Refocus

There's more than one way to use this air filter

An IDSA member is weighing in on new uses for a product developed at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UIUC). Deana McDonagh, PhD, IDSA, an industrial design professor, is quoted in a Crain's Chicago Business report on the Colorfil air filter that initially was designed in 2011 for use in Samsung and Intel computer chip factories, but soon could be used for purifying air for astronauts, and eliminating the smell of cat urine.

"Not every company can recognize new commercial uses for its products like that," says McDonagh, a professor of industrial design at UIUC and the designer-in-residence at its Research Park, home to the startup called Serionix. "It's a testimony​ to them that they didn't dismiss what—on the surface—sounds a bit crazy, but in reality it's got—wow—incredible legs."

Serionix was formed by James Langer and Weihua Zheng, who are UIUC doctoral alumni in materials science and engineering, and their 88-year-old mentor, Professor Emeritus James Economy. Crain's reports the filter's patented, absorptive coating removes toxic chemicals and odors from the air and changes from magenta to yellow when it needs to be replaced.

In 2015, a friend of Langer's was thinking about getting rid of his cat. Langer suggested the friend use the air filter to get rid of the urine smell instead. It worked. "That was the inspiration for a bit of a refocus," says Langer.

The partners hope to license their product to manufacturers that, in turn, would sell it at $15 to $18 via big-box retail websites later in 2017. Serionix also received a $750,000 contract from NASA to continue to develop filters for potential use in next-generation spacesuit life-support systems. To keep astronauts safe during a spacewalk, the suits must filter out toxic chemicals like ammonia and formaldehyde.

In her role at Research Park, McDonagh supports EnterpriseWorks, the startup incubator. "As an empathic design researcher, my specific focus is on translating the technology into more accessible and intuitive outcomes that assist in commercialization," she tells IDSA. "With (UIUC ID alumnus) Fanwen Ji and (rising ID junior) Katrina Monreal—we ideate, create sketch models, appearance models, conduct user research and so forth."