COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sensor Electronic Technology makes UV LEDs that can detect lethal bio-agents and clean kitchen counters. Customers include the U.S. military, Department of Homeland Security, and some 400 commercial firms.
By Chuck Crumbo
Published June 27, 2012
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Imagine a village of mud huts at the foot of the Hindu Kush Mountains in eastern Afghanistan where the only source of water is a narrow ribbon of snowmelt that has collected the waste of every village upstream.
This is a world where one in five children won’t reach their fifth birthday, dying from diseases like diarrhea, malaria and typhoid. They could have been saved simply by having access to clean water.
Now, imagine that a worker could shine a light over the water, instantly killing bacteria and germs, and making it safe to drink.
Think it’s something out of “Star Trek?” Well, the technology exists today and is the driving force behind the growth of Columbia-based Sensor Electronic Technology Inc. The company, which goes by the initials SETi, is the world’s leading manufacturer of ultraviolet light emitting diodes, commonly called UV LEDs.
Applications for the type of LEDs that SETi makes range from detecting lethal bio-agents to cleaning the kitchen counter. Customers include the U.S. military, Department of Homeland Security, and some 400 commercial firms.
What interests the private sector as well as the Army about SETi’s products is that they are “compact, fast to respond, consume little power, last a long time and are cost effective,” according to the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency.
The company, founded in 1999, recently launched a $20 million expansion project that will add 5,000 square feet to its present 15,000-square-foot facility at 1195 Atlas Road, leading to the creation of 150 jobs. SETi presently has about 70 employees.
SETi’s growth plan calls for the facility to expand to 130,000 square feet as it develops consumer products.
“Our company has experienced rapid growth over the past years and is now taking a large step in manufacturing capacity to enter new, very high volume markets,” said Remis Gaska, president and CEO.
Most folks are familiar with LEDs as bright mini lights used to decorate Christmas trees or illuminate book lamps. However, the eye can’t see the light from LEDs that SETi makes.
SETi-made LEDs are based on III-Nitride compounds, a semi-conductor material. When an electrical charge between five and seven volts is applied, the LEDs give off a light in the Deep Ultraviolet range between 247 and 365 nanometers.
A nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter and used to measure very small things like atoms and molecules. To appreciate the size of a nanometer, consider that a strand of hair is 100,000 nanometers wide.
Some objects that can’t be seen will fluoresce when exposed to the UV LEDs. For example, anthrax, which is a deadly disease caused by a bacteria that can be used as a bio-agent, will give off a bluish light when exposed to a UV light set for a wavelength of 340 nm or 280 nm.
Although the use of UV light to kill bacteria and germs has been around for decades, the sources of UV radiation — mercury lamps and solid-state gas lasers — are expensive, cumbersome and based on 100-year-old technology.
The advantages of SETi’s UV LED technology include small size, high speed, lower power consumption and low costs, the defense agency said.
Besides military applications for SETi’s research and development of UV LEDs, industry observers say the company’s products have a number of commercial uses such as disinfecting and sterilizing water and air, the manufacturing of optical sensors, development of pharmaceutical drugs, DNA analysis, and treating skin diseases like psoriasis.
SETi thinks there’s a growing opportunity to develop UV LED technology for use in the home to treat water, said Tim Bettles, director of marketing and sales.