Filters are all around us – in cars, homes, offices, stores, and farms – and are constantly cycling and cleaning the air that we breathe. These filters that capture pollutants and gasses are thrown out after the life of the filter expires — along with the pollutants they capture.

To help solve this problem, a budding partnership between Pulaski-based MOVA Technologies, a panel-bed filter company, and Virginia Tech has resulted in a potential filter that is not only reusable but also helps boost companies’ profits.

These filters employ a system that can potentially capture gaseous and particulate matter pollutants in layers, drastically improving emissions quality by using a technique that is more inexpensive to manufacture — savings that are passed on to the consumer. Particles are not only removed from the atmosphere — eliminating pollution — but the particles themselves could be recycled for other uses.

This innovative filter could benefit the environment and countless industries, including agriculture. The captured pollutants, such as nitrogen, could be recycled back into production agriculture, saving additional costs for farmers. For instance, methane could be sold to natural gas companies; nitrogen oxides could be used in the production of pharmaceutical anesthetics, fertilizers, and food preservatives; and carbon dioxide could be sold to food and beverage companies.

Steve Critchfield, president and CEO of MOVA Technologies and a 1980 graduate of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture of Life Sciences, said that MOVA is committed to launching the pilot project in Southwest Virginia. Critchfield was named the college’s Outstanding Alumnus in 2016, and the entire MOVA team is comprised of Hokies. Critchfield started the Aaron Slack Memorial Diversity/Social Justice Fund that supports diversity within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

MOVA’s connection to the university began through the late Arthur Squires, a prolific inventor, internationally-respected chemical engineer, and former chemistry professor at Virginia Tech. He originated the ideas for the filtration system that resulted in the patents for the filters, and MOVA Technologies was formed to commercialize these patents.

MOVA was looking for a partner in developing the proof-of-concept and, after a brief search, Virginia Tech was a logical choice given its connection to Squires and world-class researchers and facilities.

MOVA’s collaboration began with Joseph Meadows and Stephen Martin from the College of Engineering, who performed the proof-of-concept testing and provided knowledge on the use of sorbents, respectively.

“This is an incredible opportunity for both MOVA and Virginia Tech,” Critchfield said. “The work being done is truly interdisciplinary and a catalyst of four colleges at Virginia Tech to work together toward a mutual goal for the betterment of our region is special.”

Eventually, the collaboration led to testing of the design in the Advanced Propulsion and Power Laboratory in the College of Engineering. After testing, the Virginia Tech team believed that a successful proof-of-concept was achieved, confirming that the technology can capture gaseous and particulate matter pollutants.

The filters use long trays, called louvers, stacked vertically that hold thin beds of solid sorbents. This substance collects contaminants that facilitate filtration through chemisorption and physisorption processes. Further testing focused on a single contaminant gas stream with a single solid sorbent to generate the initial operating data needed to move to the next stage of development.

“As we continued development, we found that gaseous capture was going to be a big component of this technology and a very critical one,” said Matt Gulotta, director of technology at MOVA. “We started looking around for various applications and agriculture became a major focus.”

Graphic shows how the MOVA filters capture pollutants and the panel-bed design.

Graphic shows how the MOVA filters capture pollutants and the panel-bed design.
A graphic illustrates how the MOVA filters capture pollutants and the panel-bed design.

After learning about harmful odors released from some farms, MOVA saw the potential to capture emissions such as ammonia and methane from these farms.

“That's how we started talking with them about developing a project to look at capturing these emissions to help local environments,” Gulotta said.

Eventually, MOVA got in touch with Joseph Guthrie, a senior instructor in the Agricultural Technology program, to further bring agricultural applications into the fold, leading to the potential collaboration with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Guthrie helped with farm applications, but also sees benefits of the system for the health of animals at these farms.

“The systems might also help in improving animal health at these facilities. Many of the viruses that create problems for the livestock industries are airborne in particles like dust,” Guthrie said. “A next step in proving the value of the filtration systems would look at whether and how effectively a filtration technology such as MOVA’s that removes the airborne particles can improve animal health by also removing viruses from the facility.”

Beyond the future health benefits for farm animals and obvious environmental benefits, there is major economic benefit as well.

The process can remove airborne pollutants to prevent them from negatively impacting the environment, especially sensitive ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay. The captured particles, such as nitrogen, can be recycled back into production agriculture or turned into completely natural fertilizer. The collection of these gasses could lead to the creation of an entirely new industry – one that Virginia Tech and MOVA would spearhead.

“There truly would be a way to create a real organic fertilizer from the ammonia and nitrogen that come out of swine and poultry production,” Critchfield said. “You would be creating a new industry, a new company, which would have Virginia Tech written over it. Because of Virginia Tech’s involvement, jobs would open up to the students while they're at the university.”

The next step in the plan for the panel-bed filters is to test these filters in a different environment with additional partners at the university, such as Jactone Arogo Ogejo’s HABB1 lab. Ogejo, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, focuses on how aerial pollutants – such as the ones MOVA is looking to capture – are formed, released, and mitigated. Another area of focus for him is the minimization of agricultural residues and their recovery, directly aligning with the goal of MOVA’s panel-bed filters.

Aside from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the other colleges at Virginia Tech involved in this project include the College of Engineering, the College of Science, and the Pamplin College of Business, which handled the performing of market studies for the technology.

By bucking the trend of single-use filters, Virginia Tech and MOVA are working to combine cleaner air with the recycling and reusing of gasses, benefiting not only the environment but also all types of industries.

—Written by Max Esterhuizen