Features - June 2013

Traversing the Endless Frontier: The Crucial Role of Technology Transfer

“New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the realms of science.” - Vannevar Bush

Photo of Vannevar Bush taken by the Office for Emergency Management (part of the United States Federal Government) during World War II. Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, who acted as head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, overseeing almost all wartime military research and development.
Photo of Vannevar Bush taken by the Office for Emergency Management (part of the United States Federal Government) during World War II. Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, who acted as head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, overseeing almost all wartime military research and development.

In “Science: The Endless Frontier,” his 1945 report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, laid out his vision for the future of science in the United States. Before the 1940s and the advent of World War II, sparse attention was paid to the vital role technology plays in sustaining a country and propelling it into further development and prosperity. However, the value of the technological advances developed for the military during the war could not be denied, and, guided by the vision of Vannevar Bush, the government started to take heed of the importance of sponsoring scientific research and innovation.

Through contracting with industry, universities, and non-profits, the government began to implement policies that encouraged basic research on an unprecedented level; yet, no coherent plan was developed for transitioning new technology from the laboratory to market. The intellectual property being produced with federal funds belonged strictly to the federal government, and the route to exploit new research or acquire the exclusive rights to government-held patents was circuitous at best. In fact, by 1980, of the 28,000 patents that the American government owned, fewer than 5 percent had been licensed to industry.1

To remedy this, a piece of legislation known as the Bayh-Dole act of 1980 was enacted. This legislation was the key to unlocking technology that had been discovered in laboratories using federal resources and bringing them to the market. The Bayh-Dole act secured the ability of universities, small businesses, and non-profits to pursue ownership of an invention created with use of federal funds. This legislation, by simplifying and advancing technology transfer, ignited the beginning of a remarkable increase in entrepreneurship in the United States.

So, What Is Technology Transfer?

Technology transfer is the process of shepherding new technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace; transforming the fruits of research into marketable products so an invention may benefit the greatest number of people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

At the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), scientists and engineers work every day to develop solutions to difficult problems. Yet, until their discoveries are commercially available, their research cannot improve our nation's quality of life. Technology transfer makes it possible for NETL inventions to reach the marketplace and provide value as rapidly as possible.

Guiding a technology through the process of transfer is a complex affair: research that holds potential commercial value must be identified and evaluated, the connection between laboratory and industry must be initiated and brokered, and the inventions themselves must be marketed.

The Technology Transfer Group at NETL is central to this effort. Their outreach helps bridge the gap between research and commercialization, connecting corporate and investment partners to the emerging technologies NETL has to offer. Through travel to technology transfer conferences like Innovation Showcase and the TransTech Energy Conference, the group engages in the type of networking that propels research into results. They also work closely with established industry partners, transitioning the technologies found in NETL labs into viable business opportunities.

There are many forms the transfer process can take, and patents and licensing are two key components of NETL’s technology transfer program. As a federal agency, NETL grants licenses that permit private companies to make, have made, further develop, use, or sell a patented technology or process. NETL looks for licensing partners with a plan for technology development and marketing with a high probability for commercial success and expect those partners to make the benefits of the technology reasonably accessible to the public.

Another key mechanism is the cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA. Through a CRADA, NETL can collaborate with a university or private company to collaborate on a project. CRADAs allow NETL and its research partners to optimize their resources, share technical expertise in a protected environment, share intellectual property emerging from the effort, and speed the commercialization of federally developed technology.

Other vehicles NETL uses include contributed funds-in agreements, memorandums of understanding, and non-disclosure agreements. All of these mechanisms allow NETL to partner with or provide technologies to organizations that can transition laboratory research into viable business opportunities.

The Commercialization Alliance

Successfully bringing technology to the public is a lengthy process rooted in effectively fostering contact between the laboratory that owns a new innovation and the people who can put that innovation to use. To facilitate this process, NETL has begun working with an exciting new organization, the Commercialization Alliance.

The Commercialization Alliance was conceived from the need to promote transfer by identifying projects with strong market potential and licensing the resulting technologies to either established companies or promising new start-ups. URS Corporation, NETL’s primary research and engineering support contractor, proposed the idea of an alliance after recognizing the broad impact that NETL technologies could have in the commercial marketplace. The Alliance members include Pittsburgh seed stage investor and business mentor, Innovation Works; contract research firm MATRIC; INNOVA, which provides business support and capital for West Virginia companies; and Oregon BEST, a clean technology broker for Oregon companies and researchers.

These partners bring significant expertise and resources to start and grow companies. In working with them, NETL and its Technology Transfer Group will further speed the process of turning laboratory research into commercially viable technology solutions

Technology Transfer Makes a Difference

NETL has a compelling history of successful commercialization. The Laboratory has produced research and seen it effectively brought to market in ways that have made a powerful impact on the environment, helped increase domestic energy supplies, and personally benefited millions of people.

For example, when acid rain became the number one environmental threat of the 1980s, NETL tackled the problem through programs that developed, demonstrated, and transferred such solutions as wet scrubbers and advanced combustion control systems. These and other technologies with roots in NETL programs are now used in 75 percent of U.S. coal power plants to control SO2 and NOx emissions. Largely as a result of the efforts made at NETL, these acid rain precursors have been dramatically reduced and the effects of acid rain neutralized across much of North America.

