Like many stories of innovation, my story begins in the late 1980s with a personal plight: a health issue in my family. My son Dilip had severe asthma as a child and also experienced food and respiratory allergies. Though we were able to address his food allergies by removing certain ingredients from his diet, we faced another challenge: how to contend with airborne allergens. Because his allergies would frequently trigger asthma attacks, we would often end up in the ER. It was painful not only for him but also for my wife and me who watched him struggle to breathe.
What to do about indoor air pollution
At the time, there was not a lot of credible information available about indoor air quality. The American Lung Association was one of the few sources that provided some useful content about indoor air pollutants such as mold spores, bacteria, viruses, dust mites and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). These pollutants can cause allergy symptoms, asthma attacks, and other health problems. We realized that if we could address the allergens in the air, we could potentially reduce Dilip’s allergy and asthma symptoms.
Existing air purification technologies
Existing air filters could remove larger pollutants to some extent, but the problem was that toxic pollutants like mold or bacteria could continue to multiply on the filter surface.
Existing types of filters could essentially collect organic contaminants on the filter surface and eventually release them back into the air. Also, these devices would not effectively remove airborne chemicals (VOCs) that arise from common household materials or products.
Around that time, ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers) was planning their annual conference and advertised an expert-led session on Indoor Air Quality. Hoping to learn something new, I attended that session.
What became clear to me was the industry was approaching the problem in the same way they had been for decades, and companies were only producing minor variations on an outdated technology.
Inventing a new clean air technology
Because there was no outlook for a viable solution that could address my son’s health issues, I felt challenged as a scientist to invent something new that would actually help him. I asked myself how I might borrow from my 30 years of solar energy research experience to see if there were any parallels that could be applied.
As I sat in the car on my way back from the conference, I began to think about a solar photocatalytic technology that I had developed to clean groundwater. This solar technology was used to purify groundwater contaminated by jet fuel at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Florida. I suspected that photocatalytic technology could also be used to clean air, but instead of using sunlight, it would require light of a specific wavelength.
I was inspired and began new research that explored how to clean indoor air using a photocatalytic process. Over the next few years, my team and I studied how to create a catalytic reaction by combining a filter coated with nanoparticles with light of certain wavelengths.
Photo Electrochemical Oxidation
Our first breakthrough was the invention of a process now known as photocatalytic oxidation (PCO), which was able to break down airborne pollutants at the molecular level. While the PCO technology was a step forward, it proved to work slowly and ineffectively.
We had to find a way to increase its effectiveness. We experimented with adding elements of photovoltaics, which increased the quantum efficiency of the process by orders of magnitude. This discovery fundamentally changed the effectiveness and speed of the process.
The newly enhanced technology, known as Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO), quickly broke down indoor air pollutants like bacteria, viruses, mold, VOCs and allergens. Third-party laboratories tested the technology’s effectiveness with different contaminants (see the destruction curve for VOCs below) and compared its performance to other air filter technologies, HEPA and carbon filtration. The independent tests verified that the PECO technology could do what its predecessors could not: destroy organic pollutants, as well as harmful airborne chemicals, effectively and efficiently.
The future of air quality
As a father and a scientist, developing this technology was a natural reaction to make things better for my son. In 2014, Dilip, my daughter Jaya and I founded Molekule to make the technology available to everyone.
After hearing stories from customers who have used Molekule, I feel grateful that the device has helped them while they face similar health challenges. In a pilot clinical study, Molekule was shown to significantly reduce symptoms for participants suffering from allergies, and the results were presented to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (ACAAI).
As the decades have passed by, there is more awareness about the importance of indoor air quality and a wealth of information from organizations like the EPA and the ALA. However, we are only beginning to take steps towards our mission of eliminating indoor air pollution, in every home, for everyone. I continue my work as a scientist and professor to bring forward new technologies for the public good, and I hope my story will inspire future inventors to pursue advancements in environmental health and air quality.