THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT.
A US startup plucked the idea right out of the air. MINI responded enthusiastically.
Nature as role model: At the Metalmark lab, researchers are studying the structural characteristics of butterfly wings in order to apply the nanostructures they discover to new air cleaning technologies.
CLEANER BY NATURE.
How MINI’s startup accelerator URBAN-X is helping a US company to develop new technologies to rid the air of toxins.
Butterflies are a unique species. Their often iridescent appearance belies the fact that they begin life as plump caterpillars before turning into gossamer-winged acrobats of the air. Butterflies are also symbols of adaptability and transformation. Soon, they may even play a part in changing the world, at least if Metalmark Innovation has its way. The startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has developed a filter technology for purifying the air that takes its cue from the structure of butterfly wings. “The wings of some butterflies get their iridescence not from pigments but from their nano-structurization, which is porous yet rigid,” explains Sissi Liu, CEO of Metalmark. “This design provides strength and flexibility; it’s sophisticated yet simple.” From the architecture of the butterfly wing, she adds, Metalmark has derived a catalytic technology that purifies the air more effectively and cheaply than existing techniques.
Liu is a Harvard graduate who has been developing green technologies for almost 20 years. Metalmark, which takes its name from a type of butterfly chiefly found in South America, is developing its visionary butterfly wing technology with the help of URBAN-X, a MINI-owned startup accelerator. URBAN-X has been helping young companies to develop sustainable technologies since 2016 and currently has 57 startups in its portfolio. Very often, the technologies it helps to advance have nothing to do with the car industry. URBAN-X primarily supports solutions for cities, where the majority of people live. “Cities have arguably more challenges than ever. We need some of the brightest minds and the most creative problem solvers to make them more liveable, equitable and efficient,” says Micah Kotch, Managing Director of URBAN-X. As a native New Yorker, this is an issue he has virtually been destined to address since birth, and the same holds true for MINI. “The original MINI started out as a response to a problem – the gasoline crisis,” says Kotch. “The same spirit of innovative and creative problem-solving still prevails in the company today.” Air pollution is a big problem, and a car manufacturer like MINI that’s committed to sustainability naturally wants to act responsibly. After all, exhaust fumes and particulates increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer.
Even worse, it seems, is what we breathe inside buildings and vehicles. “Indoor air can be up to five times worse than outdoor air,” says Liu. That’s because carpets, furniture and cleaning products often emit harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde and benzene, which remain in the air. Catalytic converters like those used in car exhaust systems could be a solution since they cause chemical reactions that partially rid the harmful gases of their toxins. But as they often contain precious metals such as platinum, they are also expensive. On top of that, effective pollutant combustion often only takes place at temperatures of over 250 degrees Celsius. Inspired by the wings of butterflies, Metalmark has developed filter systems with a nanostructure that emulates a honeycomb, thus providing a greater surface for pollutants to collect. “It’s a super-efficient use of material,” says Liu, explaining that fewer precious metals are required for cleaning the air and that it can be done at lower temperatures. For now, Metalmark is concentrating on cleaning indoor air.
But what’s particularly exciting is that the new catalytic technology, designed to target particles smaller than 0.3 micrometres (300 times thinner than paper), could potentially be used to eliminate germs, such as the novel coronavirus. Metalmark has now developed a prototype and is currently in talks with indoor climate control companies and car manufacturers about testing its filters in heating and cooling systems. URBAN-X is supporting the young startup with design and tech expertise. One day, Metalmark hopes to be able to integrate its air cleaning technology into surfaces and coatings, such as car paint. Cars equipped with the Metalmark technology would then actively clean the surrounding air, almost in the way plants do. For Liu, this would be the next logical step because, as she says: “There’s so much we can emulate in nature.”
Inspired by butterflies: Sissi Liu, CEO of the U.S. startup Metalmark.