Category: Research

Massive science-funding bill passes US Senate — but China focus worries researchers

Read the full story in Nature.

Scientists praise the budget boost slated for the National Science Foundation, but worry the legislation could dampen international collaborations.

Fish guts on the Red Line: Chicagoan was transporting specimens for a study showing the long history of microplastics in freshwater species

Read the full story in the Chicago Tribune.

To prove that fish ingestion of microplastics is more than just an ocean story and more than just a modern story, Loren Hou used an unusual technique.

Transporting the digestive tracts of four freshwater fish species she was studying from the Field Museum, where she dissected specimens dating back to the 1900s, up the Lakefront to Loyola University Chicago, where she would analyze what was in the fishes’ guts, Hou sometimes took the Red Line.

To enhance creativity, keep your research team fresh

Read the full story from Bar-Ilan University.

Network scientists address the effect of team freshness on the originality and multidisciplinary impact of produced work, by systematically investigating prior collaboration relations between team members. Among other things, their study reveals that papers of fresher teams are significantly more effective than those of older teams in creating studies of higher originality and greater multidisciplinary impact.

Scientists put GPS in trash to find out how far it travels

Read the full story from the Longview News-Journal.

A project aimed at reducing plastic pollution along the Mississippi River is deploying new technology in an ancient form: This is not your average message in a bottle.

Scientists are placing GPS devices inside plastic bottles to study how trash enters the watershed and travels downstream, with the ultimate goal being to reduce pollution in rivers and oceans. The initiative was launched last Saturday in Baton Rouge, the first of three cities participating in a pilot program that involves tracking several bottles on their journeys toward the Gulf of Mexico.

How a historic funding boom might transform the US National Science Foundation

Read the full story in Nature.

Proposed budget increases for the research funding agency could bolster US innovation efforts, but some worry this will change the agency’s mission.

US universities call for clearer rules on science espionage amid China crackdown

Read the full story in Nature.

As the National Institutes of Health begins implementing Trump-era guidelines, researchers voice concerns over transparency and racial profiling.

EPA Announces Nearly $2.5 Million in Funding to Small Businesses to Develop Environmental Technologies

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $2,499,229 in awards to 24 U.S. small businesses to develop innovative technologies that help support EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.

“We have the opportunity to confront our greatest environmental challenges with the strength and creativity of American entrepreneurs,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “I congratulate all of the small businesses receiving EPA funding today. I look forward to working with them to harness the power of innovation to build a healthier, safer and more equitable future.”

EPA is one of 11 federal agencies that participate in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program established by the Small Business Innovation Development Act of 1982. The small businesses in today’s announcement are receiving Phase I awards of up to $100,000 for six months for “proof of concept” of their proposed technology. Companies that successfully complete Phase I can then submit a proposal for a Phase II award of up to $400,000 to further develop and commercialize the technology.

The following science and technology-based small businesses received EPA SBIR Phase I awards:

Air Quality

  • Adelphi Technology, LLC. (Bowling Green, Ky.) – A compact, portable battery-powered analytical instrument for monitoring ultra-low concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Firefly Photonics LLC (Coralville, Iowa) – A portable mid-infrared gas spectrometer to monitor VOC emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations.
  • Nikira Labs Inc. (Mountain View, Calif.) – A high-selective ethylene oxide analyzer developed using open-path, mid-infrared cavity enhanced spectrometry. 

Clean & Safe Water

  • Faraday Technology, Inc. (Englewood, Ohio) – Electrochemical removal of contaminants of emerging concern using a modular water reuse system.
  • FHNC Ltd. Co. (Fort Worth, Texas) – A point of source sewage treatment device to remove fats, oils, and greases from waste streams.
  • Hyperion Analytical LLC (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) – An analytical system for water treatment systems to provide near-real-time measurement of N-nitrosamines which are a potential human health concern.
  • Intelligent Optical Systems, Inc. (Torrance, Calif.) – An integrated sensor system to monitor contaminants in water.
  • NanoSonic, Inc. (Pembroke, Va.) – Durable hydrophobic membranes with antifouling properties for water purification systems.
  • Photon Systems Inc. (Covina, Calif.) – An in-situ, reagentless sensor for continuous microbial monitoring in water reuse treatment systems.
  • Pure Blue Tech Inc. (Seattle, Wash.) – A membrane integrated with polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) transducers to reduce fouling and promote efficient water reuse. 
  • Triangle Environmental Health Initiative (Durham, N.C.) – A Zero-Waste wastewater treatment system to eliminate brine and produce three output streams for water and energy recovery.

