Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.
Aeras Holdings’ ActivePure products include Air Scrubber Plus, a line of air- and surface-purifying devices typically installed in home ventilation systems, but the full line of ActivePure products comprises about 60 models, ranging from small, portable devices to industrial-sized units, and are made for installation anywhere from ceiling tiles to automobiles.
All of these are built on a discovery made in the 1990s at the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, a NASA Research Partnership Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Researchers there, with the help of the Space Product Development Program at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, were trying to solve a specific problem when they hit upon a broad solution: photocatalytic oxidation.
When ultraviolet light strikes titanium dioxide, it frees electrons that turn oxygen and moisture into highly reactive hydroxyl radicals. These charged particles then oxidize air contaminants such as volatile organic compounds, turning them into carbon dioxide and water.
The university researchers were trying to eliminate ethylene that accumulates around plants growing in spacecraft, but they found that their ethylene “scrubber” also eliminated other airborne organic compounds and neutralized bacteria, viruses, and molds.
In 2009, Aerus — formerly the Electrolux vacuum cleaner company — acquired EcoQuest, which had a proprietary form of the technology known as ActivePure. It didn’t just clean the air that passed through the system, but sent oxidizers out into the surrounding environment where they could not only neutralize airborne contaminants and pathogens, but also settle on and clean surfaces.
Aerus made further enhancements, altering the mix of metals in the photo-catalyst and changing the way it interacts with the ultraviolet light to make it more effective. The oxidizers ActivePure deploys include hydroxyls, hydrogen peroxide, and superoxides — all charged particles that clean air and surfaces, but pose no threat to humans or pets. They naturally distribute themselves throughout the air, so the only question is the quantity needed to clean a given space.
A 2013 study found that ActivePure virtually eliminated bacteria and fungus populations on various surfaces in three hotel rooms. After 30 days of exposure to both ActivePure and numerous hotel guests, no fungus was detected, and colony-forming bacteria counts were down to the single digits, even on surfaces with initial counts in the hundreds or thousands.
After four players in the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball organization contracted methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections in one year, the team installed ActivePure air purifiers in its stadium’s locker room and gym. A study at the facilities again demonstrated that the purifiers virtually eliminated bacteria and fungus throughout the facility, and dramatically reduced air particle counts continuously over the course of a year. Nearly 30 Major League Baseball teams now have ActivePure technology in their facilities.
Even the most sterile environments can benefit from the devices. A 2015 study in an operating room at a Dallas hospital showed that after a week of ActivePure exposure, bacteria counts were down by more than 80 percent, and air particles by 90 percent.
Restaurant kitchens use ActivePure to clean their exhaust fumes, and it also can clean clothes. Units such as the Aerus Laundry Pro and Vollara LaundryPure can be hooked up to any washing machine to eliminate the need for detergent, bleach, and hot water. The company estimates the devices could save a family up to $460 per year in detergent and electricity while keeping potentially allergenic detergent residue off clothes, and phosphates out of the local water.
Photocatalytic oxidation may trace its roots to the space program — and could one day clean air and water for astronauts on deep-space exploration missions — but so far, the technology has made its most important impact in everyday life on Earth.