MIT garners five R&D 100 Awards


MIT researchers and colleagues have won five of this year's R&D 100 Awards, which honor the 100 most technologically significant new products. Winners are chosen by the editors of R&D Magazine and a panel of 70 experts in a variety of disciplines. The MIT inventors and colleagues will attend a black-tie banquet in Chicago next Thursday, Sept. 24 to celebrate the 1998 awards.

The award-winning inventions involving MIT researchers are described below.

Emissions-monitoring device is more affordable than alternative

Smokestack emissions from incinerators, power plants and manufacturing plants can contain hazardous metals such as lead, chromium and arsenic. The ability to detect and quantify such pollutants is key to feedback controls that could limit such emissions and insure compliance with environmental regulations.

Yet "devices for sensing these pollutants continuously and in real time are lacking. There's only one on the market, and it's expensive," said Paul P. Woskov, a principal research engineer in the Plasma Technology Division of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). So Dr. Woskov and colleagues Kamal Hadidi and Paul Thomas of the PSFC and David Lamar of Pacific Northwest National Laboratories went to work on a new device that "would be more accurate and affordable," he said.

The result is the R-TiC Metals Emission Monitor, which has won a 1998 R&D 100 Award. In tests last fall at an EPA facility, R-TiC "measured within the accuracy range that the EPA is looking at" for two of the three metals tested, Dr. Woskov said. "Before that test, no monitor could get close to that goal." (One of the six other competing technologies tested also came within that range for one metal.)

An earlier version of the monitor, also developed by Dr. Woskov and colleagues, won a 1995 R&D 100 Award. The current version includes an important new feature: it can be calibrated, or "tuned," in real time while the device is running. It is the only monitor on the market or in development that can do so.

Calibration is important because when a monitor is running, there are many conditions that can change, such as the velocity and composition of the exhaust. "All of these factors change the signal strengths for a given metal, which are key to determining its concentration," Dr. Woskov said. As a result, the monitor must be periodically retuned to account for these changes.

The technology in R-TiC (for real-time calibration) "allows us to retune the instrument almost at will," Dr. Woskov said. While competing devices must be disconnected from the smokestack for this operation, with R-TiC "we basically push a switch and about a minute later the calibration is done."

Dr. Woskov expects that R-TiC could also be relatively inexpensive. He estimates it would cost much less than the approximately $300,000 for the metals emissions monitor that's currently on the market.

R-TiC grew out of PSFC basic research on plasmas, or electrically charged gases. "In our Plasma Technologies Division we're looking to apply plasmas to areas outside of fusion energy [their main application]," Dr. Woskov said. R-TiC was originally developed to monitor emissions from a plasma furnace Dr. Woskov and colleagues built to remediate wastes.

R-TiC itself also incorporates a plasma. "We found that using another plasma was a solution to the original monitoring problem," Dr. Woskov said.

This is Dr. Woskov's fourth R&D 100 Award. The research on R-TiC is sponsored by the DOE.

Useful byproducts from wastes

A machine that can convert a variety of wastes, including those bound for a landfill or incinerator, into useful byproducts such as fuels and reusable glass has its roots in basic research at MIT.

The Plasma Enhanced MelterTM (PEMTM), which has won a 1998 R&D 100 Award, processes the wastes using two different heating techniques. One of these involves plasmas, or electrically charged gases.

"The PEM builds upon basic research on plasma processing of waste that we conducted for years at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center," said Daniel R. Cohn, a PSFC senior research scientist and president and CEO of Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET), LLC, which produces the PEM. Dr. Cohn also noted that two related monitoring devices developed at the PSFC (both past R&D 100 Award winners) have been licensed by IET for use with the PEM.

Plasma heating breaks the chemical bonds of waste material, resulting in byproducts that can be readily recycled or disposed of.

The PEM combines plasma and joule heating processes. In joule heating, an electric current passed through electrodes in the waste turns the waste into glass. This is a well-established process for immobilizing radioactive wastes.

"In the PEM, the plasma heating turbocharges the joule heating process, allowing higher processing rates," Dr. Cohn said. That's because waste entering the system first encounters heating from the plasma, which processes some of it and preheats the remaining material for the joule heating below. "The preheating means that material destined for the joule heating can be processed more rapidly," he said.

The plasma/joule combination also "makes it possible to treat just about any type of waste," Dr. Cohn said. "This includes radioactive, hazardous, medical and municipal wastes." And because the heating processes provide high temperatures and take place in the absence of oxygen (as compared to incineration), "the waste byproducts are environmentally friendly and can be recycled," he said. The plasma takes care of organic materials, turning them into hydrogen-rich gases that can be converted to fuels like methanol. The joule heating turns inorganics into recoverable metals and a stable glass that could be used in road beds.

Dr. Cohn sees few disadvantages associated with the PEM. However, he notes that there are areas where the new process could be more expensive than landfilling. As environmental concerns about landfilling grow and it becomes more expensive, he expects the PEM will become more competitive in these areas.

The Plasma Technology Division of the PSFC, which is headed by Dr. Cohn, has received four R&D 100 Awards since 1994 (including one this year -- see story starting on page 1). "These awards and the one awarded for the PEM are illustrative of the spinoff potential of fusion research," he said.

In addition to Dr. Cohn, IET inventors of the PEM are Jeffrey E. Surma, Charles H. Titus and David Lamar.

Digital TV features include clearer pictures, data access

The next generation of television will feature crisp, clear pictures without "snow" and with CD-quality sound and the ability for viewers to access data such as newspaper stories related to a given program. These are just a few of the advantages of digital TV over the current technology.

And it's coming to you, thanks in part to MIT researchers who were part of the group that designed the new system. Now the group, composed of researchers from MIT and six companies, has received a 1998 R&D 100 Award for the system (the award joins the Emmy they received in 1997).

Digital TV, which includes high-definition television (HDTV), will be available in major metropolitan areas including Boston this fall. By 2006, the new system is expected to replace the current National Television System Committee (NTSC) system in the US.It is "the most significant change in television in 50 years," say its developers, who come from MIT, Sarnoff Corp., General Instrument, Lucent Technologies, Philips Laboratories, Thomson Consumer Electronics, and Zenith Electronics Corp.

MIT researchers led by Professor Jae S. Lim, who heads the Advanced Television and Signal Processing group in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, contributed major technical elements to the new system. "The technology is important, but it's only part of the story," said Professor Lim, also of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

He went on to describe the process involved in selecting the technical components that served as the basis for the United States' digital TV standard. Originally the FCC chose four finalists from among the organizations that had submitted proposals for the standard. The four finalists were General Instrument, and teams from Zenith and AT&T; Philips, Thomson, and Sarnoff; and MIT and General Instrument (the firm was involved in two of the designs).

The FCC then gave the finalists a choice: the agency could either re-evaluate each of the four systems, or all of the organizations involved could get together to submit one single system. "We chose the latter," Professor Lim said, and the Grand Alliance was formed.

The resulting standard, therefore, is based on the "participation of hundreds of people from a variety of backgrounds," Professor Lim said. "As a consequence there was considerable debate on which technologies should be used, etc." In the end, he said he was impressed with the result, given the number of people and opinions involved.

So "MIT had had an impact not only in terms of technical contributions, but also in the decision-making process for the United States' digital TV standard," Professor Lim concluded.

Another benefit for the Institute: "I have a lot of stories to tell my students for many years to come."

Currently HDTV sets are expensive, costing more than $5,000. However, the digital TV team noted that "when color TV was first introduced, a set cost the same as a full-sized Chevrolet sedan. By comparison, HDTV starts at a much lower relative price." Furthermore, "the history of consumer electronics shows that these prices can be expected to drop fairly steeply as volume increases."

The team also notes a less expensive alternative: a set-top box costing about $200 that will convert the digital signals for display on existing TV sets. (Picture size and resolution, however, will be limited.)

Device makes surveys faster, cheaper

Every year, the Navy conducts "shipchecks" in which surveyors gather detailed data about a vessel's structure to create computer models of the ship. Design engineers then use the models to plan renovations.

Now a new device developed by MIT engineers and colleagues is making shipchecks and surveys of other large, complicated structures faster and cheaper. In a shipcheck of the USS Tarawa, the device "collected much more information than required by a shipcheck -- in one-third the time such a process typically takes," according to its developers.

In another pilot study the device, dubbed CyraxTM, surveyed three oil field facilities acquired by Chevron. The company needed these surveys because it is expanding the facilities and there was no documentation from which to create the computer models necessary for the renovations.

As a result of the study, according to the Cyrax developers, "Chevron estimates that Cyrax can save the company 30 to 40 percent in the modeling process and cut field surveying from several months to a few weeks" for other facilities it owns.

