This column presents technologies that have applications in commercial areas, possibly creating the products of tomorrow. To learn more about each technology, see the contact information provided for that innovation.
From Waste Material to Lightweight Fibers
Lightweight materials made from carbon fiber combine strength with low weight, but these have been more expensive to produce than comparable structural elements made of steel or aluminum. Now, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have come up with a way of making these lightweight fibers out of an ultra-cheap feedstock: the heavy, gloppy waste material left over from the refining of petroleum, material that refineries today supply for low-value applications such as asphalt, or eventually treat as waste. Not only is the new carbon fiber cheap to make, but it also offers advantages over the traditional carbon fiber materials because it can have compressional strength, meaning it could be used for load-bearing applications. This new method to make carbon fiber could turn refinery byproducts into high-value, ultralight structural materials for cars, aircraft, and spacecraft.
Contact: Abby Abazorius
Low-Cost Oxygen Sensor
NASA Ames Research Center has developed oxygen sensors made of a hybrid material comprising graphene and titanium dioxide (TiO2) that are capable of detecting oxygen gas at room temperature and ambient pressure. The sensors have fast response and recovery times and can also be used to detect ozone. They can be integrated into wearable-sized Internet of Things (IoT) devices. With ultraviolet illumination, these sensors are capable of detecting oxygen gas at room temperature and at ambient pressure. The sensor chip is mass producible and has the potential to scale to thousands or millions of units relatively easily as well as inexpensively via automated wafer-scale manufacturing processes. These sensors have the potential to be used in automotive combustion control and emissions control; chemical sensing; environmental monitoring; laboratory safety; space suits, and other applications.
Contact: NASA’s Licensing Concierge
High-Powered Telecommunication Systems
Long haul telecommunication networks and microwave photonic systems rely on lasers to generate an optical carrier used in data transmission. In most cases, lasers are standalone devices, external to the modulators, making the whole system more expensive and less stable and scalable. Now, researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in collaboration with industry partners at Freedom Photonics and HyperLight Corporation, have developed a fully integrated high-power laser on a lithium niobate chip, paving the way for high-powered telecommunication systems, fully integrated spectrometers, optical remote sensing, and efficient frequency conversion for quantum networks, among other applications. By combining thin-film lithium niobate devices with high-power lasers using an industry-friendly process, this technology represents a key step toward large-scale, low-cost, and high-performance transmitter arrays and optical networks.