Realising potential: Unlocking the key to an innovative new HVAC technology

23/12/2020

Sometimes a technology has great promise, but a barrier needs to be overcome to make it a commercial reality. In the case of Cambridge University spinout Immaterial, the mission was to develop a practical way to unleash the potential of metal organic frameworks, better known as MOFs. 

These remarkable materials have a lattice-like microstructure that’s composed of metal ions connected by organic ligands, resulting in a network of internal pores. When a gas condenses onto the surface of the material it can be adsorbed into the pores creating a highly efficient storage medium. What’s more, by carefully tailoring the structure of the material it’s possible to provide selective adsorption of specific molecules to filter out impurities or separate different gases. 

The problem is that MOFs typically take the form of a very fine power, which can be extremely difficult to integrate into any sort of system. Immaterial’s breakthrough was a process that allowed MOFs to be produced as macroscopic single-crystal pellets. These offer a much higher density than the underlying powders and means that they are practical for use in real-world applications. 

The company first applied to the APC’s Technology Developer Accelerator Programme (TDAP) with the intention of using MOFs to store natural gas or hydrogen as a fuel source for low-carbon vehicles. However, while this continues to be an active area of research, the decision was taken to switch the focus to their filtration capabilities. 

“Through TDAP, we realised that cabin air filtration was another really valuable automotive market that’s a lot closer to the established applications for these materials. That switch really was a pivotal moment for us,” explains Immaterial CCO Graham Spencer. “Our materials can provide better filtration performance, and crucially they also enable more energy efficient HVAC units. The HVAC system is typically the highest auxiliary power load, so this technology is directly relevant to reducing energy consumption and increasing the range of electric vehicles.”   

Support from the APC helped Immaterial through the technology’s characterisation phase, which included a proof of concept unit for CO2 and moisture removal produced in collaboration with European Space Agency spinout Skytree. In total, the company received over £100,000 of grant funding, along with strategic planning advice and access to key figures in the automotive industry. 

“The automotive markets span from niche vehicles where the production volumes are quite low, through to major OEMs where the strategic procurement and supply chain issues are far more complex,” comments Spencer. TDAP has given us an opportunity to engage with the automotive sector. It’s given us the resources that we needed to pursue these markets and it’s given our partners confidence that it’s externally funded. From our side, it also means that we didn’t give up any IP to secure the backing.” 

Following on from the success of the TDAP programme, Immaterial now has five field trials lined up for its air filtration technology, including work with several major OEMs and tier ones. The company has just moved into a new pilot plant, which is currently ramping up production.  

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