EVERETT — Shining a little light on a problem can not only illuminate it, but — in some cases — disinfect it.
Ultraviolet light has been used to disinfect food, water and hospital surfaces since the early 20th century when Niels Finsen, a Danish scientist and Nobel prize-winner, discovered its germ-killing properties.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, ultraviolet light has become a serious contender in the fight against the coronavirus.
In Everett, WayPoint Interiors, a Paine Field-based aerospace firm, has developed an ultraviolet lighting system that could find a permanent seat on trains, planes and buses.
“We have demonstrators being completed right now, and so we’re prepared to take orders now,” Olson said.
A year ago, the company was searching for new ways to disinfect airplanes, from the cabin areas to the cargo holds.
In its quest, it partnered with Hubbell Lighting, a national lighting and electronics manufacturer.
Together, the two teamed up to design an ultraviolet system to de-germ airplanes.
WayPoint’s CEO, Robert Olson, a former Boeing test pilot, founded the company in 1994.
Since then, WayPoint has helped redesign cockpit doors to meet post 9-11 security standards, modified airplane fuel tanks to make them safer, and worked on other aerospace projects.
Recently, it built an aerial spray system for the British Maritime & Coastguard Agency that can help disperse oil spills on the ocean.
Now, WayPoint has taken up the battle against the bad bugs.
Work began after the company was approached by members of the flight attendants’ union, in search of new ways to improve air quality on airplanes.
It wasn’t hard to sell Olson and the company’s six employees on the idea.
“I’m always looking for ways to clean up the plane in a good way — that’s how I get started,” Olson said.
The company’s disinfecting system, called Viralite, uses two ultraviolet light sources to zap the bad bugs on metal, plastic panels, seat cushions and other materials.
Employing ultraviolet light to kill germs isn’t new — other companies have developed light wands and delivery systems to do the trick. New LED products have made it possible to produce light more efficiently than incandescent light bulbs, paving the way for new uses.
WayPoint is using two kinds of ultraviolet light to attack germs, including bacteria, viruses, mold and fungi.
One ultraviolet light source, a visible “blue light,” can be used to disinfect cabin air during flight, Olson said.
Because it’s safe for humans, it can be turned on while passengers are traveling. Studies show that it’s effective in killing airborne bacteria and some common viruses, Olson said.
A second type of ultraviolet light is powerful enough to kill not only bacteria but viruses, including the coronavirus, studies show.
It does so by disabling the virus’ ability to replicate, rendering it harmless.
However, the more potent ultraviolet light, which is invisible, can only be deployed when the plane is empty. Ultraviolet light that’s strong enough to kill viruses is harmful to humans.
“We’re selling a light that you can’t see to kill a germ you can’t see,” Olson said.
The company is facing some stiff competition — from an army of roving robots.
“They’re our biggest competitors,” Olson said, laughing.
Here’s why — some airlines are now using robots equipped with ultraviolet light systems to disinfect passenger planes.
When the plane is empty, a robot rolls up and down the aisles flooding the cabin with germ-killing ultraviolet light.
Here’s where WayPoint’s ultraviolet system differs — it can be permanently installed on a plane, train or bus, Olson said.
When the vehicle is empty, it can be activated with the flip of a switch. The system includes a string of red lights to let everyone know the circuit is on — for safety, Olson said.
“Only the mechanic on the ground has the switch,” Olson said, so that it can’t be turned on accidentally while people are still aboard.
The Federal Aviation Administration has a high interest in the program. “We’re being scrutinized and helped by the FAA’s medical division,” Olson said.
Across the U.S., travel rates have declined dramatically, “up to 90% for some modes of transportation,” Olson said.
“People are afraid,” Olson said. “Everyone is looking for ways to clean up these environments — with chemicals, wipes, shields and UV robots.”
WayPoint’s ultraviolet system can be paired with traditional cleaning methods, Olson said.
The company is in talks with transportation companies, commuter bus and rail systems and school districts.
“We’re also talking to them about installing these on school buses,” Olson said.
Janice Podsada; email@example.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods