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Team wins Innovation prize for PPPL-developed device

A team of Princeton University inventors won first place at the 13th Annual Innovation Forum for its invention of a unique type of device called a “flowmeter.” The instrument was developed at PPPL and offers a simple, inexpensive, and contactless method of measuring fluids in industrial applications. 

“It’s a very practical invention,” said Laurie Bagley, PPPL’s head of Technology Transfer. “I think people got that it’s simple and useful in a lot of different industries and solves a lot of industrial problems.” 

The inventors will receive $15,000 to develop the project further after winning the award at a March 14 Innovation Forum at the Princeton University Carl A. Fields Center. The event was sponsored by the Keller Center, Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing and Wise and Company, LLP. Venture capitalists attending the event have already expressed some interest in the device, the inventors said. 

“We’d like to thank PPPL for offering the infrastructure, opportunity and expertise for this technology,” said lead inventor Michael Hvasta, an associate professional specialist in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. Hvasta works on liquid metal research with Egemen Kolemen, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton, jointly appointed by PPPL and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.   

When Hvasta learned that the invention had won first place, his co-inventor Daniel Dudt, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton, was still out in the Fields Center lobby. Hvasta ran into the lobby shouting, “We won first place!” and the two took the stage to accept the award.

A long history with PPPL

Hvasta, who received a Ph.D in nuclear engineering and engineer physics from the University of Wisconsin in 2013, has a long history with PPPL. He was a research intern at PPPL as a physics major at The College of New Jersey in 2007 and 2008. He was first part of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s research internship program and then worked on dusty plasma research with Andrew Zwicker, then head of Science Education and now also head of Communications and Public Outreach. 

The inventors are the second group from PPPL to win an award at the Innovation Forum. Engineer Charlie Gentile, George Ascione, the manager of Health Physics at PPPL, and Adam Cohen, former deputy director for operations, received third place in 2016 for their invention of an on-demand method to create a widely-used medical isotope for medical imaging. 

Gentile and Bagley helped coach Hvasta. “Charlie was an excellent resource,” Hvasta said. “He provided a lot of insights regarding the competition and really helped us refine our presentation.”

Second prize at the Forum went to  a team of inventors for “Photo-pharma,” which uses light to control bio-engineered proteins for use in pharmaceuticals. The third prize went to Kurt Ristroph, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering, who invented a method to use nanoparticles to eliminate antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as “superbugs.”

Hvasta and his colleagues have already built a demonstration model of the “Rotating Lorentz-Force Flowmeter,” which they displayed at the Innovation Forum. They have used the device in the laboratory at PPPL to measure the flow of a liquid metal alloy known as “galinstan” as part of a project led by Kolemen to study the use of liquid metals as plasma-facing materials for a torus. Kolemen’s team includes Hvasta and co-inventors Dudt and Adam Fisher, also a graduate student in Princeton University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. 

Kolemen received $450,000 in Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funds from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project in fiscal year 2017. “We were trying to develop a liquid metal flowmeter for fusion reactors and that’s how we developed this,” Kolemen said. 

Plans to test and refine device

What makes the device unique is the use of low-friction bearings that allow the device to respond more quickly and without requiring calibration, the inventors say. This makes it able to measure liquids at low-flow rates. The inventors plan to use the $15,000 award to further test and refine the device, Hvasta said. They plan to demonstrate the technology on a variety of liquids and develop an electromagnetic version of their low-friction bearing that would make the device simpler and improve the performance.

The rotating Lorentz force flowmeter operates by using a spinning array of permanent magnets to measure the flow of electrically conductive fluids.   It can be installed outside a piping system and since it doesn’t have moving parts or seals touching the fluid, the flowmeter can be used to measure high-temperature or corrosive fluids. 

The market for flowmeters is expected to grow by 25 percent over the next four years to become a $9 billion market, Hvasta said. In his presentation, he noted that his device cost under $1,000 to build, a much lower price than most commercial flowmeters, which could cost thousands of dollars.

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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