UV Sciences Tries to Tap Into Water Purification Industry With Smaller and Less Costly Technology

After Ultraviolet Sciences was founded in 2002, it took the little San Diego cleantech startup seven years to launch its first product. It’s a water purification device that uses ultraviolet (UV) light to sterilize microbial contaminants in drinking water.

Such UV technology has been gaining momentum in recent years as an alternative to chlorine disinfectant, CEO Ron Chaffee says. It’s a trend that might reflect the wave of interest and enthusiasm that nearly all things clean and green have been generating. Pure water encompasses an estimated $l billion-dollar global market that includes bottling and beverage plants, municipal and quasi-governmental water treatment plants, and other commercial, pharmaceutical, and industrial uses. Semiconductor manufacturers, for example, require huge quantities of ultra-pure water to rinse silicon wafers.

Pouring water into glassUsing UV technology to kill germs is an idea that’s been around for 50 years, Chaffee says. Big conglomerates like GE, Siemens, ITT, and Wedeco make most of the existing UV water purification equipment. It’s been hard for UV Sciences to compete. Chaffee says they often have trouble differentiating themselves from equipment makers, even though he sees UV Sciences as more of a technology development company. Chaffee also contends that gallon-for-gallon, the proprietary tools designed by UV Sciences founder J.R. “Randy” Cooper are 75 percent smaller than existing UV purifiers, cost 50 percent less to buy, and cost 90 percent less to operate.

Even so, Chaffee describes UV Sciences as a “capitally constrained” startup in an established industry where most of the marketing is conducted through visits with customers and trade shows, which can quickly get expensive. “I don’t think our challenges are any different than any other small startup trying to break into a mature market,” Chaffee says.

Since the company opened its office in 2004, Chaffee says UV Sciences has raised $1.7 million in seed and Series A venture funding, and collected another $816,000 through a government technology transfer grant for small business.

One sign that the little startup might be onto something emerged last week, when Chaffee gave a presentation about UV Sciences to the San Diego chapter of the MIT Enterprise Forum. Sitting in the audience were two engineers from DEKA Research & Development, the Manchester, NH-based company run by Dean Kamen, who made a fortune inventing an improved insulin pump and gained fame as inventor of the Segway.

DEKA is a UV Sciences customer, Chaffee says. “We had planned a meeting with them on Thursday to review the progress on their project,” Chaffee writes in an e-mail. “One of them is an MIT grad and had seen the bulletin, and since they arrived Wednesday afternoon they asked if they could attend.”

Kamen (a Boston Xconomist) has long been interested in developing inexpensive water purification devices, ostensibly for developing countries where high infant mortality rates are attributed to poor water quality. “While they will not tell us about their final product, we do know that they are using our system to remove chlorine out of tap water,” Chaffee says. “I think it is safe to assume that it doesn’t have anything to do with 3rd world countries.”

Chaffee and Cooper explain that ultraviolet light generated by a low-pressure mercury vapor lamp sterilizes microbes by penetrating the cellular wall at two wavelengths—185 and 254 nanometers—which disrupt the organisms’ DNA.

One problem with ultraviolet light, though is that the stainless steel typically used to make water purification chambers absorbs UV light energy, so that much of the UV light emitted is converted to heat energy. To compensate, designers use multiple UV lamps—essentially adding additional lamps to ensure that all the water pumped through the chamber gets adequately exposed to UV light.  UV Sciences addressed the issue by developing a highly reflective film for the inner chamber walls, which reflects 98 percent of the UV light—instead of absorbing more than 80 percent. It sounds simple, Chaffee says, but the company has obtained two patents for the design.

UV Sciences says the UV generated at wavelengths of 185 and 254 nanometers also provide the most benefit in terms of breaking up chemical contaminants, such as chlorine compounds and long-chain hydrocarbon molecules. Chaffee says the 185 nanometer wavelength in particular tends to break water molecules (H20) into an oxygen atom and a hydroxyl radical (-OH), which are highly reactive and help to break up organic chemical compounds in water. Interest in breaking up hydrocarbon molecules is so high, in fact, (driven largely by new EPA rules set to take effect in 2014) that UV Sciences has three patents pending for a next-generation light source (an excimer gas in a micro-discharge structure) that emits a more energized form of 185 nanometer light. “We’re just trying to make as much [UV] light as we can,” says Chaffee, who estimates it will take two years to commercialize the latest innovation.

The company began selling its water purification systems in March 2009, and generated $164,000 in sales last year. Today the company has 25 customers and has shipped 70 water purification systems, which range from a capacity of 35 gallons per minute to 500 gallons per minute. Chaffee says UV Sciences has forecast sales of $500,000 this year, and expects to generate $1.5 million in sales next year. The question he still ponders, though, is whether the advantages they offer—a product that is smaller, cheaper, and more efficient—will be enough to turn the tide in water purification.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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