A South Tucson company is looking to take the hazard out of hazardous-materials handling with new technology that enables protective suits to essentially decontaminate themselves.
And someday, the company’s technology could keep you smelling fresh after days in the woods or after a trip to the gym.
Founded in 2001 by University of Arizona alumnus John Lombardi, Ventana Research Corp. developed its first product — a machining compound derived partly from green tea — some nine years ago.
Ventana is still developing that patented technology, and in the meantime, the company has been working under a series of Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security projects to develop technology to counter biological and chemical weapons.
“The notion is to put coatings on various surfaces, mostly textiles, that will self-decontaminate,” said Lombardi, who launched Ventana after earning a doctorate in materials science and engineering from the UA in 1996.
One patents-pending compound is activated by visible light and creates so-called singlet oxygen, a molecular state of oxygen that has been found to have powerful antimicrobial properties. Another product is an antimicrobial polymer that can be used as a coating to make a surface “self-decontaminating.”
Beyond destroying bacteria, testing has shown the light-activated compound can disable chemical warfare agents such as mustard gas and nerve gas, Lombardi said.
“It basically has the ability to detoxify any agent that might land on the suit, typically a bio-agent, a chemical agent,” he said.
While Ventana is still working with the Pentagon and DHS, the company is busy spinning its technology into commercial products — starting with a light-activated fabric treatment for hazardous-materials suits.
The company is working with Alabama-based Kappler Inc., a major supplier of hazmat suits to customers including DHS, to incorporate the photocatalytic compound into Kappler suits designed for urban search-and-rescue workers.
At Ventana’s nondescript storefront on South Fourth Avenue, Ventana’s team of scientists have scaled up to produce enough of the photo-reactive material to treat thousands of yards of textiles, including the pale blue bunny suits made by Kappler.
Jason Cole, vice president of research and development for Kappler, said suits treated with Ventana’s material would give wearers an extra margin of safety. The company makes a variety of hazmat suits, some with special seaming and zippers to keep users safe even from gaseous hazards.
“We can keep the hazards away from the wearer, but at some point, he’s going to have to take that suit off,” Cole said, citing the danger to workers from hazards that cling to their suits. Cole said he’s confident the technology works, though it will be at least a year before it starts showing up as the first “reactive technology” in Kappler’s products.
The company also is working to incorporate its germ-busting technology into medical face masks, to help stem the problem of hospital-acquired infections, Lombardi said.
UA professor Charles Gerba, a noted expert on germ transmission who has tested Ventana’s antimicrobial technology, said it is notable for the broad spectrum of pathogens it can kill off.
In testing on hard surfaces about two years ago, Gerba’s research showed the product killed 99.99 percent of a particular pneumonia bacterium within 10 minutes. It showed a 96 to 98 percent reduction in spores from a bacterium often used as a surrogate for deadly anthrax, and an 88 to 92 percent reduction in Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
“It’s very difficult to kill things in a broad spectrum,” said Gerba, who has tested antimicrobial materials for a number of companies. “For their size, they seem to be really creative,” he said of Ventana.
Lombardi also sees great opportunity in consumer markets, where antimicrobial materials started showing up several years ago in bathroom, kitchen and personal products.
He said Ventana is working with a major outdoors apparel and equipment retailer to commercialize the technology to control odor in clothing and footwear by killing off bacteria that cause a stink.
The company also is offering its antimicrobial polymer as a replacement to Bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic that has been dropped from food containers because of health concerns but is still widely used in the plastic coating that seals food cans, Lombardi said.
But with opportunity comes challenge, which in Ventana’s case means scaling up for mass production. The company has grown from its start in Lombardi’s garage to employ about 10 people, including several research scientists and administrative staff.
The company’s South Tucson headquarters and lab facilities feature extensive labs, with several mass spectrometers and high-end chemical-analysis instruments. A recent building addition houses chemical reactors needed to brew up the company’s compounds, including a new, 125-gallon reactor that should give Ventana the capacity it needs for the foreseeable future.
Rather than license out the technology, Lombardi said his strategy is to keep production in-house. The company strives to use environmentally friendly precursor chemicals — something Ventana capitalized on with its green-tea polishing fluid for computer hard-drive heads — and doesn’t test hazardous biological or chemical agents onsite.
“We really are at the point where we want to get this stuff out into the marketplace,” Lombardi said.