Drilling advancements made by NETL in the 1980s are still having an impact on the shale gas industry of today. Shale gas contributes 14 percent of today’s domestic natural gas supply and could supply 45 percent by 2035.
Drilling advancements made by NETL in the 1980s are still having an impact on the shale gas industry of today. Shale gas contributes 14 percent of today’s domestic natural gas supply and could supply 45 percent by 2035.

The primary mission of NETL is to develop solutions to the energy problems faced by the United States. In this endeavor, NETL has a strong record of exciting contributions. Three decades of NETL-supported research led to the commercialization of horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, microseismic monitoring, and other technologies needed to recover hard-to-reach shale gas plays. In 2011, shale gas production accounted for nearly 32 percent of the dry natural gas produced in the United States and has saved the U.S. economy nearly $400 billion over the last 4 years.

NETL technology has applications beyond energy as well. In 2000, NETL was asked by Boston Scientific to develop a new material with which they could design advanced coronary stents. Working in cooperation with Boston Scientific, NETL researchers created a unique platinum-chromium alloy that laid the groundwork for a new line of stents that are strong, flexible, and highly visible on x-ray. In 2010, Boston Scientific’s PROMUS® ELEMENT™ and ION™ stents were brought to market. Today, they are the premier stent line in the world.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and affects more than 13 million Americans. The use of coronary stents has become a mainstay of cardiology, saving or improving the lives of thousands of patients each year.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and affects more than 13 million Americans. The use of coronary stents has become a mainstay of cardiology, saving or improving the lives of thousands of patients each year. 

These are commanding accomplishments, and NETL continues to pursue technology transfer with the same vigor that drove these successes.

NETL has licensed one of its patented CO2 sorbents to Boston-based start-up company EnVerid Systems. Enverid is testing the sorbent for use in EnClaire™, a retrofit air-recirculation system it has designed to increase the energy efficiency of commercial HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems.

When HVAC systems operate in commercial and public buildings, CO2builds up quickly. Typically, air-handling systems remove CO2 and other contaminants by mixing indoor air with outdoor air. The continual heating or cooling of that outdoor air contributes significantly to the energy demands of HVAC.

Incorporation of a new CO2 sorbent into commercial heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems will save energy and reduce operating costs. HVAC is one of the largest consumers of electric power in the United States and is responsible for more than half of the load on the electric grid in many major cities.
Incorporation of a new CO2 sorbent into commercial heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems will save energy and reduce operating costs. HVAC is one of the largest consumers of electric power in the United States and is responsible for more than half of the load on the electric grid in many major cities.

Therefore, reducing this energy drain, while still efficiently maintaining air quality is an important HVAC industry goal. In response, EnVerid designed EnClaire to eliminate the introduction of outdoor air. Instead, the system draws in contaminated indoor air, cycles it through a series of purification processes, and returns it to the building, all while maintaining its original temperature. The NETL sorbent, originally developed to pull CO2 out of power plant emissions, may prove to be the right choice for EnClaire’s CO2-removal mechanism. If so, NETL will receive royalties when EnVerid begins commercial sale of its EnClaire technology.

Another exciting start-up company is Pyrochem Catalyst Corporation. NETL researchers developed a fuel-reforming catalyst that outstrips the capabilities of current catalysts to produce hydrogen from diesel fuel.

A vial of diesel fuel and a vial of NETL's pyrochlore catalyst, licensed to Pyrochem, are pictured with a monolith structure to which the catalyst will be applied.
A vial of diesel fuel and a vial of NETL's pyrochlore catalyst, licensed to Pyrochem, are pictured with a monolith structure to which the catalyst will be applied.

There are 2.2 million diesel trucks that haul goods across the United States. The trucking industry produces an estimated 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of nitric oxide, and 5,000 tons of particulate matter annually. Auxiliary power units that incorporate solid oxide fuel cells would allow drivers to obtain power from a cleaner, more efficient power source and could open the door for the use of similar units in large-scale commercial power plants. Developing catalysts that convert diesel to hydrogen is important to implementing fuel cells. Producing hydrogen at the diesel source could mean more efficient and economical generation of hydrogen and greater adoption of fuel cell technologies for transportation and stationary power generation.

The NETL catalyst developed for use in fuel reforming to produce hydrogen-rich synthesis gas was exclusively licensed to Pyrochem Catalyst in 2011. Pyrochem is now further developing it for fuel cell auxiliary power systems that could be used in long-haul truck transport, military applications, and recreational vehicles.

Realizing the Vision

Fostering connections and forming collaborations through research partnerships and licensing agreements is the route to realizing the true value of technology and encouraging entrepreneurship in the United States. Without technology transfer, innovation would flounder in the gap between the laboratory and the market.

The ways a technology traverses from laboratory to marketplace can be varied, but the Technology Transfer Group at NETL is focused on fostering innovation in any way possible, matching the most promising new inventions and technologies to the right people to commercialize them. NETL's technology portfolio contains a broad range of innovations that have resulted from research in areas such as carbon capture and sequestration, mercury capture, fuel cells, sensors and controls, computational modeling, and materials science, among many others. The efforts put forth by the Technology Transfer Group make it possible for NETL to live up to the ideals once envisioned by Vannevar Bush: “The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.”

For any inquiries regarding technology transfer, please email techtransfer@netl.doe.gov or contact:

Jessica Sosenko
National Energy Technology Laboratory
Office: 412.386.7417
Email: jessica.sosenko@netl.doe.gov

1 U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Committees. May 7, 1998. “Technology Transfer, Administration of the Bayh-Dole Act by Research Universities”

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