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Absorbing toxic mercury, with Love

Among all the fervor surrounding the possibilities of "green" living, one Brown alum is taking being green to a whole new level. A very tiny level.

With the creation of Banyan Environmental Inc., Love Sarin MS '05 PhD '09 took a graduate research project in nanomaterials and turned it into an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Sarin's company manufactures an assortment of products made of a special absorbent material that collects the toxic mercury vapor that escapes from broken fluorescent lamps.

According to the company's Web site, the vapor "has been linked to neurological, cardiovascular and reproductive problems, and is of special concern to pregnant women and children due to its potential effect on neurological development." Lamps containing the vapor could be broken during use or during transportation. Banyan's products reflect customers' potential needs — individual cloths for single broken lamps, bags to transport burnt-out bulbs to recycling centers and box linings to protect large shipments.

Sarin says he sees his product being purchased by large manufacturers as well as by individuals for residential use. In 2007, President George W. Bush approved legislation to begin phasing out the use of incandescent light bulbs, a change that could mean increased business for Banyan, he said.

The recent Brown graduate was in Washington, D.C., this week receiving a National Science Foundation grant for research and development to continue his work, and said he is looking to expand the number of people involved in the venture and also expand to new products, though there are currently no new projects in the works.

Sarin, who studied chemical engineering, finished his doctorate in August and launched Banyan in October after working with Professor of Engineering Robert Hurt, who headed a team that included undergraduate and graduate students and focused on mostly experimental developments and their "applications for human health and the environment," according to Hurt. "The company is based out of one of those projects," Sarin said.

Though the company is small —  just Sarin for now — there is a support system in place. Hurt serves as the chief scientific adviser, and the company has a subcontract with the University, Sarin said, which allows him to use University facilities and utilize science support.

Hurt made reference to the oft-cited proverbs that "it takes a village to raise a child."

"Brown is like a village," he said. "It takes a few elements on campus" to bring a grad student like Sarin to the point of running a company.

These elements, Hurt said, included a Brown Superfund Basic Research Program grant, which funded the project; support from Brown's Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, of which Hurt is the director; and University programs encouraging entrepreneurship.

Even though Sarin was not part of the University's Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship — a one-year master's program primarily geared toward engineers — he said the opportunity to interact with students who were in the program was valuable because it "helped me flesh out my ideas and work on them."

At Brown, Sarin said, "people want to do things differently and think for themselves." He said the ease with which students can cross disciplines enabled him to consider opinions from all kinds of people. "It was a very great atmosphere," he said.


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