US-based AquiSense Technologies is one of the pioneers of use of UV-emitting LEDs in water applications. Keith Hayward spoke with CEO Oliver Lawal about progress, including sale of the company earlier this year and new products being released in the coming months.
Use of LEDs that emit UV-C in water applications took an important step forward a year or so ago. The potential to use this mercury-free source for disinfection and monitoring applications has been the focus of a great deal of research and development. US-based AquiSense Technologies broke new ground when it released what was heralded as the world’s first commercial UV LED water disinfection device, the PearlAqua.
Fast-forward a year and the company finds itself in new premises, with new production facilities, more products on the way, and a new owner in the form of Japanese LED manufacturer Nikkiso. On this latter development, AquiSense CEO Oliver Lawal explains that his intention for this year had been to find a strategic investor, probably an LED manufacturer, a water technology company, or a system manufacturer in one of the company’s target sectors. It was the LED manufacturers who showed the greatest enthusiasm. ‘I think it is because the LED manufacturers themselves have invested a lot of money in the technology, hundreds of millions of dollars, and are looking to sell them. If you’ve invested a few million dollars and you want to recoup that investment, buying the number one customer who has a lot of potential seems to make sense,’ he says.
That Nikkiso has gone so far as to buy the company is an indication of the interest and anticipation around UV LEDs and the current position of both Nikkiso and AquiSense. ‘Nikkiso have the best device and they’re ready, and we believe we have the start of a product line and we’re ready,’ says Lawal. ‘We’re both ready for commercialisation before anyone else and the idea is to push hard. We think the market is ready, and the product is now ready,’ he adds.
Since the launch of PearlAqua, Lawal says there has been a very strong response, in terms of interest from distributors around the world and from OEMs, especially with respect to the technology being mercury-free. The product range includes the 6D, 15E and 24G models, covering flows of 1.5 to 12 litres per minute. There has been a general anticipation about the scaling up of the technology, but Lawal reveals that the company is in fact now launching a smaller C unit with a flow range of 0.5 to 1 litre per minute. ‘That shows where the market has been pulling us,’ he says.
The smaller flow range is in response to the opportunities for disinfection in medical applications, such as dental and hospital use, and in aviation and commercial fields. ‘I have never seen this as purely a disruptive play – in fact mostly I see our products as actually constructive,’ says Lawal. ‘We’re not actually replacing mercury technology. A lot of the time we’re just doing applications that just aren’t deployed currently with UV.’
This readiness to work with market opportunities underpins the fact that AquiSense offers other products also. These include PearlBeam, offered as a reliable and robust UV LED light source for research use, and PearlAero, a unit for in-air use. Lawal reveals also that the company will be launching a new product next year for surface disinfection for medical and for food and beverage industry use – PearlSurface.
Set for development and expansion
‘This time last year we were 100% all about developing the product to get the standard products out there and working with some OEMs,’ comments Lawal. This focus has shifted to include production, with capacity expanded to being able to produce a PearlAqua unit every seven minutes. ‘Our capacity now is good for the next 12 months and we can double that very easily – and we will be doing so,’ he continues. But a strong focus on development will also be maintained. ‘Our investment in R&D has actually increased slightly because our PearlAqua range needs to double in the number of models over the next 12 months,’ Lawal adds.
Interestingly, as this development continues, Lawal says that he remains free to choose which LED units to incorporate in AquiSense systems, despite the new ownership. ‘There’s no agreement that I have to buy Nikkiso’s LEDs,’ says Lawal. ‘Nikkiso’s LEDs happen to be amongst the best in the world, but I’ve been very clear in the way the company ownership and management is structured that I'm not obliged to buy them. We’ll buy the best.’
And while the smaller flow market is proving to be attractive, development will indeed move towards higher flow rates. ‘In Quarter 1 next year, we’ll be double the flow rate we’re currently at. I think we’ll be very safely in the Point-of-Entry [range] for even a relatively large dwelling,’ he says. ‘With LEDs, we’re about to see another shift – we’re going to see some better efficiency, so I definitely think by this time next year we’ll be double [the flow] again.’
Lawal adds that his target is to be able to treat at flows of up to 100 litres a minute by the end of next year. ‘That may be a little aggressive, but it’s not inconceivable. That I think becomes interesting for more markets,’ he says.
The availability of LED units at these flow rates clearly has implications for equipment manufacturers. ‘I think they need to be, by the middle to end of next year, starting to look at integrating [them] into their designs,’ says Lawal. ‘It takes six months to a year to integrate a new technology, I think,’ he adds. ‘They’re not a direct one-for-one drop in – there’ll be some process changes to make.’
All of which points to a period ahead in which one of the main challenges for Lawal may well be in managing the opportunities open to the company. If the original market was anticipated to be the areas where mercury lamps currently operate, the low-flow applications have expanded the overall UV-C LED market. ‘It’s probably 50% bigger than it might appear to be,’ comments Lawal. The scale of this opportunity has probably led to a faster move into this area than might have been anticipated, Lawal explains. At the same time, the market is calling for a move in the other direction also. ‘We’re being pulled very heavily to get higher flow,’ he adds.
This will mean continuing to ensure the product quality is right. ‘[Regarding] our focus in terms of doing things right, I’m very, very picky on details,’ says Lawal. But at the same time, it will mean being flexible enough to adapt in a rapidly evolving area. ‘We make fast decisions, but we’re also very, very open to redoing that decision,’ he adds, lightheartedly. ‘We try to respond very, very quickly to enquiries. We will make a decision to change our product pipeline - we’re absolutely not fixed to it,’ he continues, joking: ‘I’m an absolute believer in make fast decisions, but don’t stick to them.’
- innovation, business, residential water, industry, municipal water, disinfection, UV LEDs