Ayyoub Momen is in a unique and exciting position. He’s the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of a Knoxville start-up that has licensed a technology he developed for one purpose and commercializing it for different applications.
Sound unusual? It took some navigation and about five months of work, the researcher and his company – Ultrasonic Technology Solutions LLC – exclusively licensed a technology of the same name about 18 months ago. While it was invented to improve household clothes dryers, Momen’s license from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) allows him to apply the technology for commercial and industrial drying applications.
“There are so many industrial applications for the technology,” he told us during a recent interview. Those areas include pulp and paper, textiles, and even chemical companies that could use it for the production of lithium ion batteries.
The common denominator is removing water from materials more efficiently and at a faster rate than is currently possible, resulting in less energy usage. That reality helps explain his initial industry targets.
Momen explained that the paper and pulp industry is the third largest consumer of energy, behind oil and gas and the chemical sectors. Ultrasonic Technology Solutions is working with companies in two of the three industry groups to scale the technology for their applications.
The technology stems from research that Momen undertook soon after joining ORNL in 2013. The work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office.
“Clothes dryers consume a lot of energy . . . almost five percent of all consumer usage,” Momen explained. With current dryer technologies being so inefficient, he began thinking about alternative ways to remove more water. Momen was inspired by the way a dog responds after getting out of a pond or river.
“They shake themselves with water going everywhere,” Momen said, asking himself, “Could we replicate that process with a man-made device?”
The answer was “yes,” using something called a piezoelectric transducer and the high frequency vibration it produces to remove the water, creating a cold mist that can be carried out with the air stream or reclaimed within the device.
“For the typical cotton fabric, we have shown the process can be five times more efficient and two times faster than the conventional heat-based dryers,” Momen says.
So, in early 2018, he posed another question: “Why not leading the commercialization of the technology for industrial applications?” Momen knew it would have to be in sectors other than the traditional clothes dryer, and he also knew he would have to relinquish his role as a Principal Investigator on the ongoing research at ORNL. Nevertheless, Momen went for it.
“I first started working out of a desk in my bedroom, then moved to the basement of my home,” he said. About seven months ago, Ultrasonic Technology Solutions relocated to Murdock Drive business corridor where Momen, under the limitations of his approved outside activities agreement, and his two employees focusing on the technology commercialization.
In February 2020, the team won a prestigious National Technology Transfer Award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium. It recognizes significant accomplishments transferring federal laboratory technologies to the marketplace.
He’s self-funded the start-up, but has also secured a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from NASA where the company is focused on ways to recycle water used for various purposes on the Space Station.
“We are recovering almost 95 percent of the water from waste material,” he says.
Inspired by his parents to be an entrepreneur, he came to the U.S. in 2006 where he earned his doctorate at the University of Florida in 2010. After being a researcher at the institution, he came to ORNL in 2013.