NASA Spinoff

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Langley Research Center’s Soluble Imide (LaRC-SI) was discovered by accident. While researching resins and adhesives for advanced composites for high-speed aircraft, Robert Bryant, a Langley engineer, noticed that one of the polymers he was working with did not behave as predicted. After putting the compound through a two-stage controlled chemical reaction, expecting it to precipitate as a powder after the second stage, he was surprised to see that the compound remained soluble. This novel characteristic ended up making this polymer a very significant finding, eventually leading Bryant and his team to win several NASA technology awards, and an “R&D 100” award.

The unique feature of this compound is the way that it lends itself to easy processing. Most polyimides (members of a group of remarkably strong and incredibly heat- and chemical-resistant polymers) require complex curing cycles before they are usable. LaRC-SI remains soluble in its final form, so no further chemical processing is required to produce final materials, like thin films and varnishes. Since producing LaRC-SI does not require complex manufacturing techniques, it has been processed into useful forms for a variety of applications, including mechanical parts, magnetic components, ceramics, adhesives, composites, flexible circuits, multilayer printed circuits, and coatings on fiber optics, wires, and metals.

Bryant’s team was, at the time, heavily involved with the aircraft polymer project and could not afford to further develop the polymer resin. Believing it was worth further exploration, though, he developed a plan for funding development and submitted it to Langley’s chief scientist, who endorsed the experimentation. Bryant then left the high-speed civil transport project to develop LaRC-SI. The result is an extremely tough, lightweight thermoplastic that is not only solvent-resistant, but also has the ability to withstand temperature ranges from cryogenic levels to above 200 °C. The thermoplastic’s unique characteristics lend it to many commercial applications; uses that Bryant believed would ultimately benefit industry and the Nation. “LaRC-SI,” he explains, “is a product created in a government laboratory, funded with money from the tax-paying public. What we discovered helps further the economic competitiveness of the United States, and it was our goal to initiate the technology transfer process to ensure that our work benefited the widest range of people.”

Several NASA centers, including Langley, have explored methods for using LaRC-SI in a number of applications from radiation shielding and as an adhesive to uses involving replacement of conventional rigid circuit boards. In the commercial realm, LaRC-SI can now be found in several commercial products, including the thin-layer composite unimorph ferroelectric driver and sensor (THUNDER) piezoelectric actuator, another “R&D 100” award winner (Spinoff 2005).

Working with the Innovative Partnerships Program office at Langley, Medtronic Inc., of Minneapolis, Minnesota, licensed the material. This material has been evaluated for space applications, high-performance composites, and harsh environments; however, this partnership represents the first time that the material has been used in a medical device.

According to Bryant, “This partnership validates the belief we had that LaRC-SI needed to be introduced in (or by) the private sector: Lives can be saved and enhanced because we were able to develop our laboratory findings and provide public access to the material.”

altProduct Outcome
Medtronic is the world leader in medical technology providing lifelong solutions for people with chronic disease. It offers products, therapies, and services that enhance or extend the lives of millions of people. Each year, 6 million patients benefit from Medtronic’s technology, used to treat conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders, and vascular illnesses.

The company is testing the material for use as insulation on thin metal wires connected to its implantable cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) devices for patients experiencing heart failure, which resynchronize the contractions of the heart’s ventricles by sending tiny electrical impulses to the heart muscle, helping the heart pump blood throughout the body more efficiently.

“Our work with NASA Langley was very collaborative,” said Lonny Stormo, Medtronic vice president of therapy delivery research and development. “Our scientists discussed Medtronic’s material requirements and NASA shared what it knows about the compound’s properties as we continued our testing and evaluations.”

In March 2007, Medtronic conducted the first clinical implants in the United States and Canada of the Medtronic over-the-wire lead (Model 4196), a dual-electrode left ventricular (LV) lead for use in heart failure patients with cardiac resynchronization therapy devices.
“Through this partnership, Medtronic was able to deliver a product with enhanced material properties,” said Stormo. “In turn this helps our patients, which is the core of Medtronic’s mission.”

