WisBusiness: Plasma Devices develops system to check package safety

By Lauren Baxter

MADISON – Worried about opening that strange package that just arrived on your doorstep? You can relax – at least, soon. A device that makes many types of mail much safer is almost ready for delivery.

Plasma Devices, a Madison-based company co-founded by a UW-Madison research scientist, has developed a patented technology called Safe-Mail that is designed to decontaminate several types of mail.

Safe-Mail is built around a plasma reactor that decontaminates packages and letters by producing large volumes of low-temperature plasma. This technology protects mail from various types of biological and chemical contamination including anthrax, small pox, E-coli, SARS and flu strains without causing damage to the contents inside.

The product could aid the U.S. Postal Service and other private package delivery firms by protecting against possible bioterrorist attacks, as well as helping to protect postal employees from consuming antibiotics such as Cipro. It’s estimated that nearly 16,000 postal employess have been consuming the antibiotic every day and costing the government $500 million a year.

“These postal services are really looking for an ethical solution for their main safety and they are very willing to pay for it,” said Safe-Mail president and co-founder Magesh Thiyagarajan. “We have a real novel technology that can be efficiently used for biological and chemical decontamination. We offer fast reliable and accurate decontamination at less cost.”

Safe-Mail involves a conveyor belt on which the mail will pass through an enclosed chamber and be immerged in plasma in the state of ionized gas. The process allows for large amounts of mail to be decontaminated in 60 seconds and would not cause any delays on the existing conveyor lines.

Safe-Mail’s other benefits are that it costs less than competing products, it is environmentally safe to use, and it consumes less electrical power than competing technologies. The plasma reactor produces cold plasma which will not damage materials such as paper, plastic, film, electronics, metals or pharmaceuticals. The decontamination process produces by-products such as oxygen, atomic oxygen, hydroxyl ions and ozone, which are all environmentally friendly.

The plasma reactor has already been tested by several third-party institutions. Functional testing took place at the University of Tennessee where the product was tested over long periods of operation.

Biological testing against anthrax and various other chemicals was carried out by the Eastern Virginia Medical School. On-site testing was also done at a U.S. military complex in Nevada, where the plasma reactor was used to decontaminate a building over a couple of days. The reactor is in the process of being tested to gain FDA approval for a class one grant. Approval means the FDA has determined the machine safe to be used by anyone without any health hazards.

Plasma Devices has already attained intellectual property on the Safe-Mail technology and plans to keep the production of the plasma core in Wisconsin. Other parts of the Safe-Mail product will be outsourced when possible. Potential users of the product include the United States Postal Service (USPS) as well as independent shipping companies such as FedEx, UPS and DHL.

“We’re not just selling to shippers. The people who are receiving the benefits of this product are the American people,” Vice President Ben Collier said.

Plasma Devices is working to raise financing to carry out its business plan. The estimated cost for Safe-Mail is $750,000 per unit. The goal is to raise $3 million in total funding, which includes $1.5 million from an investor. Two grants have already been received for $750,000.

The company is lead by Thiyagarajan and co-founder and Nobel Prize-nominated scientist, Dr. Igor Alexeff. They began working together while Thiyagarajan was completing his masters in Electrical Engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where Alexeff is a professor.

Plasma Devices won first place and $10,000 for its business plan in the Advanced Manufacturing category of the 2006 Governor’s Business Plan Contest. The contest began with 188 entries from 144 individuals and was narrowed down to a winner in each of the four categories as well as one grand prize winner. The company also won third place and $4,000 in the 2006 G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition produced by the UW-Madison School of Business.

Baxter is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.