Team creates and commercializes economical way to measure nanoparticles

Tom Peters
Extensive investigation into microscopic airborne particles—called nanoparticles—in product manufacturing and their impact on workers’ health has been going on for the past 75 years, said associate professor of occupational and environmental health, Tom Peters. But until now there’s been no accurate and economical way to measure those materials. 
Peters’ research in nanoparticles eventually led to the creation of the Zefon Personal Nanoparticle Respiratory Deposition (NRD) sampler, a small device nearly six years in the making, with the potential to improve workplace safety for workers around the world by sampling the air for nanoparticles. 
Nanoparticles are particularly important for a number of reasons. They can have greater toxic effects than larger particles of the same composition. And they have the ability to move from the respiratory tract to other organs and the bloodstream.
“The product is meant for places that work with metals and nanomaterials,” Lorenzo Cena, a former Ph.D. student who worked on the project, said. “It could work for welders, for example, or with any manufacturing and engineering of nanomaterials.” 
The final product didn’t come without some trial and error. Peters’ team’s research led to a continued evolution of the product. 
“We thought at first to design something that takes out materials that are larger than 100 nanometers (a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick) and then collect them on a filter,” Peters said. “But it’s hard to do that and it requires a big pump so we had to come up with an alternative way to do it, which led to us looking at the way that particles deposited in the human respiratory track.”
Even before Peters and his team could begin to design the sampling device they needed to create a standard for measuring that the machine could follow.
“There was no criteria for nanoparticles,” Cena said. “So we developed that, too. Specifically, we developed a curve that we wanted the sampler to match.” 
“The whole approach had to be dreamed up,” Peters said. “I’m a fan of science fiction and one of the things that good science fiction books do is they create a new rule. With that new rule a whole new world opens up and there are all new things. So our new way of looking at things was the curve. Then we were able to make the sampler.” 
Following the development of the curve, the team studied the way that nanoparticles collected within the lung.
“The smaller (particles) act like gas molecules when they hit the walls (of the lungs),” Peters said. “So we said that if we could design a sampler based on how they actually collect in the lung, then we can use traditional samplers and have something that is simple and cheap and people are familiar with it, so that’s what we did. We created the sampler that works by the exact same mechanism that the lung uses to collect particles.”
Once it had developed the idea the team began making the product in the medical machine shop. Its initial prototype cost more than $800 to manufacture.
At this point in the process the University of Iowa Research Foundation, a corporation that helps UI researchers develop technology and inventions through licensing and new ventures, was able to help Peters and his team apply for gap funding. The UIRF also conducted market analysis and contacted Zefon International, a manufacturer and supplier of sampling equipment, on their behalf. 
With the gap funding Tom Peters and his team was able to develop a low cost version of the NRD Sampler, licensing manager Catherine Koh said. Zefon then committed to an exclusive license on March 1, 2013.
NRD sampler
“With UIRF money we were able to move to a prototype that is now being made out of injection molded plastic,” Peters said. 
This change in the manufacturing process reduces the cost and allows Zefon to sell the sampler at a price that will not be cost prohibitive. The Zefon Personal NRD Sampler was finalized for sale this February, was recently released to market and is currently priced at $26.50 by Zefon.
“They say from research to business there is a valley of death,” Peters said. “It’s hard to get something to business and (the UIRF) bridged that gap.”  

To learn more:

About Zefon: Zefon international is a manufacturer and supplier of medical products and air sampling equipment used to monitor indoor environmental, occupational health and safety conditions. The Zefon NRD Sampler is currently available for $26.50. 
About UIRF: The University of Iowa Research Foundation (UIRF) - a 501C3 corporation - commercializes University of Iowa developed technologies and inventions through licensing and new venture formation, and manages the subsequent revenue stream. The UIRF’s primary functions include identifying and developing new ventures, finding partners for commercializing and intellectual property services.

By: Haley Hansel