Science has known for a while that ultraviolet light can destroy viruses and bacteria, and so now the process is used to sanitize air conditioners and hospitals. But what about a portable breathing apparatus as protection against the novel coronavirus?
Bakersfield technology entrepreneur Stan Ellis hopes to become the first to pull it off. He has a patent pending with more on the way and hopes to begin manufacturing the backpack-mounted device by the end of this year.
Testing continues but he estimates the device he and his staff developed in a month's time along Norris Road destroys 99 percent of viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19. He sees airlines and the movie industry as logical first customers.
The invention is the latest technological innovation out of one of Bakersfield's most active businessman-investors.
Ellis started in the local oil field services business in 1974 and has since launched multiple energy companies and secured some three dozen patents. Now he's working with two federal agencies on a cybersecurity system that employs one of the more mind-boggling aspects of quantum mechanics.
The new breathing apparatus, which looks like a stand-alone tube, is different from his other ventures but alike in the sense it's science-based.
It has a fan at the bottom, a large chamber above that measures several liters and LED lights tuned to a specific wavelength to destroy virus DNA. He said the flow of air can be reversed to make it safe for someone testing positive for a virus to exhale without risking infection.
At the top is a hose connected to a wearable mask, allowing users to easily breathe in air that has been bombarded with ultraviolet light. Ultimately it will be fitted into a backpack carrying a battery charger and backup mask.
Ellis said it's a chance to improve upon common face masks, which he asserted offer relatively spotty protection because of the small size of the coronavirus in relation to fabric that is porous in comparison.
"Masks we have today are like keeping a mosquito out with a chain-link fence," he said.
Customer outreach has not yet begun as Ellis prepares to make a decision on whether to contract out manufacture of the product or do it in house. But already there's been interest at a high level.
The White House recently reached out to him, Ellis said, to express interest in the mobile respiratory device, thanks to a referral by state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield.
Grove called the invention a potentially national-level safety solution. She said it was her honor to help connect one of her constituents with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "to let them know that innovation is taking place right here in Bakersfield, Calif.," Grove said in a statement.
"It is not just Silicon Valley that has innovative vision," she stated. "We are proud of our job creators and innovators we have here in Kern County. Allowing our businesses to remain open and operational provides the opportunity for them to collaborate with government and help create solutions during these unprecedented times."
Among the companies Ellis has a stake in are a chemical processing company, an oil field service company and one that makes a product for monitoring fluid levels in oil field equipment.
The admitted science fanatic employs chemists and engineers with various backgrounds. His enthusiasm for technology comes across when he talks about Qubitekk, the locally based company that he reckons is the first U.S. manufacturer to work with quantum-entangled split photons.
The company works on the concept that quantum particles that are split remain entangled, meaning they become identical twins that can be used to monitor their siblings instantaneously no matter the distance between them.
As demonstrated by Qubitekk's contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, Ellis said, this entanglement becomes a practical, commercial endeavor when applied to light-based information in transit. Any sign of a hacking attempt immediately triggers a halt to communication, he said, making properly equipped systems virtually unhackable.
Applications currently contemplated include power-grid security and satellite-to-drone communication. Ellis, Qubitekk's majority owner, said working prototypes have established encryption across different frequency ranges.
As heady as that sounds, Ellis said he prefers to be known as a hard worker who grew up a pig farmer in South Dakota.
He lives on a ranch north of Bakersfield and speaks as proudly of his business achievements as he does about having played a guitar at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace for 18 years, or being a father to five and grandfather to 20.
"If I have a degree of success," he said, "it's because of my employees and my partners."