The relocation of the VITO air quality measurements team (LKM) has finally been completed. It is now set up in the former Technology House, where it has since rebuilt its unique lab infrastructure and recently expanded with certified test equipment for face masks.

'We needed to move in any case' explains Gert Otten from VITO. 'As the LKM team, we were one of the last research groups still active on the nuclear site shared with the SCK on the main site at the Boeretang in Mol'. The relocation had already been included in VITO's master plan for some time, but gained momentum when the Technology House opportunity arose in the course of 2018. 

For some time, VITO has been working on bringing together different services around the Health theme in one campus. The Technology House is part of this 'Health Hub' and wants to house VITO's LKM team as well as other VITO activities or other companies in the field of sustainable health.  

LKM started their relocation in the spring of 2019, and this was completed one year later, in the summer of 2020. Otten: 'It took a while before the building was completely ready to house our offices, and especially our laboratories. Moreover, our lab technicians didn't have any backup infrastructure to complete ongoing projects during the move. And we couldn't just pause or stop these projects. So it was quite a puzzle to get the labs moved'. 

Link with human health

With its activities, the LKM team is at the cutting edge of health and the environment.  ‘Good air quality is and remains an important health issue and the core of our expertise is still high-quality air and aerosol measurements in various indoor and outdoor environments', explains Otten. 'In recent years, we focused intensively on validating and deploying innovative sensor technologies. They are slightly less accurate but cheaper and therefore allow data to be generated on a much larger spatial scale - including personal data'. Then you can quickly make the link between human health and the mission of the Health Hub. Examples include the current issue of particulate matter, the citizen science CurieuzeNeuzen project and various 'indoor air projects' for which VITO provided the analyses and scientific interpretation'. 

The new laboratory infrastructure in the Technology House is run by a dozen VITO lab technicians. In addition to them, the LKM team also has twelve researchers, who also have their work stations in Technology House.  The test labs are intensively used for sensor validation (e.g. CO2 meters that indicate whether an indoor environment is well ventilated and therefore 'corona safe') and for efficiency testing of industrial air purification techniques and of building materials that absorb harmful substances and thus provide a better indoor environment. 

In addition, the unique generation lab, together with the new conduit, allow to receive around thirty delegations from company laboratories in Flanders, Wallonia, the Netherlands and Germany each year for extensive quality control in the form of so-called inter-laboratory tests. 

In the summer of 2020, the LKM team obtained new testing infrastructure following the corona pandemic. At the request of Flemish Minister for the Economy Hilde Crevits, VITO rapidly developed a test lab for checking FFP face masks. VITO is currently the only Belgian research organisation accredited for this strict European standard. Among other things, VITO is responsible for the quality testing and certification of high-quality masks produced in Belgium. 

Living lung cells 

Also state-of-the-art is the air-liquid interface lab, where innovative simulations are done of exposure of lung cells to toxic gases and nanoparticles - minuscule particles whose impact on health is not yet fully known. The expertise of air quality measurements is increasingly shifting towards a mapping of the risks to human health. And towards looking for new leads for innovative therapies or medicines. Otten: 'We have unique technology that allows us to study living lung cells and see how they react after exposure to air, contaminated or otherwise, or to specific chemicals'. 

VITO recently purchased a sophisticated device for this lab which can test the safety and efficacy of inhalable pharmaceutical products. 'With this PreciseInhale®, an aerosol can be generated in a controlled and extremely accurate manner, to which in vitro human lung cells are then exposed,' explains Otten. That way, we can examine how aerosols and small particles affect our lungs after inhalation, and thus our health'. 

Is there still room for spin-offs in Technology House - surely an important aspect of the original intention of the Health Hub? 'Spin-offs are always welcome to link their activities with us,' confirms Otten. 'Ideally, these would be start-ups with strong expertise in the area of health, which would also tie in with the local spearheads of policy in the Campine region - with which VITO's health activities would also be strongly matched, like for example the 3xG study that has been ongoing for several years. Moreover, there can also be spin-offs from VITO, as it is part of our task to make new mature technology stand on its own two feet'. 

VITO rents Technology House from the Province of Antwerp, which in recent years has renovated the building at its own expense and prepared it for offices, meeting rooms and labs.

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