Company Factfile

  • Invented by: Peter Budd, Neil McKeown, Kadhum Msayib and Bader Ghanem, School of Chemistry
  • Application: End of Life Service Indicator for Industrial Respirators
  • Licensed to: 3M
  • IP: Patents
  • Funded by: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grant and UMIP Proof-of-Principle Funding

Please click here for a video introduction to the 3M End-of-Service-Life Indicator

“We realised we had something quite remarkable: a solution-processible material that behaved like a molecular sieve.”

Professor Peter Budd, co-inventor

About PIMS – Polymer of Intrinsic Microporosity

A polymer invented by academics from the School of Chemistry is a key component of a new type of sensor that in appropriate environments indicates when it is time for a user of industrial respirators to change their organic vapour filter.

Workers in many industries use respirators for protection against organic vapours. The vapours are removed by cartridges or filters which contain an adsorbent. Organic vapour filters must be discarded and replaced based on exposures and usage, to help ensure proper protection. Until now, there has been no visual indicator to help determine when to change an organic vapour filter. The new 3M™ Service Life Indicator provides a simple, visual tool to help users in appropriate environments determine when to change their filters, and contains the University developed innovation – a polymer of intrinsic microporosity, referred to as a PIM.

PIMs are big molecules with highly rigid and contorted molecular structures, which have tiny spaces – a nanometer or less in size – that small molecules can penetrate. Organic vapours readily adsorb into the PIM, and the sensor is designed to indicate when the PIM collects vapours above a specified minimum indication level.

Current research is exploring other applications for PIMs, including their use in membranes for separating gas mixtures and liquid mixtures. PIMs have potential for the removal of carbon dioxide from power station flue gases, and for the purification of bioalcohols.

“One of the most common questions we get from our respiratory customers globally is how to know when to change their filters or cartridges,” said John Muggee, 3M Global Respiratory Solutions Laboratory Manager. “By leveraging the PIM material in a 3M-patented sensor for indicating end of service life for organic vapor filters, we can begin to answer this for our customers.

In appropriate environments, the 3M™ Service Life Indicator can help protect workers from exposure to dangerous organic vapors by removing the guesswork around when to replace their filters, giving them assurance that their respirator is delivering the protection they need.”

We met up with co-inventor, Professor Peter Budd, to find out more about his experiences of the licensing process…

How did you make your discovery?

In the early 2000s, Neil McKeown and I were collaborating in research aimed at building plate-like phthalocyanine molecules into polymer networks. Phthalocyanines have metal ions at the centre that can be used to catalyse industrially-important reactions. However, phthalocyanines tend to stack together, so the molecules we want to react cannot
reach the metal centres, and at first we couldn’t prevent this. Then Neil had the idea of using spiro-centres to ensure the phthalocyanines were always pointing away from each other. We tried to apply the same idea to other systems, and wanted to prepare a non-network, soluble polymer as a comparison.

Was the application of the discovery apparent from the outset?

To be honest, the first sample of the polymer we now call PIM-1, which was prepared by Kadhum Msayib, sat in adrawer for some time before we got around to studying its properties. When we did, we realised we had something quite remarkable: a solution-processible material that behaved like a molecular sieve. We started to look at a number of potential applications. Ultimately we decided to work with 3M on their new type of sensor for a respiratory product.

How important was the funding?

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding has enabled us not only to create the concept of polymers of intrinsic microporosity, but also to develop
them further with the aim of particular end-uses.

How do you feel you have benefited from licensing this technology out? Has anything been fed back into your research following the licence?

Doing science is fun, but it’s also satisfying to see it being put to good use. It’s nice that other people have picked up our ideas, and it’s nice that the first application to reach the market is something that’s a real benefit for people at work. The experience of following the sometimes lengthy and quite complex process of commercialisation
has certainly informed our approach to current research.

Has this process improved your links to industry?

Before becoming an academic, I spent several years working in industry, so I am keen on industry interaction, but the process has given new insights into the different ways in which companies operate.

What did you especially value from the University during this process?

We very much appreciate that the University has maintained its support over the past decade. There were difficult discussions along the way. We are always aware that any commercialisation process has risks associated with, and that the University has limited funds to pursue an invention over the timescale required to reach the market. We explored a number of commercialisation routes, including the possibility of a spin-out, before opting for the licensing route.

What were your aspirations for getting involved in the commercialisation process?

The desire to see a tangible outcome from our research, beyond the intellectual satisfaction.

Was there anything which ‘surprised’ you during the process e.g time to market?

At an early stage we were told that 10 years could be considered a “short” time for applying this innovation to a tangible commercialised product. That turned out to be true. Having filed a patent application in 2003 for the material, it was 2014 before a licensee introduced a product applying it. It takes time to take a technology innovation and apply that science to practical real world applications and products. What is surprising is that when, at an early stage, we were talking to potential investors, they expected results over much shorter timescales than are realistic. We were fortunate that we were able to keep the momentum going for the duration, but I suspect many good ideas die a premature death as a result of short-term thinking.

Do you have any advice for colleagues thinking of licensing?

Be patient and be persistent.

What’s next for PIMS?

We’re continuing to explore new PIMs and new applications for PIMs, and with them are seeking to tackle some of the biggest problems facing society, such as how to deal with carbon dioxide emissions.

“My advice to colleagues: be patient and be persistent.”

Professor Peter Budd, co-inventor