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Altum finds sonic solution to global pollution

The company’s power ultrasound devices are externally attached to industrial equipment and emit focused, high-power ultrasound waves where cleaning is needed. The sound waves break up and disperse fouling.Altum Technologies

Fouled industrial equipment is a costly business. Not only does cleaning it require production stoppages, but the extra energy required to run it equals the emissions from over 200 million cars, or 2.5 per cent of global CO₂ emissions. Now a Finnish innovation could provide a sound solution.

No hoovers or mops are on sight here. The speciality of Helsinki-based Altum Technologies is removing clogged up dirt (in other words, ‘fouling’) in industrial processes and heat exchangers. But instead of using mechanical tools or hazardous chemicals, Altum has harnessed something less invasive and more efficient for the job: ultrasound.

“The currently used cleaning methods are mechanical and chemical washes. But both require the machinery to be stopped, which means they are out of productive use for hours or even days,” explains Matias Tainela, CEO at Altum. “With our system, all you need is our externally attached ‘power ultrasound’ device. It emits high-power ultrasonic waves into the machinery, which break up fouling without any production stoppages.”

This might not seem revolutionary, but for a big company the annual savings of reduced downtime and improved energy efficiency could amount to millions of euros. Furthermore, the whole process can be done in a few minutes and remotely controlled with Altum’s software.

Sounding out the academics

Behind Altum’s technology is good old customer demand. Tainela and co-founder Bo Malmberg have worked with ultrasound cleaning equipment since 2012, but saw their customers increasingly request more production-friendly alternatives. After futile searches for suitable technology globally, the duo decided to take the matter into their own hands.

“We knew we couldn’t do it alone and had to get smarter brains involved. In 2015, I called a dozen of universities and most recommended I contact Edward Haeggström [professor of physics] at the University of Helsinki,” Tainela recalls.

Altum won the pitching competition at Slush 2017, one of the world’s largest startup events, held in Helsinki every year. Pictured is Altum’s Bo Malmberg. Image: Slush/Sami Heiskanen

This ended up being precisely what the duo needed. Haeggström and his team specialise in soundwaves and came up with a unique technology for controlling power ultrasound. In May 2016, Altum was founded and raised funding from Business Finland (then Tekes) and Lifeline Ventures.

A year later, Altum launched the first six power ultrasound devices capable of cleaning any liquid carrying equipment, such as reactors, tanks and cooling towers. Since then the devices have been used by 20 customers in Finland, and the company has struck its first international deals in Sweden and Central Europe.

Environmental goals

International expansion is now firmly in Altum’s sights. In particular Europe, China and the US are markets the company has sounded out with promising results.

“Some [of the interested parties] are technology providers that want to integrate our solution into theirs, some are local multi-industry service companies and then there are also end-users who have contacted us directly,” Tainela enthuses.

Altum also continues its close collaboration with the University of Helsinki, from where the bulk of its 15 staff originate. The company already has new concepts under development targeted at reducing emissions and the use of chemicals in the process industry. In future, Altum says its ultrasound technology could be used to purify water, clean soil and eliminate bacteria in waste among many others.

But the company already has a lot on its plate. Given the scale of the problems caused by fouling in industrial equipment, Tainela says cleaning it is a market estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of euros globally.

“We would be happy with a 10 billion share of that,” he concludes, with a laugh.

Altum’s power ultrasound technology is the first in the world to clean industrial equipment without halting production. Image: Altum Technologies
By: Eeva Haaramo