Homeland Security

  • Sonata Scientific LLC (Bethel, Conn.) – A long-lasting, self-disinfecting antiviral surface cover for high-touch surfaces to reduce viral transmission.
  • Quick-Med Technologies Inc. (Gainesville, Fla.) – A long-term antimicrobial, antiviral disinfectant coating using hydrogen peroxide as the active agent for use on frequently touched surfaces.

Land Revitalization

  • Aquagga Inc. (Juneau, Alaska) – A field-deployable hydrothermal alkaline treatment reactor for on-site disposal of PFAS-contaminated wet wastes and brines.
  • Cyclopure, Inc. (Skokie, Ill.) – A novel PFAS treatment approach to remove and destroy PFAS from contaminated water. 
  • Purafide, LLC (Ann Arbor, Mich.) – A novel Plasma Water Reactor for PFAS remediation in potable reuse systems.

Sustainable Materials Management

  • Dunn Infinite Designs (Denver, Colo.) – A mobile, rapid freeze-drying system to prevent food waste. 
  • Earth Merchant (Vancouver, Wash.) – Durable, lightweight construction bricks made from industrial hemp for architectural applications with improved thermal performance to improve energy efficiency. 
  • Farm to Flame Energy Inc. (Syracuse, N.Y.) – A novel combustion process that enables biomass from construction, food processing and agricultural waste streams to be transformed into affordable, low-emission electricity. 
  • OLIN (Philadelphia, Pa.) – Engineered approach that repurposes city-wide waste-stream glass into a soil product suitable for urban green spaces and landscaping.
  • PKS Consulting, Inc. (Anchorage, Alaska) – A mobile Plastic Ocean Waste Recycler that produces recycled plastic lumber products from locally collected plastic ocean waste.
  • Simonpietri Enterprises LLC (Kailua, Hawaii) – An integrated system to safely gasify construction and demolition wood into low-greenhouse gas transportation fuel.
  • Transfoam LLC (Charlottesville, Va.) – An innovative synthetic biology approach to recycle waste plastic into biodegradable plastic.
  • Verdant Structural Engineers (Berkeley, Calif.) – Carbon-storing straw structural insulated panels for residential applications in the U.S. which are less toxic and improve lifecycle impacts of building materials.

Safer Chemicals 

  • NanoSonic, Inc. (Pembroke, Va.) – Clean manufacturing process to produce environmentally friendly particles for textile pigments and dyes.

Learn more

Patent system often stifles the innovation it was designed to encourage

Attorneys for Apple heading to court during the so-called smartphone patent wars. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

by Michael J. Meurer (Boston University) and Janet Freilich (Fordham University)

Over his career Thomas Edison garnered more U.S. patents than anyone in his time. Edison profited from his patents, but he was also exposed to the dark side of the patent system. He had to contend with lawsuits by other patentees who sought – and sometimes won – a piece of his success. While the patent system is designed to spur innovation like Edison’s, it also hampers it.

Easy copying and imitation discourage innovation, because why make the effort if someone else will profit from it? The patent system works by enabling inventors to block unauthorized use of patented technology.

Most technologies are developed by many inventors over many years, a process called “cumulative” innovation. Too often, however, early inventors get a patent on a small and perhaps insignificant piece of the technological puzzle, yet their patent covers the entire puzzle. Inventors who solve subsequent parts of the puzzle may need to pay royalties to the patentee, even if their contributions are larger.

As legal experts who focus on technology law and policy, we suggest that the problem boils down to two issues: too many patents and too little accurate information about them.

Too many patents

The U.S. is awash in patents. Over 350,000 U.S. patents were granted in 2019, four times the per capita rate in 1980. From the perspective of research managers at big firms, patents are cheap and easy to get. For example, in the early 2000s Bill Gates decided that Microsoft was patent-poor, and within a few years the company increased annual patent applications by 50%.

Patents are easy to get because the standards of patentability are low and because the burden is on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to prove an invention is not patentable. Patent examination is slow. It often takes three years or more. Despite increased staffing, the backlog of patent applications has continued to grow, and examiners spend on average only 20 hours reviewing each application. The patent examiner is required to read and understand the invention in an application, determine whether the invention meets the claims of the application, search existing technology to see if the invention already exists and write a response to the application.

Helter-skelter examination causes errors – many patents are too broad, or they cover obvious inventions. To draw attention to problems caused by the flood of low-quality patents, billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban endowed a chair at the Electronic Frontier Foundation dedicated to elimination of “stupid patents.”

