A team of researchers at The University of Texas-Pan American have invented a machine that will manufacture nanofibers more easily, safely and at a lower cost. To help facilitate the commercialization of the invention, The University of Texas System Board of Regents recently awarded the University a $50,000 grant from its Texas Ignition Fund to take the product from the lab to the public.
Drs. Karen Lozano and Kamal Sarkar, faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the UTPA School of Engineering and Computer Science, were awarded the grant for their invention - the Multi-Level Superfine Fiber Creation that includes a device and the methods that will simplify the nanofiber manufacturing process. Also, collaborating on the development of the invention was Dr. Horacio Vasquez, assistant professor in mechanical engineering, and several undergraduate and graduate students.
Lozano, who has been awarded 34 grants and has filed five patents since joining UTPA, said the development of the device is a simple and new way to create nanofibers instead of the traditional process of using electrospinning processes, which can be lengthy and costly.
"This is a simple device that can not only be effective commercially, but even students in research labs will be able to use it safely. Most of the nanofibers made in labs are created through the electrospinning method with the use of hypodermic syringe needles and an electric field of 35,000 volts. Our machine does not require any additional voltage except for what you get from the outlet. As long as it is spinning it is creating fibers," she said.
Through the invention, Lozano said nanofibers will be created in large quantities, which is not done by similar equipment commercially today. She said the mechanism could possibly replace electrospinning.
"Basically everybody that is doing research with nanofibers, new textiles, smart materials, and filtration can use this machine. You will be able to create superfine fibers and test out your application more quickly," Lozano said.
Applications for nanofibers commercially include textiles in which nanofibers can be woven together to create material for sport and outerwear and even produce lightweight diapers that can absorb more than regular diapers. Also, nanofibers can be used to create scaffolds for tissue regeneration, filters, sensors, and much more.
According to Jackie Michel, director for the Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property, four patents to protect the discovery have been filed. Michel said the patents protect both the machine and the methods to produce the superfine fibers it creates.
Since the Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property was created in 2005, to date UTPA has received 29 invention disclosures, filed 16 patents, licensed three inventions, and two start-up companies have been started based on jointly owned technologies.
"UTPA, a premier learner-centered research institution in Texas, is committed to commercializing our inventions as part of our mission," said Michel. "We are fostering a culture to promote entrepreneurship and to capture our ideas leading to inventions. We are encouraging faculty and students to disclose inventions in order to encourage the growth of technology-based economic development of the South Texas region and the state."
"We are pleased at the high quality of proposals submitted to the TIF program from our institutions," UT System Interim Chancellor Dr. Kenneth I. Shine said. "They reflect the remarkable talent and innovative thinking on our campuses and reinforce our belief that higher education is an economic driver in Texas. We have high hopes that these ventures will begin to produce new commercial products and startups as early as next year."
The TIF fund was authorized to address the challenge that research discoveries and inventions at UT institutions often cannot reach their potential without additional effort to develop product applications that can attract investor capital to commercialize them. TIF funds are used mainly for personnel, equipment, supplies, instrument use fees, market analyses and business plans.