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U of I and INL Research Collaborations Have Resulted in Patent Protectable Discoveries

The University of Idaho (U of I) has a research and teaching facility located at the Idaho Falls Center, a short drive from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls, Idaho. U of I and INL researchers have been collaborating for many years due in part to their close physical proximity and because of their similar research interests in nuclear engineering, safety and security, heat transfer and carbon management. Additionally, U of I and INL have partnered with Boise State University and Idaho State University to create the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, a research, education, and innovation consortium providing the multi-institutional expertise and state-of-the-art facilities.

U of I and INL researchers regularly collaborate to create novel solutions to pressing problems, and these collaborations often involve students. As teams work together, they create new and useful technologies that are put to use in the real world through a process called “technology transfer”. The first step in the process is to obtain patent protection on the inventions that are jointly owned by U of I and INL. Examples of recent research collaborations that have led to patent protectable discoveries are described below:

Drone Navigation in GPS Denied Facilities

While most drone navigation technologies have been targeting outdoor environments, most of the United States Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) instruments are in an indoor environment, which are GPS denied. A survey of potential solutions to enable indoor navigation within NPP facilities did not reveal any economically feasible and easy solutions. This technology gap drove INL researchers and U of I faculty to develop an indoor autonomous navigation technology that can be deployed on commodity off-the-shelf commercially available drones. The concept of the technology is to leverage the drone’s camera to acquire use optical perspective of visual features, such as a Quick-Response Code (QR-Code), or bar codes set at specific locations of the plant to accurately calculate the drone location in the environment and guide the drone though a desired route.

The joint research efforts have resulted in one patent applications. Funding support was provided by the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy.

Fluid Flow Measurement in Harsh Environments

Flow indication is a key component for quantifying performance of any device that involves moving fluids. Some devices are in harsh environments. For example, the environment inside a molten salt nuclear reactor presents very harsh chemical, thermal, and radiological conditions. These conditions create many challenges for indicating flow within such environments, as the materials in conventional flow meters will fail in such conditions. Any part of a sensor, such as a flow meter, in contact with the salt must be capable of surviving and operating in the harsh environment; the material must also be compatible with other elements of the construction, such as piping and insulation. Additionally, electrical and signal cabling used to carry information into and out of the sensor must be protected and/or shielded appropriately from the harsh conditions. In the case of a molten salt reactor, the optimal location for flow measurement may be imbedded within the reactor equipment, presenting design challenges for the sensor and associated signal cabling.

This invention uses two fundamental principles to remotely measure fluid flow: flow induced vibration and sound transmission through a structure. Acoustic energy is produced by the flow sensor by interaction with the flowing fluid. The flow sensor is integral to the piping, so the induced vibration produced by the flow is transmitted directly into the piping and mechanical support structure. This vibrational “signal” travels through the support structure where it can be measured remotely, away from harsh conditions.

The joint research efforts, leveraging talent from U of I and INL, have resulted in one patent application. Funding was provided through a Technology Commercialization Fund Grant.

Electrochemical Process for the Deposition of Aluminum

The performance improvement and cost-reduction of aluminum (Al) coating has a market potential of approximately $16 billion annually. Such improvements are urgently required for making the components corrosion- and wear-resistant to support automotive, electrical and electronics industries. Researchers have invented a process that, compared to traditional methods, can operate at lower temperatures (down to room temperature), allow the deposition of traditional metal coatings, and facilitate better control of the process chemistry and material handling.

This joint research explored the potential of 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium tetrachloroaluminate ([EMIM]AlCl4) as the ionic liquid electrolyte and AlCl3 as the precursor for the electrodeposition of aluminum. Because of its wide electrochemical window and low melting point, the [EMIM]AlCl4 is a prospective ionic liquid for electrodeposition of aluminum. It was demonstrated that nano-sized aluminum was successfully deposited on glassy carbon after AlCl3 was added to the tetrachloroaluminate. The results from this work prove that the AlCl3/[EMIM]AlCl4 mixture is a promising electrodeposition method, both for developing the process chemistry and improving control of aluminum coating.

The joint research efforts, leveraging talent from U of I and INL, have resulted in one patent application. Funding was provided through INL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.

INL is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory that performs work in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and environment. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development. Day-to-day management and operation of the laboratory is the responsibility of Battelle Energy Alliance.

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