, primarily for people with decreased dexterity.
— Oso Simple Technologies and Prawg each won a $2,500 prize for Best Mobile Application. Oso Simple aims to reduce the water used on lawns and gardens, while Prawg focuses on real-time interaction between TV shows and their audiences. Prawg also won a $1,000 prize for Most Patentable Idea/Venture.
— StudyCloud won a $2,000 prize for third place in the Most Fundable Venture category. StudyCloud is an online collaboration platform poised at integrating social web technology with online education.
Twenty teams took part in the competition’s semifinals, and nine advanced to Saturday’s finals, held at the UI’s Business Instructional Facility.
The finalists were: Easy Go Dispenser, EscaWheel, GlucoSentient, HigherMed, OceanComm, Serionix, StudyCloud, Transplants Without Donors and uZee.
The annual competition is named for V. Dale Cozad, founder of Cozad Asset Management. The program was established through an endowment from Peter and Kim Fox and is administered through the UI’s Technology Entrepreneur Center.
UI Researchers Develop Effective, Less Costly Way to Remove Contaminants
CHAMPAIGN — Jim Langer and Weihua Zheng have come up with a relatively inexpensive — but effective — way to remove perchlorate from water.
Perchlorate is a rocket-fuel component that has found its way into water sources, sometimes near air force bases. Exposure to it can affect the thyroid gland.
But by using “clever chemistry,” Langer and Zheng have been able to develop a filter material that can remove the contaminant from water.
The filter can be used on a faucet or in a pitcher, and the researchers see commercial potential for it.
They’ve started a company, Serionix, in the University of Illinois Research Park with their adviser, James Economy, a UI professor emeritus of materials science and engineering.
Already, the company has received two Small Business Innovation Research grants — $150,000 from the National Science Foundation and $100,000 from the Department of Defense.
The NSF grant will be used to commercialize the technology for removal of perchlorate and possibly other contaminants from water.
The Defense Department grant will be used to develop ways of protecting facilities from chemical warfare — possibly by using the filter material in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems.
Langer, 32, of Urbana said the filter is made possible by composite materials known as “ion-exchange fiber composites.”
The technology involves coating tiny fibers with resin and activating the material by chemical or temperature means.
That gives the material the functionality of ion exchange. In water softeners, ion exchange is used to remove calcium and magnesium from water.
In Serionix filters, ion exchange is used to convert perchlorate to chloride.
The technology has won Serionix recognition on several levels. In February, the company won the Student Startup Award at Champaign County’s Innovation Celebration.
Last week, Langer was one of five UI finalists for the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize, given for creative solutions to real-world problems.
Langer said Serionix is working with Champaign-based Serra Ventures to develop corporate strategies.
He figures Serionix may work with corporate partners to manufacture materials for Serionix — or the firm may license the technology so interested companies can integrate it into their products.
Among the best-known filtration products on the market today are Procter & Gamble’s PUR water filter and Clorox Co.’s Brita water filter.
“There are probably 10 or 15 more companies in that space,” Langer said.
Serionix’s material could “add functionality and marketability” to those kinds of products, he added.
In February 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would develop regulations for perchlorate in drinking water.
Just what the regulations will be isn’t clear yet. But Langer said that in developing regulations for arsenic in water, the EPA allowed small municipalities to treat water in the home, rather than centrally.
If the EPA were to take the same approach for perchlorate, Serionix’s filter could become an important “regulatory compliance tool,” he said.
Langer is the president and CEO of Serionix.
Originally from the Minneapolis area, he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., in 2002. He then worked four years as an analytical chemist for CIMA Labs before joining the doctoral program at the UI.
Co-founder Weihua Zheng, 26, of Savoy is originally from China’s Hebei province. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Zhejiang University in China in 2007. After working a year at an ion-exchange plant in China, he came to the UI in 2008.
Both credit Economy with helping them start Serionix.
“For a long time, he’s encouraged us to have an entrepreneurial mind-set,” whether in collaborating with other groups on campus or approaching companies to see what interest they may have in research, Langer said.
The latter half of the Serionix name is loosely derived from “ion exchange,” Langer said. As for the origin of the first half, “we liked how it sounded.”
Both Langer and Zheng said they plan to devote full time to Serionix after they complete their degrees.
“Definitely, I want to see this through with the company,” Langer said. “I could see myself being a professor 10 to 20 years from now, but I feel connected with the entrepreneur community here.”