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December 03, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Chem Chip developing a process that automatically refills alcohol-based sanitizers

In this period when hand sanitizing is top of mind for many people, one of the participants in the inaugural Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park (UTRP) is developing a process that can, among other important applications, automatically refill alcohol-based sanitizers as needed with ethanol made from air.

That’s just one of the cutting-edge possibilities for a technology that New Orleans-based Reactwell, LLC licensed in 2018 from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). More recently, the company secured a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy with ORNL to fund additional Cooperative Research & Development (CRADA) work on the conversion of carbon dioxide and water, sourced from atmospheric carbon dioxide and water vapor, into ethanol in a single step process

In the future, Brandon Iglesias, Founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Reactwell, sees opportunities to produce breakthrough applications to combat some of the greatest challenges facing the planet such as climate change through new renewable energy options.

“It’s nanotechnology-enabled material science,” he says. Chem Chip, one of several companies spun-out from Reactwell, just secured lab space with the Spark Innovation Center in UT, Knoxville’s Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM) where it will further develop the “chemistry on a chip” technology that provides the spinout’s name, Chem Chip for short.

“We were looking for lab space within close proximity to a national laboratory with nanoscience capacity, and JIAM was the most attractive option,” he said of the decision to locate Chem Chip in Knoxville, while his overall base of operations remains in New Orleans.

Another Reactwell spinout – Safety Spot Inc.– will actually distribute the first product named the Endless SanitizerTM. Drawing on the technology licensed from ORNL and a second patent Reactwell’s CTO and Chief Scientific Officer developed, the Endless SanitizerTM utilizes an electronic instrument called a potentiostat to direct automatic production of sanitizing liquid when the supply drops to a certain level. To do so, a stack of Chem ChipsTM contained within the Endless SanitizerTM converts carbon dioxide and water into ethanol through a process that uses copper and Carbon Nanospikes™, contained with a Chem Chip, in a single-step reaction that is powered by electricity.

“We grow the Carbon Nanospikes™, then add copper nanoparticles to make the catalyst produce ethanol molecules,” Iglesias adds. How much copper is added determines the final product – hand sanitizer, methane, hydrogen or something else.

Sound complicated? It is, as it requires new industry supply chains to be built out, synthesis and assembly methods to reduce costs and streamline bill of materials costs and parts availability. Iglesias explains that a traditional potentiostat can cost about $15,000. “It’s a huge capital hurdle to run an electrochemical reactor at a commercial scale, given current supply chains,” he explains.

Working with sponsored Chemical Engineering as well as Engineering and Physics student teams at Tulane University, Iglesias believes Reactwell can develop a new, definite purpose potentiostat product line that addresses specific electrochemical reactor operating conditions, while not competing against existing market offerings by established research grade potentiostat manufacturers. He believes the company can also drop the cost of a potentiostat under $500, making the Endless SanitizerTM cost effective with its convenience, reduced labor costs, and additional health and safety high availability values.

The Louisiana native started inventing about a decade ago while in graduate school at Tulane and won a business plan competition during those years. His work experience before launching Reactwell in 2011 included working as a Process Engineer, Laboratory Manager and Economics and Planning Finished Fuels Blender in the oil and gas industry.

Environmental sustainability is one of Iglesias’ core values as evidenced by his volunteering and work from 2013-17 with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator in scoping and activating an Advanced Prototyping Center focused on clean technologies. That effort benefitted the City of Los Angeles; Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, the nation’s largest municipally-owned utility, serving more than four million residents; and regional communities by providing a cost effective, cleantech and sustainable solutions site to convert ideas into prototypes for commercialization

As far as now spending time in Knoxville, he says, “I like it a lot. The Volunteer State resonates with me.”

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