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, “Science: The Endless Frontier”
Technology plays a fundamental role in economically invigorating a country and propelling it into further development and prosperity. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that the U.S. government began to take steps to sponsor 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 rights to government-held patents was circuitous at best.
The vital importance of technology transfer had become apparent. In 1980, the government enacted the Bayh-Dole Act that 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. Today, technology transfer programs have become a standard and essential component in our efforts to reap the potential benefits of research and invention.
So, What Does a Technology Transfer Program Do?
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.
NETL’s technology transfer efforts are central to this initiative. Their outreach helps bridge the gap between research and commercialization, connecting corporate and investment partners to NETL’s emerging technologies.
The technology transfer professionals at NETL develop close working relationships with researchers to assess and understand the market potential of the intellectual property being developed for transfer. They create materials that accurately and effectively showcase transfer opportunities, and through attendance at industry conferences and events, they develop a network of contacts to efficiently disseminate information about new innovations, lab capabilities, and researcher expertise. Establishing these relationships with potential partners enables NETL technology transfer to initiate and facilitate commercial partnerships.
Involvement does not cease once partnerships have been established. NETL’s technology transfer professionals also work closely with established industry partners and NETL researchers, tracking the progress of transitioning technologies into viable business opportunities.
NETL seeks to enable a wide array of paths to bringing technology to market. Patent licensing opportunities are key components of NETL’s technology transfer approach. As a federal agency, NETL grants licenses that permit private companies to make, further develop, use, or sell a patented technology or process. NETL looks for licensing partners with a plan for technology development and marketing—a high probability for commercial success—and expects 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 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.
Technology Transfer Makes a Difference
NETL has a compelling history of successful technology commercialization. The Laboratory has produced research and seen it effectively commercialized in ways that simultaneously benefit the energy industry and the public, while encouraging entrepreneurship. NETL’s primary mission is to develop solutions to the energy challenges faced by the United States. In this endeavor, NETL Technology Transfer has a strong record of exciting contributions—from developing partnerships that have streamlined the path of technology from inception to laboratory, to enabling start-up companies, to providing licensing opportunities for award-winning technologies waiting to be brought to market.
Cooperative research between NETL and industry can often significantly impact the journey that a technology takes to market viability, in many cases accelerating the transfer process. NETL has worked with companies in a range of industries to develop technology tailored for specific applications.
For example, refractory materials are used to line the interior of slagging gasifiers used to convert feedstock to synthesis gas for use in power generation. A refractory lining protects the gasification chamber from the harsh environment that occurs during gasification. Traditional high chrome oxide linings fail within 3 to 24 months, forcing the gasifier to be shut down, increasing costs, and limiting commercial acceptance of gasification.
To address this issue, NETL researchers, in collaboration with Pittsburgh-based Harbison-Walker Refractories, developed a phosphate-modified high-chrome oxide material that increases service life up to 50 percent over traditional liner materials. Harbison-Walker Refractories subsequently licensed the refractory for commercialization as AUREX™95P in 2007, and the material has since become the industry standard for high wear areas in slagging coal gasifiers, representing the most significant improvement in gasifier refractories in over 30 years.
NETL’s technology has also been successfully transferred to applications beyond the energy industry. 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.
Because of the advanced, innovative nature of NETL’s research, a focus of NETL’s technology transfer efforts is on small, entrepreneurial businesses. By working with licensing partners who formulate a development, marketing, and commercialization plan, NETL has provided the technology to launch multiple promising start-up companies.
NETL 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 designed to increase the energy efficiency of commercial HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems. When HVAC systems operate in commercial and public buildings, carbon dioxide (CO2) builds 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.
Therefore, reducing this energy drain while 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-devloped sorbent, originally designed to pull CO2 out of power plant emissions, may prove to be the right choice for EnClaire’s CO2-removal process.
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.
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 further developing this technology for fuel cell auxiliary power systems that could be used in long-haul truck transport, military applications, and recreational vehicles.
Every day, NETL continues to develop technologies designed to mitigate environmental impacts of fossil fuels, increase energy supplies, and improve lives. Some of these technologies are recognized as innovative, even before the licensing and transfer process has begun.
One such example is the cerium-oxide-based coating that NETL developed for applications in power generation. To produce power more efficiently and cleanly, the next generation of power plant boilers, turbines, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), and other essential equipment need to be operated at extreme pressures and temperatures in what is known as the “ultrasupercritical” range.
To avoid equipment failure with such extreme conditions, the cerium oxide-based coating can be applied to complex metal parts to help increase oxidation resistance. This versatility means the coating has applications in any market where oxidation-resistant metals are needed, from advanced power plant components to SOFCs.
In 2010, the coating received an R&D 100 Award, given by R&D Magazine to recognize the 100 most technologically significant products entering the marketplace each year. This coating technology was also awarded the 2010 “Outstanding Technology Development” award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium.
Another award-winning NETL developed technology available for licensing is the Basic Immobilized Amine Sorbent (BIAS) Process. Capturing CO2 from the flue or stack gas of fossil fuel power plants is an important step in mitigating environmental risks associated with conventional energy production; the BIAS Process uses amine-based solid sorbents to capture CO2. The sorbent is designed to become more selective and reactive toward CO2 and removes it from the flue gas stream. The sorbent is then heated to release the CO2 for storage, thereby refreshing the sorbent for reuse, while the captured CO2 is available for permanent storage.
Application of this technology reduces the costs and energy associated with more conventional scrubbing processes to capture CO2 in large-scale power generation facilities. Consequently, its transfer from the laboratory to the marketplace will be an important step in commercial deployment of innovations that help decrease atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases.
In 2012, the BIAS Process was the recipient of an R&D 100 Award. The BIAS Process technology was also awarded the 2010 “Excellence in Technology Transfer” award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium.
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 NETL Technology Transfer is focused on fostering innovation in any way possible, matching the most promising new inventions and technologies to the right people for commercialization. NETL's technology portfolio contains a broad range of innovations that have resulted from research in areas such as carbon capture and storage, mercury capture, fuel cells, sensors and controls, computational modeling, and materials science, among many others.
Technologies and IP that are available for licensing are listed on our technology transfer website, as well as on LinkedIn and Flintbox.
The efforts put forth by NETL’s technology transfer professionals make it possible for NETL to live up to the ideals embodied in our mission statement. Scientific innovation drives us toward the national energy security, the protection of our environment, and the success of our economy, and technology transfer is the key that ignites these efforts.