Innovative firms that succeed in assembling many pieces of a technology puzzle into a finished product must consult with a patent lawyer to learn whether their new technology is covered by one or more patents owned by others. Ideally an innovator will get permission to use patented technology, usually for a fee, or redesign its technology to steer clear of relevant patents.

In practice this patent “clearance” process is difficult, costly and sometimes impossible. For technologies like smartphones, a patent attorney likely would need to review hundreds of patents, including many patents that are not granted until long after the new product is launched. Failure to license relevant patents creates a risk of litigation and the threat the new technology could be forced out of the marketplace.

Screenshot of an iPod showing an image of the earth and the slide-to-unlock bar
Apple secured a patent on slide-to-unlock despite earlier work that set the stage for the feature. Angelo Su/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

As a result, smartphone patent litigation is far too common. Apple – a smartphone pioneer – has participated in scores of lawsuits around the globe as both a defendant and plaintiff. As a plaintiff, Apple sometimes uses its patents opportunistically to hinder innovation by its rivals.

For example, Apple sued Samsung using a patent that claimed the slide-to-unlock feature on a phone as Apple’s invention. Despite strong evidence that inventors before Apple had already accomplished the key steps to implement this feature, Apple convinced the courts that their version of this feature was patentable, and after seven years Samsung agreed to pay license fees to Apple to settle the case.

Economic research suggests that these litigation costs and license fees burden innovative firms to such a degree that on balance the patent system discourages innovation. In other words, innovative firms gain a benefit from their patents on their new technology, but that benefit is more than offset by the many patents owned by others that might be asserted against the new technology.

Too little information

When an inventor gets a patent, she is supposed to reveal the secret sauce behind the invention in the patent, a public document. This allows scientists and engineers to learn about the invention and use that information to improve the technology.

Or at least, that’s the theory. In practice, many inventors make shoddy disclosures. Experiments reported in patents are sometimes fictional and often rely on dubious methodology. For instance, patent law permits an inventor to disclose the fictional finding that a drug treats cancer as evidence that she deserves a patent on that drug.

Inventors applying for patents are allowed to include predicted experimental results. The intent is to allow for earlier disclosure and to help smaller companies secure funding. But when evidence in patents is wrong, other innovators can be misled. Further, if other innovators want to figure out if the patented drug really treats cancer – or any other disease – they need a license from the patentee.

A graphical representation of an early electric incandescent lightbulb
Edison was the victim of a broad light bulb patent that covered one of his subsequent inventions. Edison Electric Light Company

Sometimes key pieces of evidence are missing entirely from patents. This happens when a patent covers aspects of a technology that the patentee didn’t actually invent. Imagine discovering that paper is a mediocre incandescent conductor in light bulbs and using that discovery to get a patent covering thousands of other conductors, including ones that, unbeknownst to you, work much better. Later innovators might want to figure out whether other substances are better conductors than paper, but they can’t even start experiments without a license.

This happened to Edison. He was sued for patent infringement after discovering a far better conductor than that discovered by the patentee – but because the patent was written broadly, it nevertheless covered Edison’s invention.

There is also too little information about the boundaries of patents. When an inventor gets a patent, she is also supposed to provide clear boundary information – what a patent application covers and what it doesn’t – to the public about her patent rights. The patent system fails to ensure this, however.

The boundary information in patent applications is hidden for 18 months until the application is published, and even longer if the boundaries change later during examination. Once the patent is granted, lawyers, judges and the public often have difficulty reaching agreement on the meaning of boundary language that may be intentionally vague or ambiguous.

How to fix the system

Inventors who come up with new chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, tend to benefit from the patent system. Unfortunately, the system appears to impose a net cost on most other technologies, especially in high-tech industries.
Opportunistic patent owners, often called patent trolls, surprise inventors with patent claims about inventions that are minor or distantly related to the technology that is the target of the suit. Economics research shows such trolling activity slows innovation.

The patent system can be improved to deliver a net gain to all inventors even without being drastically reworked. A good start would be to rigorously enforce existing standards about information disclosure. Courts should push inventors to clearly describe and explain their inventions.

The flood of patents on minor technical advances could be ended if patent fees were increased and if the nonobviousness standard, which screens out minor advances, was made stronger. Reducing the number of patents and increasing the amount of information about each patent would go a long way toward making the patent system work the way it was intended.

