When the Covid-19 pandemic sent demand for disinfectant skyrocketing, leading manufacturer Aqualution rapidly rose to the challenge thanks to an EPSRC IAA collaboration.
In early 2019 Aqualution Systems Ltd – a leader in the science, manufacture and application of hypochlorous acid disinfectants – was supplying the NHS and other healthcare providers with disinfectants, but the company’s labour-intensive batch method of manufacture limited its production capacity. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic led to an exponential increase in demand for effective disinfectants that Aqualution was unable to meet, creating an urgent need for the company to increase its manufacturing output.
Unlocking potential with the right expertise
While Aqualution knew that it was technically possible to automate its complex pH-sensitive manufacturing process, the company hadn’t found any commercial pumping, monitoring and control technology that could operate with the required speed and sensitivity to achieve this aim. With demand for disinfectant growing rapidly as the pandemic took hold, Aqualution sought academic support from the University of Edinburgh for process automation and advanced manufacturing. With the help of Edinburgh Innovations, the company identified Dr Adam Stokes and Dr Faiz Iqbal from the School of Engineering as the team whose combined expertise would deliver solutions. After answering an EPSRC IAA funding call for projects responding to Covid-19 and receiving funding rapidly, the team were able to begin work in April 2020.
Principal investigator Dr Iqbal and co-investigator Dr Stokes built a prototype and successfully demonstrated in bench trials that it could reliably replicate the manual production method while requiring minimal or no operator input. The Aqualution process engineers then worked with the academic team to recreate their bench trial success at production scale, and the automated system was optimised to enable unmonitored production out of hours.
The pH monitoring, control and process automation developed for Aqualution by Dr Iqbal and Dr Stokes delivered a five-fold increase in production capacity, and a 93% decrease in the time taken for the process, from 150 minutes to ten minutes. The five-fold growth of the business during the UK’s first wave of the pandemic also supported a 440% boost in employment at Aqualution during a period when many local companies in the Borders were being forced to make staffing cuts; so the company was able to have a positive impact on the local economy.
The project has also enabled Aqualution to grow internationally, as the automated process developed by the academic team has made remote production possible while maintaining tight quality controls.
The relationship has proven highly beneficial for both Aqualution and the University of Edinburgh. While Aqualution has been named 2021 Manufacturer of the Year at the Business Insider Made In Scotland Awards, in recognition of the company’s impressive scale-up in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the company has also developed a strategic relationship with the University. Encompassing a broad range of disciplines including engineering, biological sciences, medicine and veterinary science, the partnership will give a range of University academics the opportunity to engage with industry and make connections that will inspire future projects and provide invaluable career development.
EPSRC IAA funding
EPSRC IAA funding is for University of Edinburgh researchers and academics at all career stages to support activities that accelerate or amplify the impact arising from EPSRC-funded research. The funds are managed by Edinburgh Innovations on behalf of the College of Science & Engineering. Please contact the EPSRC IAA team EPSRCIAA@ei.ed.ac.uk with any questions.