March 15, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Killing fungi softly, with ozone

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Oxygen--it's the ultimate weapon, at least according to Novazone.

The Livermore, Calif.-based company has developed systems that kill fungi and other microorganisms on vegetables, fruit and in bottled drinks without altering appearance or taste. Novazone's principal agent: ozone, the three-atom molecule of pure oxygen.

Ozone-disinfecting systems for keeping hot tubs or individual rooms clean have been around for several years. But by harnessing ozone for industrial applications, Novazone says it can help reduce the amount of chemicals food producers spray on their harvests, as well as take a big chunk of the $36 billion market for industrial pest killers. The spinach recall of 2006, which happened because growers didn't adequately clean their products, underscores the potential market, according to Dave Cope, Novazone's CEO.

"If you use enough chlorine, you won't have E. coli in your spinach, but people want fresh, safe food," said Cope, who came on board with the company in 2004 after spending years in the computer industry. "When you get really smart, you use natural processes. This is not some tree-hugger perspective."

Chances are, you've indirectly experienced the company's products. The makers of Dasani, Arrowhead and Aquafina have adopted Novazone's systems to kill the microbes in their bottled waters. One of the manufacturers even uses ozone to disinfect the bottle as well as the water.

A significant percentage of the California citrus crop as well as the produce coming from Chile and Mexico get "Novazoned" while in storage. Colgate-Palmolive and others also use it to purify contact lens solution, toothpaste and toilets.

"All the things you never think about but that you need to be mold-free" is how Cope described the market for Novazone systems.

Novazone

Novazone also can be viewed as a poster child for the connection between Silicon Valley and clean-tech companies. Although many people may not have heard of it, Novazone has been around for years. In its earlier days, however, the company didn't focus on any particular application; it made ozone systems for zoos and aquariums and a number of other one-off productions.

Then, in late 2004, Foundation Capital, among others, invested in the company and brought new executives, among them Cope, a veteran of Internet-era darling Marimba, as its chief marketing officer. (Cope became CEO of Novazone in 2006.) The company decided to concentrate on the food and water business and expand from there as cash flow and success permitted.

While Novazone has carved out a niche in ozone, the company competes in the wider market for new cleaning and purification technologies for food, water and other substances. General Electric and Siemens have made significant investments in this area, and a number of start-ups have begun to emerge.

Cope declined to state current revenue but said it is growing. So far, the company has raised $17.6 million in venture capital. And it's refining its technology all the time.

How it works
"Killing is about time and concentration," he said.

Novazone's system, which sort of resembles a still, essentially exploits the instability of ozone. Ordinary oxygen molecules consist of only two atoms. The third atom in ozone only stays attached until it can react with, or oxidize, another substance. If that substance is a bacteria cell or fungi, it's doomed; the spare oxygen atoms in the ambient ozone attach to the cell walls of microorganisms and crack them open.

The raw material for the system, oxygen, gets harvested from the air. A ventilator from the top of the unit sucks air from inside a room. It then compresses the air and filters out nitrogen and moisture to get pure oxygen. The oxygen is then passed through corona discharge cells, which deliver a jolt of electricity that turns O2 into O3.

Click here to Play

Video: Biopesticides: Little organisms solve big problems
A look at good vs. destructive bacteria.

"Think of that as a mini-lightning storm," Cope said.

The ozone is then piped into water, or sprayed as a gas over fruits and vegetables. The leftover from the process are oxygen and nitrogen, making the process environmentally safe. By contrast, chlorine leaves a chemical trace on fruit and requires employers to use expensive handling procedures. Ozone can also be piped in on a regular basis.

Sensors monitor the flow of ozone so that it stays within a minimal range of 100 to 300 parts per billion. Large concentrations of ozone can be harmful to people. A good portion of the company's key intellectual property is based on software to get the sensors, computers and the ozone manufacturing system to interoperate dynamically.

