The 2019 film Dark Waters tells the story of a lawyer who exposes harms caused by a class of manmade fluorine-based chemicals known as PFAS. These substances have been used for decades as an industrial coating to help common objects from raincoats to children’s toys stay waterproof and prevent corrosion. Now, they are known to cause all manner of maladies, from cancer to birth defects. They never break down and circulate in both the natural environment and bloodstreams of living creatures, to the point that they are ubiquitous in biological and inorganic systems around the world—earning them the label “forever chemicals”.
Emerald portfolio company actnano makes PFAS-free coatings for automotive and electronics components. Its founder, Taymur Ahmad, advocates for PFAS phase-outs, a trend that seems inevitable as the topic lands on the watch lists of global regulators, especially in the EU, which has recently proposed a blanket ban on PFAS.
In this interview, Ahmad discusses actnano’s founding, the outlook for PFAS and the role of open innovation in transforming the market for industrial coatings.
Q: Can you describe the birth of actnano and your personal entry into the field of industrial coatings?
Taymur: I had a 20-year career in industry before founding actnano, first at Alcoa, where I was involved in the auto industry’s shift from using steel to aluminum to make car frames. Then I worked at a large consumer electronics company that used coatings on their printed circuit boards (PCBs)—essentially a central nervous system for the electronic device. The coatings were meant to protect sensitive equipment from water damage, but they couldn’t cover the entire PCB, so it wasn’t truly waterproof—basically defeating the purpose of having a coating at all.
It was there I first noticed the problem of human exposure to industrial coatings—isocyanate, in the case of the PCBs. I saw the hair of 20-something men on assembly lines turn gray due to exposure to this stuff. I went on a crusade inside this company to stop use of these toxic chemicals. Why are we putting them on PCBs? It’s an ineffective process that is bad for humans and the environment, and what’s more, it slows down the overall assembly line. I failed in that crusade, but that experience planted the seed for actnano.
Q: Threats to PFAS—from regulatory bans to lawsuits to damaging headlines—are accumulating as evidence of its health effects becomes impossible to ignore. What does the future hold for forever chemicals?
Taymur: The damage that PFAS has done is incalculable. I’ve seen it right here in my own backyard. Cambridge, Massachusetts—home to Harvard and MIT—just had to scramble to find new water sources after discovering PFAS. The spread of regulation that we’ve seen in recent years is certainly welcome, but what will really drive change in the industry is that major customers won’t buy PFAS-based coatings anymore. Apple, for one, just took this step. People are becoming smarter, and companies are responding. The message is clear: they don’t want to be a part of a human killing chain anymore.
Q: What makes actnano’s solution different? Why is it better—and safer—than PFAS?
Taymur: In 2012, when we founded the company, your phone would break if it fell into water. Today it keeps working. We had something to do with that. Our coating is made from silicon-based materials and can cover the entire PCB. The solution I described earlier is like Swiss cheese—filled with holes. Ours isn’t.
At the same time, because it’s silicon-based, our product is no more harmful to people than sand. Humans can ingest small amounts of sand to no physical detriment. Our coating is based on a compound found organically all over the world. PFAS, on the other hand, is totally synthetic—there’s no correlate for it in nature.
Makers of industrial coatings will say that you can test their products and you won’t find any PFAS—which is technically true. But PFAS are generated in the manufacture of these coatings. It enters water systems and circulates essentially forever. It leeches into groundwater when products that contain these coatings are tossed into landfills. And don’t forget that assembly-line workers are still being directly exposed to PFAS every day, bearing the brunt of the health impacts. It’s a travesty.
Q: actnano is currently focused on automotive and electrical gadgets. Given the shrinking market for PFAS-based coatings across many other applications, do you see opportunities in other sectors as well?
Taymur: When I founded actnano, the entire PFAS controversy was still in its early stages. Even as it’s grown in importance, we’re not simply reacting to what’s happening there. Our founding principle was to create a submersible electronic device, and that’s still what we’re focused on.
That said, there are some very tantalizing markets that we would like to explore, which follow logically from our current solution set. Take solar panels: each one contains what’s called an inverter—the same component that’s found in automobiles. We make great coatings from automobile inverters, and there’s no reason we can’t tackle the fast-growing solar market too.
We are also looking closely at glass, where a lot of PFAS-based coatings are currently being used to repel fog and fingerprint smudges. Currently our clients like Tesla and Porsche are keen to apply our solution to their car windshields, to keep them clean. Solar panels, again, are another the type of glass we could target with this solution—to keep them clean and increase their absorptive capacity.
Q: How do you view the role of open innovation in helping the industrial coating sector shift toward a less harmful, more sustainable model?
Taymur: For many of the largest manufacturers of PFAS-based coatings, coatings are a fairly small business line compared with their other revenue streams. This means that they can divest from coatings fairly easily—we saw 3M do this recently, for instance. The trouble is, this leaves many smaller manufacturers who are more than happy to fill the market as long as it exists. What these industrial leaders should do is keep their coatings lines, but transition to using a non-toxic, non-harmful substance—something like what we make. Our door is wide open to collaboration with the big incumbents, as long as it removes PFAS from the system.
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