Next Big Thing: ORNL offers new tech to private business

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a wealth of new technology ready for market. Now it needs private partners to license and use those discoveries.

Researchers at ORNL put eight recent discoveries on display Oct. 17 at the third Technology Innovation Showcase for about three dozen potential developers.

The laboratory has conducted a “grand experiment” over the last decade, investing about $200,000 per year in each of five promising ideas, hoping to get them ready for commercialization, said Mike Paulus, director of ORNL’s Technology Transfer division. The investment of $9 million in 39 projects since 2012 has resulted in 28 license agreements and three options, according to ORNL.

"It's our effort to de-risk the technology,” Paulus said.

Lab officials invited people they thought might be interested in the specific technologies offered, hoping to form collaborations that will lead to a return on the lab’s investment, he said. ORNL wants to sign deals with companies, particularly local entrepreneurs, to license use of specific technologies or researchers’ patents, Paulus said.

But the event was also broadly announced, and within a few weeks ORNL will send out a general email and post a showcase video on its website in hopes of attracting more interest. Sometimes firms compete for a tech license, and in a half-dozen cases a discovery has been licensed to more than one company, Paulus said.

"We do want to announce this as broadly as possible and find the best possible licensees," he said.

Five of the eight technologies on show Oct. 17 have been developed in the last year, while the other three remain unlicensed from 2018, Paulus said.

Lab officials hope interested firms will study potential applications carefully, so a licensing deal usually takes two to six months to conclude; it can take as long as a year, he said. Should an agreement be reached, ORNL has some funds available to help with further development, Paulus said.

The technology available for licensing includes:

Rapid, Native Single Cell Mass Spectrometry

Each cell is unique, and knowing how they’re unique is useful for diagnosis, drug research, and environmental testing, researcher Jack Cahill said.

The new technology, dubbed CellSight, isolates cells for individual spectrographic study. Researchers have spent a year working on software to analyze the massive amount of data which can be gleaned from a single cell, he said.

“We can measure about one cell per second using our technique," Cahill said, which is "orders of magnitude" faster than standard methods.

Genetic Improvement of Salt and Drought Tolerance in Crop Plants

Crop loss from environmental stress is a big problem, but engineering a gene from the desert agave plant can increase drought and salt tolerance, researcher Xiaohan Yang said.

It’s been tested on tobacco, rice, soybeans and poplar. Those crops not only become hardier, but bounce back faster when conditions improve.

Biomacromolecule Engineering by Soft Chain Coupling Technology

A sample of plastic is seen from the lab that studies biomacromolecule engineering by soft chain coupling technology.

Thermoplastics are ubiquitous in daily life, researcher Soydan Ozcan said, holding up a disposable cup as an example. But brittleness limits the use of Polylactic Acid, of which the U.S. is a top maker.

A new technique, with the acronym BEST, greatly increases the strength and ductility of Polylactic Acid, broadening its applications.

Rapid Regeneration of Recalcitrant Plant Species

It’s now common to insert a helpful gene in plants, but that can also affect a plant’s viability. Now a four-gene construct that regulates DNA replication and cell division can alleviate the problems that stem from inserting a foreign gene.

The method developed by Wellington Muchero helps create fertile plants that retain the desired genetic improvements.

Nanocapsular Radiation Track Etch Indicator

Radioactive contamination, such as from radon, can be hard to detect. But that detection process itself can expose people to radiation, including during lab testing of samples.

Now a material developed by Tim McKnight can give test results without lab processing, and it’s biodegradable. It can be used on cheap test strips, or even sprayed in an entire lab to aid in cleanup of radiological spills.

Novel Catalyst for Low Temperature Emissions Control

Emission control devices on cars and trucks now use a half-dozen very expensive metals as a catalyst, and they only work when hot. But exhaust is getting cooler as engine efficiency improves.

A new catalyst, presented by Todd Toops, uses cheaper metals and works at lower temperatures. Those traits can be useful in hybrid vehicles, and may be used in power generators such as gas turbines, not just in vehicles.

Safe Impact Resistant Electrolytes

Lithium-ion batteries are notorious for fire risk when they short-circuit. A new type of electrolyte separator, shown by developer Sergiy Kalnaus, can prevent that.

It’s usually a liquid, but on impact such as a car crash it becomes solid, blocking electrodes from touching. Its first and biggest use may be in electric cars, allowing redesign and placement of batteries, but could have military applications as well.

Commercialization of AlCuMnZr Alloys

More efficient automotive engines require cast aluminum cylinder heads that are stronger at higher temperatures than today’s can handle. A new family of aluminum alloys, developed by researchers including Amit Shyam, promises to be relatively inexpensive but stronger, more durable and more heat-tolerant.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

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Published November 12, 2019