Cyrax acquires 3-D data points for the structure in question and then turns those points into 3-D computer models. It is the only surveying instrument that can combine these processes and can produce a finished model in the field. The model can also be exported to common 2-D and 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) programs. Among the device's other advantages: it can be operated by one person, and it doesn't require scaffolding or shutting down a plant (the laser it uses to scan a structure is safe to use around humans).

Cyrax, which has won a 1998 R&D 100 Award, grew out of a collaboration between MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, Cyra Technologies and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Ben Kacyra, CEO of Cyra Technologies, approached Lincoln engineers and asked if they could help him develop an instant 3-D camera. "Cyrax is the closest thing to it that we could come up with," said John J. Zayhowski, a member of the technical staff at Lincoln Lab.

The device works by scanning the object of interest with a laser. Some of the laser light hits the object and is bounced back to the transceiver, the device incorporating the laser and other hardware. By measuring the time it takes for the light to make this trip, Cyrax can determine the distance to the object. That information, plus the angle to the object, is used to construct the cloud of 3-D data points that ultimately results in a 3-D model.

Lincoln Lab engineers led by Dr. Zayhowski developed the transceiver and the new kind of laser it contains. "Coincidentally, we'd just invented the laser when Ben came to us with his request," he said. It proved to be key to the entire system.

Cyra Technologies developed the software that converts the laser data to 3-D models. The company also created the computer interface to the transceiver. Los Alamos built the timingchip, analogous to a stopwatch, that measures how long it takes for the laser light to leave and return to the transceiver.

Development of the new laser was funded at Lincoln Lab by the US government. Work on the transceiver was funded as part of a cooperative research and development agreement by Cyra Technologies, which has licensed the laser from MIT.

Tool allows faster machining

A new tool that allows faster machining of metal parts is helping the Ford Motor Co. reduce the time to bring a new automotive engine to market.

Developed by MIT engineers and colleagues, the Q-Tool is a shock absorber that damps the natural vibrations of cutting tools used to fashion metal parts. Such vibrations limit how quickly the metal can be machined and can cause variations in the surface finish of a part.

The new device "allows four times higher material removal rates while maintaining a high degree of surface finish," said Alexander H. Slocum, the d'Arbeloff Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Professor Slocum, mechanical engineering graduate student Gaurav Rohatgi, Dr. Kevin Wasson (MIT PhD 1996) of Aesop, Inc., and colleagues from Ford Motor Co. and Star Cutter Co. have won a 1998 R&D 100 Award for the device. This is Professor Slocum's eighth R&D 100 Award.

Named for the "Q" that is a measure of how well-damped a system is, the Q-Tool is a thin "sleeve" that grips the shank of a cutting tool. A layer of fluid, or damping material, is between the sleeve and the tool. "So as the tool trys to vibrate, the energy is dissipated on the damping material," said Professor Slocum, who is also President of Aesop.

The long, thin cutting tools required to reach into deep features of certain parts are especially prone to vibrations. As a result, these parts, which include dies for the automotive and aircraft industries, can take days to machine. The Q-Tool is changing that. "Experiments at Ford Motor Co. have shown that the Q-Tool can cut in half the time required to manufacture a large die," according to the inventors.

As a result, it is key to a Ford program in which the company hopes to produce a new engine -- from design to test engine -- in less than 100 days. "This is only possible if complex molds for engine castings can be rapidly fabricated. The Q-Tool will enable these production requirements to be met, and as a result it will directly help reduce the time to bring a new automotive engine to market," wrote the inventors in their R&D 100 application.

The Q-Tool was conceived by Professor Slocum and his former student, Kevin Wasson, during a summer barbecue. Later, Professor Slocum remembers, "Gaurav [Rohatgi] was looking for a design hardware thesis that had a high analytical content," and the Q-tool offered the perfect challenge.

"It required a great deal of analysis before the hardware could be made to work," Professor Slocum explained. "So Gaurav took the basic concept, which Kevin had developed, and created an analysis that enables a designer to rapidly develop designs [for the Q-Tool]." Mr. Rohatgi then worked with Dr. Wasson and the industrial partners to define, create and test prototype Q-Tools.

Work on the Q-Tool was funded by Ford, Star Cutter and Aesop.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 16, 1998.


Topics: Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E)

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