University celebrates Princeton inventions

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The annual Celebrate Princeton Invention event allows Princeton inventors to share their projects with a broader audience.

Art courtesy of Warren Powell and Belgacem Bouzaiene-Ayari

Princeton-led discoveries show up not only on the pages of scientific journals — they are also on the shelves of major retailers. At the Celebrate Princeton Invention reception Nov. 29, the University honored its faculty, staff and student inventors for their role in technology transfer — which includes patenting and licensing of inventions — to bring research innovations to the marketplace.

The featured inventions included Princeton technologies in various stages of development, from prototypes to finished products such as those presented by Vorbeck Materials, a company that manufactures graphene-based printable electronics using intellectual property licensed from the University.

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Branko Glišić, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, presents his work at Celebrate Princeton Invention on a low-cost yet accurate system for detecting defects in bridges. Glišić collaborated with Naveen Verma, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, on their invention that features sensors embedded in customizable plastic sheets that feed to integrated circuits, allowing communication with other sensors in the bridge and remote monitoring of the structure. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Celebrate Princeton Invention, now in its fourth year, attracted representatives from investment capital firms, the entrepreneurial community and technology companies to displays and a reception at the Chancellor Green Rotunda. 

Early-stage innovations on display included: a sensor system for detecting cracks in bridges that could prevent collapses; an inexpensive replacement for platinum in manufacturing; a system that researchers can use to turn genes on and off; an efficient method for computer processing units to talk to each other; new materials for harnessing energy from sunlight; and a sensor that can detect poisonous gases from a distance.

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The Princeton-led discovery by Paul Chirik, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry, and researchers including graduate student Crisita Atienza, was finding that they could replace platinum with a much more common substance — iron. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

"These discoveries are the future of innovation in the country, and at Princeton we are committed to technology transfer and working with our partners in industry to develop University inventions so they can benefit society," said Dean for Research A.J. Stewart Smith, who is also the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics

"At Princeton we pride ourselves on streamlining the disclosure and licensing process for our faculty researchers as well as our industrial and investment partners," said John Ritter, director of Princeton's Office of Technology Licensing.

Keynote speaker John Lettow, a member of the Class of 1995 and president of Vorbeck Materials, spoke favorably of working with Princeton to license and develop technologies invented in the laboratory of two Princeton professors of chemical and biological engineering, Ilhan Aksay and Robert Prud'homme

"There is a unique quality to the technology licensing department here, a flexibility that was beneficial both for Princeton and for us as a small company," said Lettow. He also praised the high caliber of Princeton research and the importance that the University places on having world-renowned faculty work directly with undergraduates and graduate students.

Another factor in Vorbeck's success, said Lettow, was the continued involvement of Aksay in an advisory role as the company moved Aksay's technologies for the production of graphene, a novel carbon-based material with excellent electrical conductivity, toward commercialization.

Vorbeck's technology can be found in tamper-proof packaging used by major retailers to discourage product theft. The company creates very thin electronic circuits by printing graphene liquid (ink) onto a surface. Vorbeck has teamed with packaging manufacturer MeadWestvaco to create an electronic sensor web that is sandwiched between layers of cardboard in retail product packaging. If the item is broken into or the product removed from the package, the electronic circuit activates an on-package alarm. 

The ink is one of several applications — including longer lasting batteries — that Vorbeck is developing for graphene, which has unique electrical and thermal properties. According to Lettow, Vorbeck is the first company in the world to have a product based on graphene, a novel material that is exciting interest in the electronics industry and was the subject of the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.

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For the first time this year students involved in the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club attended the event, including senior Ashley Eberhart. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Novel research ideas are in great demand, especially in a changing world, said guest speaker Ralph Izzo, chairman and chief executive officer of PSEG, the parent company of the utility group Public Service Gas and Electric (PSE&G). Referring to Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Eastern United States on Oct. 29,  Izzo said that PSE&G coped with unprecedented challenges to its electrical supply and distribution system. "If this is the 'new normal,' then we need to completely reinvent the way we manage the system," he said. "I picked up a couple of new ideas while I was here tonight."

Izzo, who prefaced his comments by asking if anyone in the room was still without power a month after the storm, said that needed technologies include new methods for distributed generation of electricity, improvements in solar energy efficiency, cost-effective ways to store electricity and sensors that can detect customer outages. Prior to becoming an executive, Izzo worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

PSEG is a charter member of Princeton's Energy and Environment Corporate Affiliates Program, which supports research that addresses global energy needs and environmental concerns and is organized by the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, the Princeton Environmental Institute, the School of Architecture, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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At the fourth annual Celebrate Princeton Invention event held at the Chancellor Green Rotunda Nov. 29, Princeton inventors shared their work with representatives from investment capital firms, the entrepreneurial community and technology companies. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Among this year's featured technologies: 

A sensor system for detecting cracks in large structures such as bridges. Methods for detecting deterioration of large structures could prevent disasters such as the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. Princeton engineers have developed a detection system embedded in customizable plastic sheets that could be applied to large structures. The inventors are Naveen Verma, assistant professor of electrical engineering, and Branko Glišic, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, along with Sigurd Wagner, professor of electrical engineering, and James Sturm, the William and Edna Macaleer Professor of Engineering and Applied Science. 

A new method for using inexpensive iron metal in place of expensive platinum. Iron can be used in industrial chemical reactions that are needed for making silicone, which is used in making consumer products including waterproofing for blue jeans and anti-foaming agents for beer. The technology developed by Paul Chirik, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry, with the assistance of Aaron Tondreau, who received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2011, and graduate student Crisita Atienza, could make manufacturing less expensive and reduce the environmental impact of mining for precious metals. 

A system for detecting gases from a distance. Accurate measurements of greenhouse gases and smokestack exhaust are vital to our understanding of how pollution influences climate change. Developed by assistant professor of electrical engineering Gerard Wysocki, this gas-detection system could also be used to detect poisonous gases after a chemical plant accident or as part of routine monitoring of smokestack exhaust.

Novel methods for improving solar energy devices. Solar energy has the potential to reduce reliance on nonrenewable fuels, but efficiency and durability remain issues of concern. Emily Carter, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, has developed novel materials that can significantly boost the ability of solar cell materials to convert sunlight to electricity.

The Princeton Entrepreneurship Club. A new addition to the event this year was the presence of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, a student organization that supports entrepreneurial activities such as visits to start-ups and networking with established entrepreneurs.

A more power-efficient way for computer processing units (CPUs) to communicate with another piece of hardware known as the graphics processing unit. The technology, which could be used to improve scientific computing, data analytics and medical imaging, was presented by Daniel Lustig, a postdoctoral researcher working with Margaret Martonosi, the Hugh Trumbull Adams '35 Professor of Computer Science

A new system to turn on single genes and turn off single proteins. This technique, which can be used by researchers to explore gene functions, was presented by David Botstein, the Anthony B. Evnin '62 Professor of Genomics, and his colleagues in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

The event featured a variety of notable guests from major companies and firms engaged in intellectual property law, venture capital and technology, including Lockheed Martin, Dupont, SAP and Banco Santander, parent company of Sovereign Bank. Also in attendance was New Jersey Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who represents Princeton Borough and Township.

"Intellectual property is the future of innovation," said Smith. "We have to nourish it, support it, encourage it and protect it, because it if it is not protected, it is no use to anybody." Patents encourage innovation, Smith added, because they provide companies with the ability to develop technologies without fear that competitors will develop a similar device or application. 

The event, organized by the Office of the Dean for Research, was sponsored by a donation by the law firm of McCarter & English. Support for the research at Princeton comes primarily from federal sponsors and also foundations and corporations.