Placing a lead in the LV is widely recognized by physicians as the most challenging aspect of implanting CRT devices. Anatomic challenges can make it difficult to access and work within the coronary sinus to place a lead in the desired vein of the LV. The lead is specially designed for optimal tracking over a guide wire, which is intended to allow physicians greater ability to deliver the left heart lead in difficult-to-access veins.

Once implanted in the LV, two electrodes located at the tip of the lead provide physicians with options to tailor delivery of stimulation for each patient. When approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the lead is expected to be the smallest LV lead in the U.S. market.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Among NASA’s research goals is increased understanding of factors affecting plant growth, including the effects of microgravity. Impeding such studies, traditional light sources used to grow plants on Earth are difficult to adapt to space flight, as they require considerable amounts of power and produce relatively large amounts of heat. As such, an optimized experimental system requires much less energy and reduces temperature variance without negatively affecting plant growth results.

Ronald W. Ignatius, founder and chairman of the board at Quantum Devices Inc. (QDI), of Barneveld, Wisconsin, proposed using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as the photon source for plant growth experiments in space. This proposition was made at a meeting held by the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, a NASA-sponsored research center that facilitates the commercialization of robotics, automation, and other advanced technologies. The Wisconsin group teamed with QDI to determine whether an LED system could provide the necessary wavelengths and intensities for photosynthesis, and the resultant system proved successful. The center then produced the Astroculture3, a plant growth chamber that successfully incorporated this LED light source, which has now flown on several space shuttle missions.

NASA subsequently identified another need that could be addressed with the use of LEDs: astronaut health. A central concern in astronaut health is maintaining healthy growth of cells, including preventing bone and muscle loss and boosting the body’s ability to heal wounds—all adversely affected by prolonged weightlessness. Thus, having determined that LEDs can be used to grow plants in space, NASA decided to investigate whether LEDs might be used for photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT).

PBMT is an emerging medical and veterinary technique in which exposure to high-intensity, wavelength-specific light can stimulate or inhibit cellular function. PBMT modulates a body’s organelles—structures within a cell (e.g., mitochondria, vacuoles, and chloroplasts) that store food, discharge waste, produce energy, or perform other functions analogous to the role of organs in the body as a whole—with wavelength-specific photon energy to increase respiratory metabolism, reduce the natural inflammatory response, accelerate recovery of injury or stress at the cellular level, and increase circulation.

A NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract was granted to QDI to develop an LED light source for use in a surgical environment as the photon source for its proprietary Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) treatment. An emerging cancer treatment, PDT requires high-intensity, monochromatic light to turn on the cancer-killing properties of a drug, allowing physicians to activate a drug in the tumor only.

QDI and Dr. Harry T. Whelan of the Medical College of Wisconsin (known for groundbreaking research in PBMT) based their work on QDI’s High Emissivity Aluminiferous Light-emitting Substrate (HEALS) technology, which was developed for use in the plant growth experiments in 1993. Several SBIR contracts from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center between 1995 and 1998 helped QDI continue the evolution of HEALS in collaboration with Whelan, and the technology was successfully applied in cases of pediatric brain tumors and the prevention of oral mucositis in pediatric bone marrow transplant patients.

QDI then used a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) SBIR contract to develop the WARP 10 (Warfighter Accelerated Recovery by Photobiomodulation) unit as a full realization of its PBMT research. WARP 10, a hand-held, portable, HEALS technology originally intended for military first aid applications, received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance in 2003, and a consumer version was introduced for temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain. WARP 10 has been found to relieve arthritis, muscle spasms, and stiffness; promote relaxation of tissue; and temporarily increase local blood circulation.

Product Outcome
Since HEALS and WARP 10 were originally profiled in Spinoff 2005, a flurry of activity has seen this unique technology showered in awards and the next-generation LED device gain FDA clearance and enter the market.

The HEALS and WARP 10 technologies have accrued an impressive résumé; the list of accolades received includes induction into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2000; being named a Marshall Space Flight Center “Hallmark of Success” as an outstanding commercialization of an SBIR-developed technology in 2004; and winning first place in the Wisconsin “Governor’s New Product Awards” in 2005 for the development of WARP 10. The greatest and most recent accolade came in 2006, when QDI was nominated for and received a “Tibbetts Award.”

Named for Roland Tibbetts, the acknowledged “father of the SBIR program,” it is an annual government-wide award for small firms, projects, organizations, and individuals judged to exemplify the very best in SBIR achievement. These prestigious national awards emphasize recognizing those accomplishments where, in the judgment of those closely involved and often most immediately affected, the stimulus of SBIR funding has made an important and definable difference. Economic impact of technological innovation, business achievement, effective collaborations, demonstrated state and regional impact, and proven support are the main considerations.

On the heels of this honor, 2007 saw FDA clearance for the new WARP 75 device, the latest iteration of the technology that began with the HEALS technology. The WARP 75 improves on the WARP 10 design, boasting 7.5 times the actual coverage area of the WARP 10 (75cm2 versus 10cm2), an automatic timed cycle of 88 seconds with an audible alarm, AC power, the ability to be mounted on an articulated arm, and fan cooling. System controls are located on the top panel for easy light dose delivery, and the device is placed directly against the skin where treatment is desired. The unit can be operated with one hand and remains cool to the touch during operation.

The WARP 75 continues the legacy of its predecessors in clinical trials with the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the amelioration of oral mucositis pain in bone marrow transplant patients. QDI is exploring other medical applications of the HEALS-based technology, including combating the symptoms of bone atrophy, multiple sclerosis, diabetic complications, Parkinson’s disease, and a variety of ocular applications. Most recently, Marshall awarded QDI another grant to study synergistic wound healing and conduct a PDT study with silver nanoclusters. Through all of their work, QDI remains dedicated to the principle that light provides the power for all life on Earth, and the belief that the quality, delivery, and control of light is essential to the wellness of the human race and our advancement into the future.

HEALS®, WARP 10®, and WARP 75® are registered trademarks, and Photodynamic Therapy™ is a trademark of Quantum Devices Inc.


Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Water, essential to sustaining life on Earth, is that much more highly prized in the unforgiving realm of space travel and habitation. Given a launch cost of $10,000 per pound for space shuttle cargo, however, each gallon of water at 8.33 pounds quickly makes Chanel No. 5 a bargain at $25,000 per gallon. Likewise, ample water reserves for drinking, food preparation, and bathing would take up an inordinate amount of storage space and infrastructure, which is always at a premium on a vessel or station.

Water rationing and recycling are thus an essential part of daily life and operations on the space shuttles and International Space Station (ISS). In orbit, where Earth’s natural life support system is missing, the ISS itself has to provide abundant power, clean water, and breathable air at the right temperature and humidity for the duration of human habitation and with virtually no waste. The Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), under continuing developmet at the Marshall Space Flight Center, helps astronauts use and reuse their precious supplies of water. Future work will explore air management, thermal control, and fire suppression—in short, all of the things that will make human habitation in space comfortable and safe.

The ECLSS Water Recycling System (WRS), developed at Marshall, reclaims wastewaters from humans and lab animals in the form of breath condensate, urine, hygiene and washing, and other wastewater streams. On Earth, biological wastewater is physically filtered by granular soil and purified as microbes in the soil break down urea, converting it to a form that plants can absorb and use to build new tissue. Wastewater also evaporates and returns as fresh rain water—a natural form of distillation. WRS water purification machines on the ISS mimic these processes, though without microbes or the scale of these processes.


Umpqua Research Company, of Myrtle Creek, Oregon, supplier of the bacterial filters used in the life support backpacks worn by space-walking astronauts, received a number of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts from the Johnson Space Center to develop air and water purification technologies for human missions in space. A natural choice for water purification research, Umpqua has also provided the only space-certified and approved-for-flight water purification system, which has flown on all shuttle missions since 1990.

To prevent back-contamination of a drinking water supply by microorganisms, Umpqua developed the microbial check valve, consisting of a flow-through cartridge containing iodinated ion exchange resin. In addition to the microbial contact kill, the resin was found to impart a biocidal residual elemental iodine concentration to the water. Umpqua’s valve and resin system was adopted by NASA as the preferred means of disinfecting drinking water aboard U.S. spacecraft, and canisters are now used on space shuttle missions, the ISS, and for ground-based testing of closed life support technology. Iodine was selected by NASA as the disinfectant of choice because of its lower vapor pressure and reduced propensity for formation of disinfection byproducts compared to chlorine or bromine.

Product Outcome

MRLB International Inc., of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, used Umpqua’s water purification technology in the design of the DentaPure waterline purification cartridge (Spinoff 1998). The cartridge incorporated a resin technology developed by private sector commercialization of Umpqua’s system developed under NASA contract. NASA “was an excellent resource,” stated Barry Hammarback, president and CEO of MRLB, “and greatly assisted our transition of the iodinated resin technology to the dental industry.” DentaPure was designed to clean and decontaminate water as a link between filter and high-speed dental tools and other instruments, and offers easy installation on all modern dental unit waterlines with weekly replacement cycles. The product, like its NASA forebear, furnished disinfected water and maintained water purity even with “suckback,” an effect caused by imperfect anti-retraction valves in dental instruments, which draws blood, saliva, and other materials from a patient’s mouth into the waterline.

Since its appearance in Spinoff 1998, MRLB has continued to use the research conducted by Umpqua to further develop and refine its DentaPure in-line filters. Various models now address a variety of needs, and are used in dental offices and schools across the country. MRLB has paid particular attention to extending the life in lower water usage units—products that before touted a service/replacement interval of 7 days now require changing once every 40 to 365 days. In addition, DentaPure offers remarkable filtration: registered to provide 200 CFU/ml purity (Colony Forming Unit/milliliter, a standard measure of microbial concentration)—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standard is 500 CFU, and untreated lines can harbor in excess of 1,000,000 CFU/ml.

Continued evolution and improvement has led to many unique certifications and commendations for DentaPure. Currently, the only waterline system recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medical device which meets all known standards, and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an antimicrobial device, DentaPure has also been tested and utilized by the U.S. Air Force and dental schools in the United States and Europe, and was recognized by Clinical Research Associates as “Outstanding Product 2005.”

Better filtration, greater capacity, and longer service intervals have also led to great savings—the University of Maryland Dental School estimates it saves $274,000 per year courtesy of DentaPure. The DentaPure system has proven so effective that 40 percent of dental schools nationwide employ it. Dr. Louis DePaola of the University of Maryland affirms, “The biggest benefit is that we have a system that is efficacious and user-friendly, in that it allows us to consistently deliver water that meets or exceeds CDC standards with a minimum of staff interaction—attach the unit and except for periodic monitoring you don’t have to do anything for a year. It’s very cost-effective—for a large institution like ours with an excess of 300 units, a daily or weekly treatment isnot practical.”

DentaPure is currently the number one product for constant chemical treatment applications in dentistry, and was the first treatment to meet CFU standards without interim cleaning protocols—the primary means by which it saves money. Turning to the future, Hammarback sees DentaPure “looking at remote site water purification for continuous use, providing yet longer lasting devices, and increasing product recycling.” Ten years after Spinoff first profiled the many benefits of this technology it is utilized every day in myriad dental offices, schools, and labs, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for users such as the University of Maryland. The investment in water filtration for space missions continues to pay huge dividends to users and society, year after year, in technologies so woven into our lives that we use them without even thinking about them.

