KNS Article

by , james.gaines@knoxvillebiz.com

A company that emerged from chemistry labs at the University of Tennessee aims to make hydrogen peroxide cheaper for wood-pulp companies, which use large quantities of the chemical in bleaching.

During his doctoral research at UT, Ming Qi made a “rather amazing” discovery on hydrogen peroxide production, according to Tom Zawodzinski, Governor’s Chair in Electrical Energy Storage at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He heads the lab in which Qi worked, and is co-founder of Peroxygen Systems Inc.

“Much of Dr. Qi’s doctoral work was devoted to proving that the catalytic process discovered was what we thought it was. This was patented,” Zawodzinski said via email.

They formed Peroxygen to ultimately build a practical device for using Qi’s new process. In April, Peroxygen beat out five others to win the $20,000 Tennessee Venture Challenge grand prize. In December, the company completed its licensing agreement with the UT Research Foundation to commercialize its production process.

Dr. Ming Qi

Now the company has a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, with which Peroxygen will build two prototype electrochemical devices for making hydrogen peroxide. The company gets half the grant, and Zawodzinski’s lab receives the rest, said Qi, Peroxygen’s president and CEO.

The research foundation refers to Peroxygen’s process as a “clean, breakthrough technology for onsite, on-demand hydrogen peroxide production,” thus eliminating the cost and danger of transporting the chemical.

A prototype made hydrogen peroxide 50 percent cheaper than current industrial processes, according to a UTRF news release.

The target market is the wood-pulp industry, which uses lots of pure hydrogen peroxide, Qi said. Quantities Peroxygen has produced thus far are not small, but are much less than industrial production, he said.

Now they’re scaling up. One modular prototype should be finished this year, and if Peroxygen can get a $1 million ARPA-E grant for the next three years, a full-scale version could be ready for customers around 2019, Qi said. News on that could come in September.

It will probably take at least two rounds of investment to get up to moderate production and line up a pilot program with customers, he said.

“We are estimating we need $5 or $6 million in total to have a small factory producing our device,” Qi said.

He’s looking at several possible production strategies, but one is to produce the core of the device locally, and have other firms licensed to make additional parts, assemble and market it, he said.

Dr. Tom Zawodinski

“For the customer industry we are going into, there are already several big players marketing chemicals,” Qi said.

Next week he has a final interview for getting access to cutting-edge manufacturing facilities at Oak Ridge, which could cut time and development costs on important components, he said.

Peroxygen’s offices are space in the Fairview Technology Center business incubator for now; Qi and Zawodzinski plan to keep it based here for access to UT and Oak Ridge.

Under the recently signed license agreement, UTRF will get some income from Peroxygen’s patented process, Zawodzinski wrote. The foundation vetted the technology to make sure it was worth patenting.

Transitioning from research to commercialization was a complex process, involving lots of negotiation and meeting strict conflict-of-interest rules, according to Zawodzinski.

“As the work became more practical, several other innovations in my team were folded into the project and these are also in the patent process,” he wrote.

The research foundation helps researchers “bridge the gap” to commercial application, protecting intellectual property until ideas are patented and licensed, said Maha Krishnamurthy UTRF assistant vice president for licensing. Peroxygen Systems Inc. is a good example of that, growing as it did from collaborative lab work at UT into a company on the verge of production, she said.