The air inside a spacecraft and the air in a grocery store aisle have something in common, at least right now: They’re not always safe to breathe.
Spacecraft like the International Space Station rely on two means for breathable air: shipments of air from Earth and a process called electrolysis, in which electric currents break down water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. As that oxygen circulates throughout the ship, however, it can build up harmful levels of chemicals like ammonia and formaldehyde.
Serionix co-founder Will Zheng, along with his co-founder James Langer and doctoral advisor James Economy, spent years developing a self-sterilizing material that can filter harmful particles, as well as viruses and bacteria, from air. NASA has it in spaceships, and, soon, we could have it on our faces.
From Astronauts to Earthlings
When NASA put out a call for innovations in air filtration technology, it had been using active carbon to filter air for 50 years, Zheng said.
“Because of the limitations on the weight and space, that wasn’t able to resolve the issue anymore,” he said. “So they were really looking for next-generation technology, which would be much smaller, much lighter and perform a lot better.”
NASA found a provider of that technology in Serionix, which received a Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2016 to develop air filters for space. The company’s proprietary, lightweight Colorfil coating — which soaks up toxic chemicals quickly and visibly changes color once it’s saturated — was a good fit for filters in spaceships, and, four years later, Serionix is still working with NASA to develop filters for spacesuits.
Zheng, who is originally from China and currently an MBA candidate and Zell Fellow at Northwestern University, had talked with his co-founder early in the company’s history about commercializing the technology by making industrial masks. Then, they decided to make air filters for computer chip factories and semiconductor clean rooms. Lately, they’ve been making at-home filters for pet odors and allergens.
But, as they read headlines from China this past February, they realized their first idea was coming full circle.
“I’ve been through 2003 and SARS, and we saw that this would become a more global issue, and there would be a shortage of personal protective equipment for a really long time,” Zheng said.
China manufactures a large portion of the global supply of N95 masks, they reasoned, and that country faced mask shortages that grew by tens of millions every day. They started discussing what it would take to shift their production resources toward making masks.
“The real moment was when we talked with our NASA representatives and they said, ‘We are thinking about the same thing,’” Zheng said. “They were developing the prototypes around a face mask pouch they could put our media in.”
How Serionix Could Help
While a Serionix mask would not be as effective as an N95 mask, it would be far better than the scarves most people are using currently, Zheng said. The company doesn’t know yet if its material is anti-viral for COVID-19, but its self-sterilization technology has proven effective against other viruses in the past.
The material’s most helpful feature, however, may be its color-changing property. Effectively sterilizing masks isn’t easy — even for medical professionals with access to methods like ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide vapors. For consumers, a color-changing mask would eliminate the need for mask-cleaning by making it obvious when it’s OK to reuse and when it’s time for a new one.
If all goes according to plan, Zheng said, consumers could expect to see these masks in the next few months.
“Just like in the Dunkirk evacuation, every small boat can count.”
The next steps for Serionix will be to hire more people to meet demand for both masks and the company’s existing products, solidify partnerships with companies that will provide the materials to be coated in Colorfil, and decide how the coating itself needs to be tweaked for this new use case.
“We’re working out how our technology can be integrated with partners,” Zheng said. “Are we going to combine our media into theirs, or are we going to add a surface layer to existing face masks, or will there be other ways?”
In the past, Zheng said, the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency review processes took around two years. Now, everything is streamlined, so Serionix will learn more about anti-viral application of its technology — and then the status of its partnerships — in the coming weeks.
Until then, Zheng and his team will keep doing what they’ve always done: iterating on their product to make the air more breathable — whether that air is in space or in your grocery store.
“Just like in the Dunkirk evacuation, every small boat can count,” he said. “So we decided to make an effort and try to conquer this issue.”