UMass secures record-high 62 patents in 2015

  • A photovoltaic-driven system for electrosynthesis at  the University of Massachusetts Amherst used by professor Derek Lovely. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 7/31/2016 3:13:06 PM

AMHERST — University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Derek Lovely is a step ahead when it comes to renewable energy, and his work is giving the university a boost. 

Lovely and his wife Kelly Nevin Lovely co-invented a new technology that harnesses leftover renewable solar energy and feeds it to microorganisms to produce transportation fuel and pre-plastic materials, among other products.

The process, which took seven years to develop and license, is called microbial electrosynthesis, