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Diatomix Inc.
Diatomix Inc.

This past February, Portlanders expressed their collective outrage following revelations of dangerously high concentrations of cadmium and arsenic in the air around a Southeast Portland neighborhood.

“What are your younger children and other vulnerable peoplepeople with chronic health problems, elderly people—what are they breathing in?” Susan Beal, a mother of two and resident of Southeast Portland, asked reporter Chris Holmstrom of KOIN 6 News.

Those questions resonate with Lester Lampert, a PhD candidate in the field of applied physics at PSU. A scientist and entrepreneur, Lampert cofounded Portland-based clean-tech startup Diatomix with Dr. Haiyan Li, a bioengineer, materials scientist, and former PSU research associate. Diatomix develops technologies that improve the air we breathe—not the fresh air outdoors, but the much more polluted air in our homes, workplaces, and classrooms where we spend as much as ninety percent of our time.

“The EPA has data showing that indoor air quality can be two to five times worse than that of the outdoors,” Lampert said. “There’s radon, smoke, molds, mildew, bacteria, and a surprisingly long list of VOCs [volatile organic compounds] that aggregate in the air we breathe and can lead to negative health outcomes. We want to remove some of those pollutants by incorporating air-purifying technologies into products like indoor paint.”

The technologies that Diatomix develops bridge the gap between nature’s designs and materials engineering. In a lab at PSU, Lampert and Li combined the unique optical resonance properties of a species of diatom—a unicellular organism that lives life encased within a cell wall made of silica—with VOC-degrading photocatalytic nanoparticles to create a photoreactive material that uses the energy of visible and UV light to chemically transform harmful air pollutants into benign gases.

“We see the potential to target a number of VOCs that accumulate indoors and affect air quality and health,” Lampert said. “Right now we’re working on breaking down formaldehyde. It’s one of the most common VOCs you’ll encounter in built environments and it’s broadly used in the production of consumer goods.”

“Broadly used” is perhaps an understatement. Formaldehyde is found in cigarettes and e-cigarettes, manufactured wood products, furniture, textiles, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, perfumes, toothpastes, and cosmetics. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics even found formaldehyde in baby shampoos, lotions, wipes, and other products for children.

So, what’s the danger?

Well, according to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, short-term exposure to formaldehyde can result in eye, nose, and throat irritation. Long-term exposure can cause asthma-like symptoms and dermatitis. A handful of other states classify formaldehyde as an asthmagen, and the EPA categorizes it as a probable human carcinogen.

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“Indoor air quality is a major health concern,” Lampert said. “And many people may not be aware of the potential risks they’re exposing themselves to when they’re at home, work, or school. That is why we’re developing technologies that will continuously improve the air you breathe and that are no more obtrusive than the paint on the wall.”