Twin Cities businesses looking for the light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel are finding hope in ultraviolet rays.
Requests for UV filtration systems for air ducts are up and one local inventor has a patent-pending bulb he hopes to see installed in large spaces, such as U.S. Bank Stadium or airports.
“Basically … we can sanitize the air in seconds,” said Bob Albertson, of Orono. The 84-year-old inventor, who owns Albertson Enterprises, said he came up with the idea 12 years ago but couldn’t find a market for it until the pandemic hit. He envisions a future where masks and social distancing are unnecessary in indoor spaces that are “washed” in pale blue UV light.
Albertson said he’s got about 50 patents pending for the bulb and is actively looking for property to build a factory in the Twin Cities to mass produce it.
In the mean time, businesses are looking to established UV technology that filters duct air to lure virus-conscious customers back into their public spaces.
Bill Foussard, owner of Rudy’s Redeye Grill and the adjoining White Bear Country Inn in White Bear Lake, recently had 11 UV units installed in his heating and cooling system and the sales rep for the product said he’s not the only one.
“Our demand is through the roof right now,” said Alan Griffing, sales rep for RFG Environmental Group’s Halo-LED product. “We’re running seven days a week, three shifts a day and have been since March.”
OLD TRUTH, NEW APPLICATION
The idea that ultraviolet rays can kill viruses isn’t new.
The radiation is a known disinfectant for air, water and nonporous surfaces and has effectively been used for decades to reduce the spread of bacteria.
UVC radiation (the “C” distinguishes its wavelength properties) has been shown to destroy the outer protein coating of the SARS-coronavirus, which is different but similar to the current COVID-19 virus.
The drawbacks to UV lamps purchased in stores for use in homes are that the light is dangerous to the eyes in the same way that it’s harmful to stare at the sun. For safety, those lights use a lower wattage that can reduce the area of effectiveness.
That’s why companies such as RFG have moved to cover the UV rays and install them inside air ducts to treat the air moving through a space.
“They can’t look directly at the light anywhere,” said Ronald Lammert, vice president of ARC MAN INC in East Bethel. He installed the Halo-LED units at Rudy’s. “It’s totally encompassed in the duct work of the system that takes care of the air in this facility.”
His is a family-owned business, and business has been very good the past six months. He’s installed the UV technology all over the Twin Cities, most recently in a dentist’s office, a charter school and an office building.
Halo-LED uses LED lights for the UV treatment, combining that with a hybrid hydrophilic catalyst that removes odor, hydrogen peroxide, and a self-cleaning ionizer.
COST TO INSTALL VS. COST TO STAY CLOSED
In order for businesses to open their doors to the public, they have to present a plan to the government explaining how they will keep their customers safe. The UV air purifier has been a relatively inexpensive way for businesses to meet those requirements.
Lammert used the dentist office as an example.
“The dental board’s suggestion was a piece of equipment that was going to cost him $25,000. It would have had a mask that would have sat out in front of people and sucked in the air and whatever’s coming off of the drill,” he said. “He called me and said, ‘What can I do?’ We hooked him up with this system, put two of them in his furnaces. $2,500 later, he’s got his rooms treated.”
Rudy’s and White Bear Country Inn, like other hospitality businesses, took a huge hit during the pandemic. Foussard couldn’t wait for the economy to right itself. He needed to convince customers they could eat and sleep at his establishment without fear of getting sick.
Since March, he has laid off 100 people and watched as his usually full 91-bed hotel drop to five beds. While he said leisure customers are starting to come back, corporate customers, especially those who used his meeting rooms for training, have not.
After installing UV tech on his pool two years ago, he began to wonder if he could use the same thing for air circulation. After contacting RFG, he decided to spend thousands of dollars on the upgrade and use it to promote business.
“We are hurting, but we want people to come back,” he said. “And for them to come back, they have to feel safe.”
‘222 IS ‘THE MAGIC NUMBER’
Albertson, the Orono inventor, said with his bulb, he is thinking big — stadium big — and he’s thinking long term.
He is a bit of a local celebrity, with 250 patents to his name. He’s worked on numerous products such as the Fresh Brew Coffee Maker, the cassette tape player, the Post-it Note, a string trimmer for weed eaters, and at least 30 more. He’s been featured in several newspapers and magazines, and at least once in the Pioneer Press for his work on an all-electric Ford Ranger.
“I’m a trouble-shooter,” he said.
Companies get stuck and they come to him to help them work out the bugs.
One of the biggest bugs to UV technology, is that, just like the sun, it’s not good for skin or eyes. According to a paper published on Scientific Reports’ website in June, the key to being able to safely use the UV radiation is to get the wavelength to 222 nanometers, which has not been an easy task.
“222 is the magic number where you get the most intensity and the most bang for your dollar,” he said.
Albertson said he’s solved the 222 dilemma. His bulb, which is two quartz tubes encased in a specialized screen, is said to effectively kill viruses in the air and on surfaces without harming skin or eyes. The bulb works like a battery with an anode (negative) and a cathode (positive) exciting electrons that produce an electrochemical reaction and radiate UV light.
He said he’s had the problem solved for over a decade.
“It was kind of hard to do anything about it until just like six months ago, when all of a sudden the virus came about then all of a sudden people are saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something.’ And I’m saying, ‘Hey, we’ve already got the answer.’ I’ve been trying to get somebody to do it for 12 years,” he said.
LOOKING BEYOND COVID-19
His company, Albertson Enterprises, is hoping to score contracts with large facilities to install the bulbs at doors or on ceilings. He sees them being installed in airports and airplanes, nursing homes, schools and sports arenas.
The reason he has so many patents pending for the bulb is that he wants to cover multiple types of applications.
“We’re not just looking at COVID-19,” he said. “This will take care of you if you have colds or the flu. This way people will be more healthy. They’ll have less fear going into a restaurant or an airplane.”
He sees it as replacing hand sanitizer and wipes that leave surfaces sticky and damage electronics.
He hopes to get a factory up and running within six months.
The only thing he still needs to troubleshoot is the cost. Foussard would have had to dole out $5,000 for each of Albertson’s 2,000-watt bulbs.
Albertson hopes to reduce the price for companies who buy in bulk.
“This is a worldwide problem and it needs to be taken care of,” he said. “This is the simplest way of doing it.”