Demand for the company's systems, which sell in the $100,000 and up range, is largely being driven indirectly by consumer demand. Organic foods are the fastest-growing segments in agriculture and the grocery market, and such foods can't be treated with chemicals. Several companies such as Agraquest have developed biopesticides that kill field pests with hormones or other bacteria.

CONTINUED: Slowing down food decay…
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12 comments

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can someone explain to me...
... why the ozone doesn't react with the foods themselves? I mean, why does it destroy microbes and mold but not with, say, spinach?
Posted by wernerlin (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Guessing
I'm guessing it has to do with the fact that spinach is not a living organism and doesn't "die" when encountering ozone.
Bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms would probably be the only things affected by ozone.
Posted by Gasaraki (183 comments )
Link Flag
Insane guess
I mean, why does it destroy microbes and mold but not with, say, spinach?

'cause only Popeye will eat it?
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
Link Flag
Fruit and vegetables don't need oxygen.
They produce it as a byproduct. It's the organisms that eat the
plants that need oxygen. Bind all the oxygen into O3 and they can't
breathe.
Posted by Macsaresafer (802 comments )
Link Flag
Example of why we need software patents
"A good portion of the company's key intellectual property is based on software to get the sensors, computers and the ozone manufacturing system to interoperate dynamically. "

This is a very good example of why software patents should be protected from patent pirates.

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The Alliance provides legislative counsel, congressional updates and strategy development to its members through a number of vehicles. Additionally, through its speaker?s bureau, Alliance members have an opportunity to provide expert opinion to many of the nation?s top-tier business, technology and mainstream media organizations. Over the years its members have testified before Congress, offered counsel to key Senate and House committee members, and successfully pushed legislation to protect America?s independent inventors.

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Examples of areas of our expertise include David Vs. Goliath patent litigation, patent reform, and we have a unique view of patent pirating companies who are associated with the "Coalition for Patent Fairness".

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Posted by Ronald J Riley (27 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Right
Yeah, we really need software patents on one click shopping like on amazon, so other websites are less of a convenience. That makes perfect sense to me.
Posted by dlehmer (3 comments )
Link Flag
But not all patents
If the process is unique, then fine. If it's a vague idea, then no. I don't argue that inovation should not be protected. I just want it to truely be inovation. Suppose some patent troll has already patended the idea of "using a sensor to monitor the environment"? That's a pretty vague idea, isn't it? These guys would be in big trouble because their inovative software depends on using sensors to monitor the environment. This is why people are screaming for reform. Vague ideas are too often receiving patents.
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
Link Flag
Incomplete solution
The problem with this approach is that it does not protect against contamination after the treatment. Chlorine, as it leaves residue, keeps food safe. That's the safe with tap water treatment. Some facilities use ozone but chlorine must be added to ensure water keeps safe along the distribution grid.
Posted by zextron (151 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Bad solution.
Chlorine isn't good for humans either. Wouldn't it be better to treat
the food with ozone while in transit and in storage? What's to stop
trucks and warehouses from having ozone generators, just as they
have refrigerators?
Posted by Macsaresafer (802 comments )
Link Flag
Add O3 to my fridge?
If it does all that much good, how about a small unit to extract O2 from the air, convert to O3 and spray in my fridge? It probably wouldn't take much O3 and would be more pratical than an Internet terminal in the door.
Posted by gthurman (67 comments )
Reply Link Flag
the oxidation process of ozone molecule by contact to microorganism, fungus then it will destroy the cell wall of those living organisms.

Then after once the ozone molecule has contacted to those. Will the single additional atom split away from the ozone structure and reform to O2 suddenly?

If yes! then ozone molecule will only make one attack to the organism and certainly they do not make multi-attacking to those.

If the single atom of ozone form attack or contact to organism is true! Then why the single atom of the oxygen(o2)once they were spited by the electric discharge and then form to single oxygen atoms, why this not to make directly oxidize to the organisms rather than forming to ozone molecule and attack by single atom of ozone?

Thank you very much!!!!
Posted by Ciggas (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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