Commercialization of faculty discoveries is on the rise at UNLV, facilitated by a new emphasis on economic development associated with research, according to Thomas Piechota, interim vice president for the recently renamed Division of Research and Economic Development.
“We want to bring greater attention to the important role the university plays in bringing economic vitality and diversity to our community and state,” Piechota says, adding that the university’s workforce development, business startup advising, and private-sector partnerships all support this effort.
“But one of the principal ways we contribute to economic development is by supporting commercialization of faculty discoveries through technology transfer,” he adds.
Technology transfer is the process through which the university’s discoveries, or intellectual property, are transferred to another organization – typically in private industry – for the purpose of development and commercialization. This activity has become increasingly important to research universities across the country as they seek to contribute to economic development in their communities and states while generating a valuable revenue stream. Some notable results of the technology transfer process are Google and Gatorade, both products originally invented in a university setting.
Technology transfer activity at UNLV has increased dramatically in recent years. The university has filed 31 patent applications in the last four years; it has more than 140 research disclosures on file and 14 issued patents listing UNLV inventors. Twenty-seven research disclosures have been submitted in the last twelve months alone.
UNLV faculty have produced a wide variety of intellectual property with great commercialization potential. Here is just one of the most promising projects.
Robert Schill, Engineering Professor
At first glance, it wouldn’t appear that the Post-it note, the Kevlar vest, and the Electro Magnetic (EM) Dot™ would have much in common.
But dig a little deeper and you’d find that they are all revolutionary inventions originally intended for some other purpose.
For instance, the glue on Post-it notes, which was once deemed capable of sticking nothing together reliably, was viewed as ideal for attaching bookmarks in church hymns. Before Kevlar became synonymous with body armor, it was a material designed for racing tires.
And now comes the EM Dot, a novel electric and magnetic sensor that will soon have some innovative – and undoubtedly unexpected – applications.
The EM Dot was developed by UNLV electrical and computer engineering professor Bob Schill and his research associate, Marc Popek, in 2005 to aid in their experiments with pulsed power in the Energy Materials Interaction Technology Initiative of Nevada (EMITION) Center, located in the Science and Engineering Building at UNLV.
Schill had previously acquired the Nevada Shocker Pulse Power Machine, a one million-volt, 100,000-to-200,000-ampere device that helped the researchers study the interaction of pulsed power and materials. But the team was stymied by a lack of the right kind of field diagnostics for the machine. What existed at the time were two separate field sensors: one was the B dot, used to measure magnetic fields, and the other was the D dot, which is used to measure electric fields.
“When you transition from the measurement of radio waves, which have very long wavelengths, to micro waves, which are much shorter, the dots’ construction, calibration, and relative location must be carefully considered for accurate and valid measurement,” Schill says. “The existing sensors were too large and expensive for the work we were doing. So, we came up with the idea for the EM Dot out of pure necessity.”
Their breakthrough in electric and magnetic field sensor technology combines the B and D dots into one sensor, creating a device resembling a wishbone that’s slightly smaller than a regular paperclip.
“This single device measures both the electric and magnetic fields at one point in space simultaneously,” Schill says.
It was patented in 2009, and in 2013 the technology was licensed to Kyma Technologies, Inc., a leading supplier of advanced semiconductors, sensor technologies, and other materials solutions that promote safety and energy efficiency.
Though Kyma has kept their plans for the EM Dot mostly under wraps to maintain their competitive business edge, Schill sees various potential applications for the device.
One possible application he has researched focuses on leak detection in underground pipes. He used PVC piping to mimic water transportation systems in order to find out how the EM Dot could be used by water districts to pinpoint compromised integrity of underground pipes. By using an antenna inside the pipe at a fixed position to send a pulse through the pipe, Schill is able to receive readings with the EM Dot at a fixed location external to the pipe to detect and locate leaks.
This method – as opposed to using a remote, submersible device propelled in the pipe system that detects leaks based on sound waves – has its benefits. It allows for continuous monitoring over fixed locations based on radio wave signals without acoustic noise signatures that are generated when a shower is turned on or toilet is flushed.
While he has so far tested the technology on PVC piping only, Schill predicts that this system would provide similar results in metal and concrete pipes, particularly those used in areas with hard water, such as Nevada. There is also potential to detect pipe degradation with continuous monitoring, especially in metal pipes, which would allow for preventive maintenance.
Since developing the EM Dot, Schill has used it to conduct experiments for other ongoing projects, including one started in 2010 that will have military and/or law enforcement applications. He calls it “the detonator defeat system,” and it has the potential to disarm detonators of explosive devices without actual physical contact. The system uses a coil that, when placed near an improvised detonator, heats it up to the point of controlling or confounding the mechanism that detonates the blast. The university filed a patent application on the technology this year.
The device could be invaluable in locating and “defeating” improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that caused so many horrendous injuries and fatalities among military personnel in Iraq and other countries.
What makes Schill’s system unique is its non-specificity to devices and its ability to impact various materials.
“The difficult thing with improvised detonators,” Schill says, “is that you essentially have a black box, and you don’t know what’s in it. You don’t know what has been used to build the detonator, and each possibility – tungsten, platinum, copper, etc. – has its own fingerprint. Moreover, one does not know a priori the connecting circuitry to activate the detonator. We’ve conducted numerous experiments with different materials and connecting circuit loading effects, and we found similarities in results, pointing to the device’s ability to perform in all scenarios.”
In its current state, the coil is relatively small, and it requires an individual or a robot to place it so close to a detonator that its exact location must be known. As he continues work on the system, Schill hopes to extend its size to cover wider areas, eliminating the need to know a detonator’s location, and to implement a detection system that would allow for potential disarmament of underground mines on the battlefield.
In addition to inventing several technologies, Schill has also founded and directed the EMITION Center and performed countless hours of research. Since 2005, his center has been home to ground-breaking work on initiatives that he hopes will one day enable UNLV to become more competitive in conducting research in novel areas that are beneficial and pertinent to the state and the nation.