Chemical Engineering Professor’s Ecological and Business-Savvy Innovation Rewarded with Two Patents and Counting
Adeniyi Lawal’s research into mitigating released methyl bromide is on its way to making pest-removal for logging safer for both people and the planet
More than six years have passed since business owner Norman Dias approached Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Adeniyi Lawal about finding an environmentally friendly and affordable way to dispose of the harmful logging fumigant methyl bromide. With the awarding of Lawal’s first patents relating to his solution in August 2022, the two business partners, with the help of the Stevens Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, are making incredible progress to bring their innovative technology to the public.
A dangerous chemical neutralized
Methyl bromide (MeBr) is an odorless and colorless neurotoxin that damages human health and depletes the ozone layer. It is also one of the most effective fumigants for neutralizing pests of all types, which can be carried from place to place during logging shipment.
Since the late ‘80s, the use of MeBr has been phased out in most industries but remains permitted in logging due to its importance in preventing the movement of potentially invasive species across the global lumber supply chain.
Finding a cost-effective way to mitigate the dangers of MeBr, both for the environment and for logging industry workers, was a concern of Dias, President of Patriot Hardwoods. He approached Lawal in the late 2010s for solutions.
Lawal came up with a conversion technology that takes MeBr after it has been used for fumigation and runs it through an absorber, where it reacts with a liquid alcohol (usually ethanol) and a metal salt (such as potassium hydroxide). This reaction results in a new liquid alcohol that can be reused as the alcohol solution in the process in the future and a solid precipitate potassium bromide (KBr), which can be sold for use in multiple other industries, thus recouping the costs of the chemicals themselves. The technology is a win for the environment, workers and business owners alike.
Excited about the implications for this technology, Lawal and Dias partnered to take it public. Multiple bench-scale tests on campus revealed promising results, and the two have spent most of the past two years organizing a commercial-scale test with a collaborator connected to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in California, which took place over the summer of 2022.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 slowed the team’s work down slightly, they were still able to obtain test data, and, promisingly, the results were in exact agreement with their predictions from the lab. Conducting commercial-level tests closer to home in Pennsylvania is their next step.
Protecting innovations while expanding their reach
Simultaneously, Lawal and his former graduate student Lin Zhou have been pursuing patents for the MeBr conversion technology.
Patents allow for the protection of intellectual property and give the developer of a technology or innovation temporary sole right to its commercialization in exchange for creating a permanent public record of how the technology works. However, obtaining a patent is a complicated and expensive process, which is why Stevens’ assistance has been so important to Lawal.
“Stevens has been so supportive,” said Lawal, adding that the staff in the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship have been “aggressive” in their pursuit of patents for the MeBr technology, applying not only for patents in the U.S. but also globally.
So far, Lawal and Zhou have received allowances from the U.S. and Australian patent offices, a significant accomplishment in protecting and allowing for the commercialization of this technology. Additionally, they are working on getting approval from the European Patent Office (EPO). Doing so would represent a significant step forward, as the EPO grants European patents to more than three dozen member states, thus opening opportunities to reach a number of countries quickly. Future additional countries of interest are China and Canada.
Fortuitous surprises and lessons learned
Lawal pointed to three major insights learned from developing and patenting his technology: patience, perseverance and that sometimes there are surprises along the way.
“Just look at the patent application,” he said as an example of both patience and perseverance. “We started in 2017, and now it is 2023.”
As for those surprises?
“When we conducted experiments in the lab, we were able to control the temperature of the environment,” he explained. But industrial-scale experiments of the technology were performed outdoors — in southern California summer heat. The environmental temperature rose so high that before the experiment had even started, the ethanol used as a reaction medium in the process was beginning to evaporate.
Serendipitously, however, this surprise has ultimately led to a more robust technology down the line.
“We understood why [the evaporation] happened. As a result of that, we are making a modification of the process,” Lawal said. For the commercial-scale demonstrations being planned in Pennsylvania, “we have come up with devices that we will integrate into the process that will help us solve that evaporation problem.”
There are still hurdles ahead for Lawal’s innovation before it can be rolled out at mass scale. His team’s to-do list includes getting more data over the next couple of years and optimizing the conditions for the technology’s chemical reactions on a more commercial scale in a way that is affordable for smaller business owners such as his partner Norman Dias.
“Optimization of conditions will play a significant role in the profitability of the technology,” Lawal explained. “If you do not obtain the right optimized conditions, the technology will not be profitable.”
If these results are encouraging, Lawal anticipates that the innovation could be adopted in as few as two years after that — meaning that within the next five years, under very optimistic conditions, this advancement could be fully commercialized and available for use by businesses.
But Lawal is optimistic.
“I believe so much in the technology,” said Lawal. “The removal and conversion [of MeBr] to valuable byproducts, I think that is a technology that the international community can embrace.”