Advanced Electron Beams, With DOE and VC Money in Tow, Tackles Air Pollution
Wilmington, MA-based Advanced Electron Beams is developing energy-efficient technology in a sector that typically doesn’t attract the same attention as hybrid cars or green buildings: industrial manufacturing.
The company makes a device that CEO Mitch Tyson describes as a stainless-steel light bulb, which emits a cloud of high-speed electrons to produce a blue glow, replacing industrial processes that typically require vast amounts of heat, water, or chemicals. This includes sterilizing in food packaging and pharmaceutical environments, and curing coatings for metal, wood, and plastics in manufacturing. “Anything that goes into the glow is transformed,” says Tyson, explaining how the electron beam technology incites a chemical reaction in the materials it touches.
For example, companies that make food and beverage packaging need to sterilize sheets of plastic to convert them into storage containers, he says. That process requires manufacturers to run the material through a hot, chemical-laden solution. Afterwards, they’ll also have to rinse the material to ensure none of the chemicals remain on the food packaging.
Instead, AEB‘s device, which is rolled into other industrial equipment, can shoot an electron beam onto the plastic surface to sterilize the material, eliminating the need for the chemicals, heat, and rinse water. The technology can also replace the ovens typically needed to dry ink in the commercial printing process, and also has applications in pharmaceuticals and medical devices production, materials engineering, and industrial coating. General Electric (NYSE: GE) is both an investor in the company and a consumer of its technology.
Using electron beam technology to induce chemical processes is not new, but previous methods were expensive, bulky, and difficult to install, operate, and maintain, says AEB, which raised a $14.2 million Series C round a year ago from investors including Flagship Ventures, Agman Partners, Atlas Venture, GE, General Catalyst Partners, and RockPort Capital Partners. Its intellectual property focuses on converting the process into simple, compact beam emitters that can be mass-produced.
“We’re taking an older technology that’s really large, complex, and difficult to use and bringing it to a form that could really revolutionize the manufacturing process,” says Tyson. He compared the original electron beam methods to old mainframe computers, and likened AEB’s approach to laptops.
Now, the company is out to tackle the air pollution that factories emit in sites ranging from printing houses to auto body shops. To that end, it attracted a $250,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s Industrial Energy Efficiency Grand Challenge. The federal program has pledged a total of $13 million to support innovative ideas aimed at reducing the energy footprint of companies in the industrial manufacturing realm, which accounts for roughly one-third of the energy used in the U.S. The private sector has also dedicated an additional $5 million to the effort.
Here’s how it will work. AEB is exploring ways to use its electron beam device to break down volatile organic compounds that result from a number of industrial processes. At present, large, high-energy thermal oxidizers burn off the chemicals, which are essentially precursors to smog, Tyson says. These existing methods of using heat to break down the complex hydrocarbon chains do so inefficiently, he says.
“Heat is like shaking it until it breaks,” Tyson says of the oxidizer method. “An electron beam is like using scissors to cut the bond.”
So the company is using the Department of Energy grant to test the applications for its product in breaking down organic solvents. The production of the electron beam itself is essentially the same across the different disciplines that AEB serves, but the size of the device that shoots the beam varies across disciplines.
The firm’s current products have emitters that range in width from less than one inch—designed to fit inside the nozzle of a bottle—to 16 inches. AEB, which has 47 employees, will use the $250,000 grant from the DOE to test for the ideal parameters for its electron beam emitter in tackling pollution, and could then be up for another federal grant to develop the device for the market, Tyson says.