DentaPure® is a registered trademark of MRLB International Inc.



Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Anyone who has ever worked on a car’s engine or tried to fix a sink knows the frustration of trying to perform precision work in a hard-to-reach place. Imagine how that sense of frustration might magnify when, instead of trying to wrap the head of a wrench around a leaky nut under the kitchen counter, the scenario involves conducting repairs on the International Space Station while floating nearly 200 miles above Earth. To ease this frustration, NASA funded work on autonomous robotic devices that would be able to retrieve tools and even crew outside of the station.


Barrett Technology Inc., of Cambridge, Massachusetts, completed three Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts with Johnson Space Center. In 1989, the company worked with NASA on a Phase II to create a robotic arm, and in 1991, was again awarded a Phase II to create a hand. Nearly a decade later, the company was awarded a third Phase II for further miniaturization of the components that comprise the robotic devices.

Product Outcome

Barrett has developed and commercialized three core technologies that trace their roots directly back to the SBIR work with NASA. The first is a robotic arm, the whole-arm manipulation (WAM) system; the second is a hand that functions atop the arm, the BH8-Series; and the third is a motor driver that the company refers to as “the puck,” as it is similar in shape to a hockey puck, but one-tenth the size.

The SBIR work with NASA led to the development of the first commercially available cable-driven robot, a distinction that earned Barrett a place in the “Guinness World Records” book as the world’s most advanced robotic arm. Designed for applications that require superior adaptability, programmability, and dexterity, the WAM can reach around large objects and grasp them with its arm links like huge fingers, while conventional robotic arms are restricted to hand end-effectors, and thus restricted to grasping smaller objects. The WAM has other advantages over traditional robotic arms, in that it uses gear-free cables to manipulate its joints, allowing it to feel and control subtle forces.

The arm consists of a shoulder that operates on a gearless differential mechanism, an upper arm, and a gear-free elbow, forearm, and wrist. This arrangement of joints coincides with the human shoulder and elbow, but with much greater range of motion. Like a person’s arm, but unlike any industrial robotic arm, the WAM Arm is backdriveable, meaning that any contact force along the arm or its hand is immediately felt at the motors, supporting graceful control of interactions with walls, objects, and even people. With a human-scale 3-foot reach, it is so quick that it can grab a major-league fastball, yet so sensitive that it responds to the gentlest touch. The WAM Arm is available in two main configurations, four-degrees-of-freedom and seven-degrees-of-freedom, both with human-like kinematics. Internally protected channels allow the user to pass electric lines and fiber optics required for custom end-effectors and sensors.

These characteristics make it ideal for myriad applications, including in space, where use of robots is often safer than people, in manufacturing, and in medicine.

Recently, an adaptation of the WAM has been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in a minimally invasive knee surgery procedure, where its precision control makes it ideal for inserting a very small implant. Barrett Technology licensed the arm to MAKO Surgical Corporation, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for use in the company’s “keyhole” orthopedic surgery procedures.

The company uses small titanium knee implants instead of the more common and more traumatic total-knee replacement, thus limiting surgery to only the diseased part of the bone. These surgeries, however, require an array of complex implant shapes to cover the variety of disease patterns and bone geometries. To insert these devices, surgeons generally cut small pockets into the diseased bone with a high-speed, hand-held cutting device. While lacking in robotic precision, this technique provides the surgeon with the tactile sensation of the cutting, which in turn provides a wealth of intuitive information about the diseased bone that is not available from preoperative X-rays.

The WAM-based technologies combine the best of a surgeon’s intuition and a robot’s precision through active haptics (touch sensing). The WAM Arm improves the precision of the implant pockets while still allowing the surgeon to feel bone condition. Matching pocket and implant geometries minimizes trauma, ensures secure implant retention, and optimizes resulting joint functionality.