Michael J. Meurer, Professor of Law, Boston University and Janet Freilich, Associate Professor of Law, Fordham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Video: Developing an Innovative Culture in Your Manufacturing Business

Today’s economy is pushing manufacturers to constantly be searching for new ways to drive down cost, shorten lead times, and adapt to customer preferences at an increasingly rapid pace. To remain competitive in today’s challenging marketplace, manufacturers must have in place a culture of continuous innovation.

PennTAP is joined in this webinar by guest speaker Dr. Shawn Clark, Clinical Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, from the Penn State Smeal College of Business. Dr. Clark examines how businesses can create a culture of constant innovation which will allow them to quickly adapt to changing marketplace pressures.

U.S. Department of Energy Awards $18 Million for Cutting-Edge Technologies to Optimize Vehicle Performance and Efficiency

The U.S. Department of Energy today announced $18 million in funding for four cutting-edge projects that will help passenger vehicles operate more efficiently, reduce energy consumption, and contribute to the Biden Administration’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This funding is part of Phase II of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (ARPA-E) Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated On-Road Vehicles (NEXTCAR) program.

“The same nifty features that are making cars easier to drive can also make them way more efficient, use less gas, and save drivers money at the pump,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “These technologies are a win-win for drivers, and they’re also going to lead to more jobs, a cleaner transportation sector, and rapid progress towards our carbon-free future.”

Launched in 2016, ARPA-E’s NEXTCAR program focuses on reducing vehicle energy consumption by developing Connected and Automated Vehicle (CAV) technologies that optimize vehicle dynamic controls and powertrain operation, allowing a vehicle to automatically process and react to its surrounding environment, traffic conditions and nearby vehicles. Current CAV technologies predominantly focus on the improvement of vehicle safety and adding driving convenience, while NEXTCAR is among the first of research efforts in this space to specifically focus on developing CAV technologies to reduce vehicle energy use.  

Phase I of NEXTCAR focused on the development of CAV technologies for use in all vehicle classes, including cars, trucks, and buses, with the goal of enabling a 20% reduction in energy consumption. The teams moving on to Phase II of NEXTCAR are building on these goals with a specific focus on light-duty passenger vehicles, a 30% reduction in energy consumption, and taking vehicles to Level 4 of automation, where a vehicle is able to perform all driving operations on its own with optional human override.

“Michigan workers, manufacturers and universities are the best in the world and continue to lead the development of next generation vehicles. Michigan Tech is one of those institutions leading the way in creating longer range electric and autonomous vehicles, improving safety and making our cars more energy efficient. This investment will ensure Michigan remains a global leader,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow.

The four teams selected to receive $18 million in funding through Phase II of NEXTCAR are:

  • The University of California Berkeley (Berkeley, CA): UC Berkeley will adapt and expand their eco-route, eco-drive, and eco-charge controls to leverage connectivity and Level 4 automation to generate additional efficiency benefits in electrified vehicles. Award amount is $3,474,864.
  • Michigan Technical University (Houghton, MI): MTU will expand its set of test vehicles, leveraging connectivity and Level 4 automation technologies to identify additional opportunities for efficiency and range optimization. Award amount is $4,498,650.
  • Ohio State University (Columbus, OH): OSU will integrate advanced system-level optimization and control technologies for a PHEV with Level 4 automation; working to improve energy efficiency by more than 30%. Award amount is $4,933,933.
  • Southwest Research Institute (San Antonio, TX): SwRI will adapt and expand its predictive eco-routing, eco-driving, and hybrid power control strategies using vehicles with L4 automation. Award amount is $5,250,000.

Light-duty vehicles, like those targeted through NEXTCAR Phase II, are responsible for almost 60% of overall energy consumption in all vehicles across the transportation sector. CAV technologies can increase vehicle efficiency, which in turn can drastically reduce emissions across the transportation sector, leading to a more efficient domestic vehicle fleet and further reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

“NEXTCAR Phase I teams successfully demonstrated that technological advancements in connectivity for automated vehicles can greatly improve the efficiency of our transportation sector.” said ARPA-E Acting Director and Deputy Director for Technology Jennifer Gerbi. “We are eager to see how these Phase II teams can continue this crucial work in designing the efficient vehicle fleet of the future.”

Ten teams were originally selected under NEXTCAR Phase I to receive $32 million in funding. In addition to the $18 million being provided to the four teams from Phase II at this time, additional funding will be provided at a later date for program-wide demonstration and testing activities.

Access more information about the Phase II teams and get more details about the NEXTCAR program.

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