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PPPL inventions take the spotlight at Technology Showcase

A  day-long Technology Showcase spotlighting the unique research, technical expertise, and inventions that the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory offers to collaborators and funders attracted a wide range of potential partners.   

The Dec. 18 event highlighted several PPPL inventions and cutting-edge technologies. These included low-temperature plasma research and applications such as plasma nanosynthesis, the production of nanoparticles with plasma, as well as PPPL’s engineering capabilities in areas such as machine learning and computer simulations. 

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, said events like the Technology Showcase demonstrate how national laboratories can collaborate with the tech industry. “We are getting very talented people to reach out and translate their ideas into viable technologies,” Cowley said. “One of the ways we can contribute to New Jersey is facilitating the transfer of ideas to industry.” 

New Jersey has a long history of innovation going back to Thomas Alva Edison’s laboratory in Edison, said Andrew Zwicker, head of PPPL Communications and Public Outreach. Zwicker gave an overview of innovation initiatives in New Jersey. “This is a really important and exciting time to be working on tech transfer,” Zwicker said. He cited the example of a program Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed offering tax incentives to venture capitalists who invest in new technology start-ups.  

Among the technologies promoted at the showcase was PPPL’s expertise in low-temperature plasma applications. These include the Hall thruster Experiment facility, which explores how plasma thrusters could be used in space. Such devices range from high-power thrusters for interplanetary space missions to miniaturized plasma thrusters for tiny satellites called Cubesats. PPPL’s low-temperature plasma capabilities also include synthesizing and analyzing nanomaterials, said physicist Yevgeny Raitses, the head of low-temperature plasma research, who led the development of the Laboratory for Plasma Nanosynthesis at PPPL. 

Igor Kaganovich, deputy head of the PPPL Theory Department, presented computational capabilities developed at PPPL to explore the physics of low-temperature plasma and its applications that include modern microelectronics, material processing, switches for the electric grid, and plasma propulsion.    

After giving presentations, the inventors presented posters on their technologies and networked with the invited guests who included venture capitalists, business owners, and  technology transfer staff from other federal agencies and from Princeton University. 

Several PPPL inventors presented their inventions during the program: 

Calibrationless Flowmeter – Egemen Kolemen 

Flowmeters are widely used to measure liquids in industries that include pharmaceuticals, metallurgical/casting, chemical production, and water and waste treatment. 

PPPL physicist Egemen Kolemen, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton, presented  a flowmeter invented by Michael Hvasta, a former associate professional scientist at Princeton University, with co-inventors Daniel Dudt and Adam Fisher, Princeton University engineering graduate students, and Kolemen. The device does not need to be calibrated and can be installed outside the pipe the carries liquids and easily removed. Two patents are pending on the device, which won first place at the 13th Annual Princeton University Innovation Forum last year. 

A technique to produce a badly needed medical isotope – Charles Gentile 

Technitium-99m (Tc-99m) is the most widely used medical isotope in the world for numerous medical diagnostic tests for heart disease, breast cancer, broken bones, and other conditions. However, the production of the substance, which decays from molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) takes place at only a few facilities in the world.

Charles Gentile, head of the Exploration Group, and fellow inventors George Ascione, head of Health Physics, and Adam Cohen, former deputy director for operations at PPPL, have invented a process to produce the badly needed isotope with a refrigerator-sized generator that would remove a neutron from molybdenum-100 (Mo-100) to produce the substance. The device could produce the material on site at a hospital or other facility that might not have access to Mo-100. The device received a patent in 2016 and has won numerous awards, including the Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award. Gentile retired this January but plans to continue working on the technology with colleagues at PPPL. 

High performance superconducting magnet technology – Yuhu Zhai

Engineer Yuhu Zhai introduced a superconductor magnet technology that he originally developed to use for a spherical tokamak pilot plant, which differs from conventional doughnut-shaped fusion devices called tokamaks because it has a spherical shape like a cored apple.  Unlike large low-temperature superconducting magnets, high-temperature superconducting magnets can be small. They could potentially reduce the size and weight of a fusion device by increasing the magnetic field, current density and operating temperature, Zhai said. This would make them a good choice for next-step fusion devices aimed at finding more affordable ways of producing electricity from fusion energy. 

Tests on prototypes constructed by Zhai and his team showed that they achieved most of the performance of a wire coil with a significant cost reduction, Zhai said.  The magnets could be used in medical equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging devices (MRIs) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) devices. 

Erik Gilson – Advanced Liquid Centrifuge

Physicist Erik Gilson introduced an advanced liquid centrifuge that could be used for numerous applications to separate the components of a liquid. The advanced liquid centrifuge speeds up the rate that materials are separated by making the inner cylinder of the device spin faster than the outer cylinder, resulting in better separation of materials than in standard centrifuges. 

Gilson and his fellow inventors developed the device for physics experiments but adapted it for possible commercial use. Applications include removing oil from sands, removing contaminates from polluted water, and processing ink pigments. In addition to Gilson, other inventors of the technology were Hantao Ji, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University; Adam Cohen, former deputy director for operations of PPPL; Phil Efthimion, head of Plasma Science and Technology; and Eric Edlund, an assistant professor at the State University of New York - Cortland. 

Johan Carlsson – A Plasma Microphone for Structural Health Monitoring 

The U.S. has thousands of aging bridges and other infrastructure in need of repair but detecting defects in the bridges can be difficult through visual inspection alone. However, tiny fractures release stress energy in the form of ultrasonic sound waves, which can be detected through a microphone 

Johan Carlsson, a former physicist at PPPL who is now a principal research scientist at RadiaSoft LLC in Princeton, invented a relatively simple plasma microphone that is very sensitive to a wide range of frequencies and can therefore easily detect these signals. The device is not affected by radiation or extreme temperatures so it could be used in nuclear environments such as nuclear reactors or in nuclear waste storage. Carlsson displayed a prototype of the device, which is patent pending, at the event. 

Proton Range X-Ray Spectrometer – Kenneth Hill 

Proton therapy is a type of radiation therapy for cancer that uses a proton beam to kill cancer cells in tumors. One potential difficulty with the therapy is that it is difficult to target the tumor in the direction along the proton-beam path to avoid damaging the surrounding tissue. The maximum effectiveness of the proton beam is at the point where the protons stop. The range of the protons in the human body depends on the beam energy. The energy required to just reach the tumor of individual patients is currently determined by a calculation, which has uncertainties, but there is presently no way to determine whether the protons actually reach the tumor or go beyond it. 

Physicist Kenneth Hill and his colleagues invented a technique to accurately target the tumor while minimizing damage to surrounding tissue. The technique uses a large area x-ray detector, which detects x-rays produced when the proton beam strikes a tiny gold marker surgically implanted in the center of the tumor. The detector produces a signal only when the proton beam hits the gold marker, making it more accurate. The technique could eliminate the need for MRI and CT scans and the complex computer-model calculations currently used to predict the proton range. 

Hill, along with fellow inventors PPPL physicists Phil Efthimion, Lan Gao, Manfred Bitter, and physicist Dale Meade, a former deputy director of PPPL, have begun tests to demonstrate the principle with physicists at the ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, New Jersey. 

Many of the inventors received Laboratory Directed Research & Development (LDRD) funding to pursue their research. 

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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

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