2011

NASA Awards 2010 Government and Commercial Inventions of the Year

NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA, has won NASA’s 2010 Government Invention of the Year Award and the Commercial Invention of the Year Award. The Government Invention of the Year was the Future ATM (Air Traffic Management) Concepts Evaluation Tool (FACET), a software tool that creates simulations for managing air traffic scenarios. The center won the Commercial award for developing a powder vibration system used in portable X-ray diffraction (XRD) instruments.

altNominations are evaluated by NASA’s Inventions and Contributions Board. The board determines which qualify for each category, ranks the nominees, and makes recommendations to the NASA Office of the General Counsel for review and approval.

Powder Vibration Technology

Ames research scientist David Blake and former NASA post-doctoral fellow Philippe Sarrazin developed the powder vibration technology, which was licensed to inXitu of Campbell, CA. “This invention changes the way people work in the field because it allows the scientist to take the instrument to the location of the analytical problem, rather than the opposite,” Blake said. “Because the technology is portable, it has diverse applications in the field, including for geology, detection of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, or analyzing art objects and antiquities.”

Virtually all solid materials are crystalline. Powder X-ray Diffraction (pXRD, or simply XRD) is the technique of choice for unequivocal identification of these materials. However, in order to characterize crystalline materials by pXRD, one needs to provide a myriad of tiny crystallites in random orientations to the X-ray beam. This is commonly achieved by grinding the material to a grain size <5 μm, and making a thin preparation of the powder that is then exposed to the X-ray beam.

Using the powder vibration technology, coarsely ground or even as-received powders <150 μm grain size can be used without further preparation. pXRD devices utilizing this invention can be extremely small, and do not require X-ray source, sample, and X-ray detector movements; specialized divergence or convergence of the diffracted beams; or finely ground powders.

The powder vibration system enabled the development of a miniaturized soil and rock analysis instrument that Ames has provided and has been accepted for flight on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), NASA’s next mission to Mars. MSL is scheduled to launch in November.

With this invention, spaceflight instruments such as CheMin (the mineralogical instrument that is a principal payload instrument on MSL) become possible. On Earth, pXRDs such as Terra (the inXitu instrument for which the vibrated sample cell invention is critical) can be checked as personal luggage on passenger flights, and used as a tool anywhere in the world by trained laypersons.

Many new commercial applications in petroleum, mining, and the cement industry are being tested or are already in place using Terra. The US FDA and other agencies are using Terra for the detection of counterfeit pharmaceuticals at field stations. Outside of NASA, commercial versions of the instrument are being used in government-sponsored applications in homeland security and forensic materials analysis for the military in war zones.

For more information, visit www.inxitu.com/new/html/terra.html.