Big scare creates big market for nanoparticle masks

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Sept. 18, 2003 — At the height of the SARS outbreak last spring, Doug Beplate’s Emergency Filtration Products Inc.  (EFP) was scrambling to produce as many of its nanoparticle filtration masks as possible, particularly in the Asian markets hardest hit by the communicable virus.

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Now that the situation has been stabilized, fears have subsided along with any demand for masks that use nanoparticle clusters to filter out biological hazards.

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But Beplate, president of Las Vegas, Nev., based EFP, said that regardless of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare, the company’s 2H Nano-Enhanced Environmental Mask represents a widening market.

“What we have is the ability to coat any filter with nanoparticles,” said Beplate, referring to a nanoparticle-based defense against harmful bacterial, viral, biological and chemical agents.

“There’s a ton of applications for this type of technology, Beplate said. “Anywhere they filter air. We’ve just scratched the surface on this.”

While Beplate has aspirations for the application of nanoparticles in all kinds of filters — ventilation systems and hospital breathing machines — EFP seized on the SARS scare in a manufacturing deal with Nanospire Inc. co-founder Louis Shu and his company Weise Labs this summer to produce 500,000 of its $4 masks and 2 million of its replacement filters in Taiwan.

The masks take advantage of the high efficacy of nanoparticles, which are clustered together and enhanced to create ionization on the filter. While making the filter more efficient, the nanoparticle coating joins with chlorine particles to achieve an “arrest and eradication” of undesirable agents, according to Beplate.

Hazardous particulates not only are blocked but destroyed, while a traditional filter without the nanoparticle coating would turn into a breeding ground for a virus or bacterial agent, he stressed.

“It’s the difference between eradication versus growth,” Beplate said.

Kenneth Klabunde, a Kansas State University chemistry professor and co-founder, vice president and chief technical officer of NanoScale Materials Inc., said the masks exploit the aggregation of nanoparticles, which can attract, block and kill harmful materials without passing through the filter.

An expert in reactive nanoparticles and advanced materials, Klabunde outlined four advantages of nanoparticles: nanoparticles’ abrasion cuts the bacteria; their basic chemical properties “soften bacteria;” they attract bacteria and aggregate with them; and lastly the nanoparticles work with chlorine to deprive bacteria of oxygen and destroy them.

The nanoparticles in the filter masks are “nano in the fundamental crystal size,” but do not represent nanoscale manipulation, according to Klabunde, who said the masks’ nanoparticle coatings behave like fine powders.

In Realis consultant Steven Glapa said the Nano Masks represent a very basic application of nanotechnology — “a lower species in the Darwinian evolution of nanotech” — which he likens to industrial chemistry.

“It’s clever industrial chemistry,” he said. “A lot of coatings fall into that category.”

Klabunde, whose company has grown from his own work in a leased laboratory to a state-of-the-art lab and production facility with a staff of 30, agreed the agent-killing properties of the chlorine-enhanced metal oxide nanoparticles are what make the mask most effective.

“Without the killing action, the bacteria get in (the filter) and over time through multiplying, the mask becomes dangerous,” Klabunde said. “It’s just an added protection.”

That protection was a hot commodity during this year’s worldwide SARS scare, but Klabunde said education is needed to stress the importance of getting a mask before an outbreak.

“The markets do seem to ebb and flow,” Klabunde said. “When people get scared, everybody wants a mask. We need to do the technical work first, then show them it would be good to have something like this when needed; then the market would be more even.”

Manhattan, Kan.-based NanoScale, manufacturer of 10 different nanoparticle-based materials under its NanoActive brand name, is serving as a material supplier for EFP on the nanoparticle masks, according to NanoScale vice president of marketing and sales Tom Allen. Allen said FastAct, the company’s new material intended for first responders to neutralize toxic chemicals, is available for shipping and NanoScale has had commercial sales of the product.

An application of nanotechnology to protect against SARS, anthrax and other biological threats comes from Henrietta, N.Y.-based Integrated Nano Technologies. Rather than filtering harmful biological agents, Integrated Nano’s handheld device centers on DNA-based testing to detect their presence.

The system, called BioDetect, rapidly and accurately tests for the presence of biological pathogens, such as the SARS virus, as well as anthrax and smallpox, according to Sathyaraj Radhakrishnan, a Technical Insights analyst for research firm Frost and Sullivan.

“This system will fill a substantial void in current methods of detection, which are slow, lab-based and expensive,” Radhakrishnan said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health organization has warned that SARS will be back. The scare did, in fact, resurface again last June.

With the worldwide general public as its market, Beplate said EFP will be cranking out masks and possibly other filters as fast as it can to keep up with the next scare, especially in the Pacific Rim.


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