A self-funded technology incubator, Innovators Ltd, has developed the world’s first practical, market-ready ultrasonic spray.
Omnimist, an Innovators-incubated company, holds the IP rights to the technology and technical know-how, and is bringing commercial and domestic products to market across a range of applications. NZEN editor Romy Udanga explores some of the challenges encountered in developing the technology, with Innovators founder and chief executive, Jon Lowy.
The billion-dollar aerosol industry delivers about six billion aerosol cans used in automatic aerosol dispensing units worldwide every year. These units waste approximately 95 percent of the product they are meant to dispense into the atmosphere because they are incapable of producing the size of the droplets that will stay suspended in air. Of probably greater importance, they also release millions of tons of hydrocarbon propellants into the atmosphere and even greater quantities of VOCs and solvents each year.
Mr Lowy read the label on one of the aerosol insect repellant products several years ago and decided to do something about it.
“The aerosol can volume is about 50 percent petrol and 50 percent butane, with a trace of pyrethrum that is used to kill or drive insects away, and on top of that three to four times as much of piperonyl butoxide (PBO), which has been identified as a carcinogen and a cause of birth defects in mammals. The PBO makes pyrethrum work better, blocking the detox mechanism – in both insects and people. I got quite angry with this and started to look for ways of creating water-based airborne dispense that is as effective, without the horrors,” Mr Lowy says.
As a team, Innovators has a strong background in ultrasonics, so team members started looking at an ultrasonic dispense technology, and saw a solution in a water-based spray. But Mr Lowy was amazed to find that, given the scale of the opportunity and the simplicity of the solution, not one had gone to market with products using the same concept they have thought of.
“I needed understand why others have failed and why we could do better,” Mr Lowy says.
The drip problem
It came to head during his discussion with the technical lead of one of the major sanitising companies in Singapore who asked how Innovators ‘solved the drip problem’. The drip problem is when the spray does not work efficiently and fluid gathers and dribbles down the front – a major failure if it EVER happens.
His solution lay in rethinking how the emitter element, a very cheap component used in lots of low cost humidifier products, works. The manufacturers of these devices make products that spray 10 to 20 microliters per second of the fluid.
“Every product that we’ve seen that attempted to enter this space is based on the assumption that you supply fluid, you spray fluid. And it stops there. So there is likely to be accumulation of excess fluid. But if you don’t supply fluid in excess, then you don’t maximise the spray. If you supply too little, you can be sure of spraying it, hence the 10 microliters that most of these products spray. If you supply just the right amount in just the right way, then the ultrasonic element will enthusiastically spray everything that it can. But you need to supply too much fluid to achieve that. Once you supply too much fluid, you have to do something with the excess, otherwise it will escape,” Mr Lowy explains.
No drip, no problem
But the prototypes that Innovators developed never had drip problems.
“Well, we haven’t had a drip problem. So we didn’t know how we solved it, at the start” Mr Lowy says. “I guess we understood the nature of the problem from the beginning and therefore never faced it because we got ‘lucky’ and got it right from the start.”
Innovators used a fluid flow mechanism derived from a Victorian steam engine lubrication pump. “You supply liquid through a pipe and drain it through another pipe into a reservoir, and there is a super low cost circulation pump in the bottom to make the fluid flow continuous,” he explains. “But such a pump did not exist at the scale and price range I wanted, so we made our own.”
The advantage of the pump is that the product does not have to have a reservoir above the dispenser. It does not rely on gravity. The fluid can be pumped around and Omnimist can make the product aesthetics any shape or form that the market requires.
On September 9, Innovators reached its 12-month priority timeframe for patenting the technology – a closed loop system where the spray is incidental to the flow of fluid – and have since sent the final applications to the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Optimising the spray
The reason the Omnimist product is more effective than other aerosols in the market is that it sprays 80 to 100 microliters per second of fluid – four to 10 times more than the humidifiers it supercedes – and 90 to 95 percent of the fluid sprayed remain airborne because all of the spray is between 10 and 20 micrometre-sized droplets.
“The emitter element usually sprays 10 to 20 microliters of fluid per second, but we wanted more. We want to take the market by storm with products that are significantly better in all regards, and cost no more,” Mr Lowy says.
“We did a great deal of work around optimising the way that we use the element and the way that we supply fluid to it. In the end we were able to get 80 to 100 microliters per second out of the same device for the same power source.”
Part of the optimisation goal is to ensure the maximum amount of sprayed fluid remains airborne.
“Traditional products spray particles that are mostly too large to stay in the air,” Mr Lowy explains. “So there is a plume of particles, then they drop. About 90 to 95 percent of what an aerosol sprays is not airborne after a few seconds – and therefore not effective.”
By changing the frequency of the oscillator that is spraying the fluid, Innovators was able to control the size of sprayed particles precisely.
“No particle in the stream that is sprayed out of the Omnimist is bigger than 20 microns or smaller than 8 microns. So the particles all remain airborne for a long time. It means we are able to spray 90, perhaps 95 percent less fluid than a traditional aerosol for the same effect.”
Next challenge: Battery solution
“At the moment, we have a four-battery prototype that runs for 200 to 300 days. The ones in the marketplace have two batteries but only last 30 to 60 days,” Mr Lowy says. “The next challenge is to produce a two-battery prototype that runs for 150 days.”
One concept Innovators is testing is a mechanism that charges a capacitor so that the unit can have high current for short times.
“When the batteries’ voltage starts to drop too low, you can’t really take very high current from them. But since this device is intended to spray intermittently, we can build up the charge overtime with the capacitor and discharge it suddenly,” he says.
Mr Lowy says Omnimist is just going to market testing in a number of sectors.
“We are currently in late stage discussion for a license deal, worth £100 million over five years, with a major UK-based player, for a version of this product to go into their brand,” he says.
Some of the potential medical applications for the Omnimist unit are breathtaking in more ways than one. For example, the technology offers the low cost nebulised delivery of drugs from liquid form, dispensed in particle sizes that can target the airways for rapid absorption and highly directed treatment.
“Reduced particle sizes penetrate further into the thorax and are more readily taken up into tissues. This would have an obvious and immediate life-changing effect on the 300m+ asthma sufferers worldwide by the precise delivery of corticosteroids to the right place, with no ineffectual ‘overspray’, suggesting the possibility of dramatically reduced overall dosage for equal or better outcomes,” Mr Lowy says.
In addition to the contribution to medical science the Omnimist technology can impact significantly on agriculture and other areas of science and technology, for instance in treating PSA in gold kiwifruit, or in low cost thin film optical coatings that improve screen performance in sunlight or reduce operational and manufacturing costs in electronics manufacturers and chip fabrication plants.
“The technology has now been validated to the extent that we can start to develop the full potential in a wide range of established and new markets. Holding onto the IP rights and technical know-how allows Omnimist to undertake multiple market entries, resulting in wide penetration into many appropriate sectors,” he says.