Like the WAM Arm, the BH8-262 BarrettHand offers many benefits in dexterity. A multifingered programmable grasper, the BarrettHand can pick up objects of different sizes, shapes, and orientations. According to the company, integrating this device immediately multiplies the value of any arm requiring flexible automation. Even with its low weight (1.18kg) and compact form, it is totally self-contained. Plus, communicating by industry-standard serial communications, integration with any robotic arm is fast and simple.

The BarrettHand BH8-Series neatly houses a CPU, software, communications electronics, servo-controllers, and four brushless motors. Of its three multijointed fingers, two have an extra degree of freedom with 180 degrees of synchronous lateral mobility supporting a large variety of grasp types.

Barrett’s Ultra-Miniature Puck Brushless Servo Electronics Module, or “Puck,” is the world’s smallest and most power-efficient, high-performance servomotor controller. It is based on the work done with NASA, as well as grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Barrett has been shipping the Pucks in all of its robotic WAM Arms for the past 3 years, because the device offers several distinct advantages: the absence of a controller cabinet improves reliability and portability; the incredibly low power consumption (an order of magnitude less than any other arm in its class) increases safety and portability, while also making the device “greener;” and the ultra-high brushless-servo performance enables applications such as force-field-enabled medical surgery.

While the Puck is not currently available outside the WAM Arm today, Barrett has applied for NSF funding to develop features to make this module universally adaptable within 3 years to a wide range of brushless-servomotor applications.

WAM™, BarrettHand™, and Puck™ are trademarks of Barrett Technology Inc. 

Developed by Dr. James Tilton, a computer engineer with Goddard Space Flight Center’s Computational and Information Sciences and Technology Office, Hierarchical Segmentation (HSEG) software allows for advanced image analysis. The software organizes an image’s pixels into regions based on their spectral similarity, so rather than focusing on individual pixels, HSEG focuses on image regions—and how they change from a coarse-to-fine perspective. These regions (segmentations) are at several levels of detail (hierarchies) in which the coarser segmentations can be produced from the finer-resolution segmentations by selective merging of regions. In addition, the segmentation hierarchies provide analysis clues through the behavior of the image region characteristics over several levels of segmentation detail. Thus, by enabling region-based analysis, the segmentation hierarchies organize image data in a manner that makes an image’s information content more accessible.

How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?

When the U.S. Congress created NASA in 1958, it sought to ensure that the Nation saw returns on its investments in aerospace research. It, therefore, wrote provisions into the Space Act Agreement that formed the Agency requiring that NASA share its technological advances and engineering expertise with the American public. Since that time, the NASA scientific prowess that sends people and equipment up into space has also come back down to Earth, in the form of products and processes that make everyday life better all around the globe.

When in the zero-gravity environment of space, an astronaut realizes quickly that most motions require significantly less effort, and the body adjusts itself to the new environment so that a simple act like putting in a contact lens does not result in a sharp poke in the eye or clapping of hands does not shatter fingers. This adaptability is useful and necessary while in orbit, and the body quickly becomes accustomed to the zero-gravity conditions of space flight, but without the everyday weight of gravity that we often take for granted providing resistance, muscle tissue tends to atrophy. In fact, a space traveler often experiences a feeling of heaviness, of an additional weight on the body, upon returning from space. The condition is similar to the degeneration of muscle seen in bedridden patients and the elderly.

Neuropsychology is the study of how the brain relates to behavior, emotion, and cognition. Clinical neuropsychologists evaluate the behavioral effects of neurological and developmental disorders stemming from brain injury, strokes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Millions of Americans are currently living with these cognitive disorders, including a growing number of veterans returning from Iraq with brain injuries. The disorders often result in cognitive impairments which make it difficult to plan daily activities and stay on task, affecting independence, quality of life, and employment.

For decades now, NASA has been sending spacecraft throughout the galaxy. Once in the cosmos, these crafts use advanced cameras to create images of corners and crevices of our universe never before seen and then transmit these pictures back to laboratories on Earth, where government scientists then ask themselves: What exactly are we looking at?

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