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."