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Tech twelfth nationally in patents

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 26 - April 4, 1996

Virginia Tech faculty and staff members and students earned 29 patents during 1995-making the university twelfth in the nation for number of patents earned among the 158 colleges and universities receiving at least one patent.

Virginia Tech is first in the state and fifth in the country among universities without medical schools (behind MIT, CalTech, Iowa State, and NC State), according to a study by the Association of University Technology Managers, Inc.

Discoveries include compositions for reducing wear on ceramic surfaces, improved anti-cancer drugs, and a method for dewatering fine coal without thermal-energy use.

Michael Furey, professor of mechanical engineering, and Czeslaw Kajdas of the Warsaw University of Technology, Institute of Chemistry, Poland, have developed a new lubrication technology. Special molecules are introduced to the surface of ceramics or steel resulting in the formation of polymer films that reduce friction and wear. The beneficial effects of the additives are more pronounced at higher temperatures. Ceramic and steel components in effect become self-lubricating, which could make high-temperature, light-weight engines possible. The U. S. Energy-Related Inventions Program has estimated that if such low heat-loss engines were used in diesel trucks, the annual fuel saving would exceed $5 billion in the U.S. alone.

Chemistry professor David Kingston's research with the anti-cancer compound taxol is aimed at increasing, enhancing, and understanding this natural compound, which comes from the bark of the scarce Pacific Yew. Kingston and his associate Jingyu Liang received a patent for water-soluble analogs of taxol, which make the drug easier to administer. Kingston, student Anthony A. Molinero, and senior research scientist A.A. Leslie Gunatilaka received a patent for a method of converting cephalomannine to taxol. Cephalomannine, which is chemically similar to taxol, is also found in the Pacific Yew. The ability to convert it to taxol increases the supply of that compound. Kingston is also doing research to determine the source of taxol's anti-cancer activity.

Moisture reduces the Btu content of coal. Virginia Tech's dewatering process reduces moisture to as little as 1 percent without use of thermal energy, compared to 20 to 40 percent for conventional techniques. The dewatering process, developed by Roe-Hoan Yoon, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Minerals Processing, and colleague Gerald H. Luttrell, will make deep coal cleaning more attractive to companies trying to meet Clean Air Act requirements. It may also make the recovery of coal from waste ponds economically feasible.

"The commercial utilization of discoveries and inventions has proven to be one of the most efficient and effective ways of disseminating knowledge and technology to the world `outside' academe," said Ted Kohn, intellectual properties manager at Virginia Tech, and director of Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties, Inc. (VTIP). "Patent protection of technology provides a competitive edge and lifts the technology" into that group which is seriously considered for development."

"The significant number of students involved in the creation and development of these patented technologies is also noteworthy," said President Paul Torgersen. "It reflects the close interaction of research and teaching at Virginia Tech. The learning experience of helping in the creation of new knowledge makes these students better prepared and more valuable in their future career endeavors and more completely fulfills the educational mission of the university."

Mike Martin, executive vice president of VTIP, believes that licensing technology from Virginia Tech to businesses in Virginia also helps to create jobs and foster economic growth in the commonwealth.

Examples of patents that are being developed locally are those issued to the Fiber and Electro-Optics Research Center faculty and staff members and students for various sensors and couplers-three of which were awarded in 1995. There are many fiber-optic based businesses in the Blacksburg-Roanoke area, such as Fiber and Sensor Technologies, Inc. of Blacksburg, which is one of the fastest-growing high-tech businesses in Virginia.

Other patents awarded in 1995 for intellectual properties developed at Virginia Tech include electrical switches and sensors that use a non-toxic liquid metal, such as for applications that previously used mercury; video instruments to analyze the mineral content of ores and coal; and a wide-scanning spherical antenna.

"This significant increase in VTIP's portfolio of patented technologies augurs well for the continued growth in our licensing and commercialization effort, which for the first time last fiscal year, generated revenues in excess of $1 million. In addition to generating supplemental income for the inventors, some of these properties will provide incremental funding of university research," Martin said. "With the continued cooperation and effort of all concerned, the $2-million milestone is expected to be achieved before the end of the '90s. Virginia Tech-generated technology is also expected to make an ever-increasing contribution to local and state economic development by the start-up of new small technology-based companies."