Cover image of Perspectives, University of Salford Research & Enterprise magazine. Volume 1, Issue 1

Perspectives magazine

Research and enterprise at the University of Salford

Making small spaces seem bigger

The unique properties of activated carbon, a substance that has been around for centuries, are central to the plans of a new spin-out company.

University of Salford Research - unique properties of activated carbon are central to a new spin-out companyActivated carbon is commonly found in products such as odour eaters, gas masks and loud speakers, and has also been used for water filters. But now its ability to absorb noise, and to seemingly make smaller spaces appear much bigger, is being harnessed for a whole new range of uses.

Carbon Air was set up on the back of a study by the University’s Acoustic Research Group, explains the company’s Managing Director, John Coakley. The research group was checking out some startling claims about the acoustic properties of activated carbon that had been made by a loud speaker manufacturer. And although they set out to disprove them, they ended up proving the ideas.

“The unique properties of activated carbon are its amazing ability to eat up low frequency noise and to make small spaces behave as if they are much larger,” says Coakley. Activated carbon is created by driving steam through lumps of charcoal at high temperatures and at high pressure.

This removes all its impurities, leaving a ‘scaffold’ of millions of pores and holes. “It’s like a sponge at a microscopic level” continues John. “It’s just riddled with holes, and each hole is riddled with holes, and so on. It’s got a huge surface area.”

 And it’s these properties which allow it to soak up noise, and absorb gas and air, making smaller spaces seem bigger.

The company’s Technical Director is University alumnus Dr Rodolfo Venegas, continues Coakley. “He developed some amazing software that can simulate the behaviour of carbon, both acoustically and mechanically, and it’s this magic algorithm that we are now putting to use.”

The company is in discussions with a range of businesses to commercialise their findings, so specifics are confidential. But Coakley says that activated carbon has a wide range of uses in transportation, with its ability to make small spaces seem bigger, particularly useful when developing air-spring suspension for cars, trucks and even trains. Components can also be made lighter and smaller, which appeals to the automotive sector, he adds.

In construction, it will allow developers to install noise absorbers which are considerably thinner and more efficient than many current solutions.

“Carbon’s not just the future, it’s the past too,” says John. “Activated carbon has been known about for centuries and its behaviour too but no-one has ever done much commercially with its capacity to change the behaviour of air. From all our patent searching, it would appear that we are now at the forefront of a new technology.”

 The commercialisation process

Carbon Air is the latest example of a successful University spin-out, a phenomenon which is becoming increasingly important within higher education, explains Dr Blake Prime, Commercialisation Associate at the University. “Research councils that fund a lot of R&D are increasingly looking for impact,” he says.

“And that means taking the research out of the lab and putting it into an industrial environment.”

When the University decides not to take an idea forward alone, continues Prime, they approach investors. “We explain that we’ve got an opportunity and we want to take it out of the University so that it’s managed professionally in a commercial way. This is where spin-out companies come in. The way the deal works is that in return for the intellectual property - the basis of the company - we will take a shareholding in it.”

The University has a strong track record of developing spin-outs. Among them are coating specialists CVD Technologies, which was created in 2000, and Onco-NX, a far newer business that is helping to commercialise anti-cancer therapeutics developed at the University.

“The other way we work is to licence something ourselves,” continues Prime.

For example, the University’s Spray Research Group has developed a new valve design which could play an important role in helping to phase out VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), which were introduced during the 1980s to replace CFCs in aerosols. The new valve will allow manufacturers to use compressed air as a propellant instead.

“A good track record of spin-out companies and licensing agreements makes the University much more attractive to research councils and makes them more likely to fund further research,” says Prime.

“If you can demonstrate that you are trying to get research out there into society, via commercialisation, you’re more likely to get further research grants, too.

“And it is also good for staff, as it gives them experience of the real needs of industry, which in turn helps to inform their future research.”

The Technology Transfer team are also working on a diverse range of other projects reflecting the breadth of research at Salford, including:

If you’re interested in finding out any more about projects or technologies the University is looking to spin-out, visit: www.salford.ac.uk/business/technology or contact Dr Blake Prime at b.m.prime@salford.ac.uk.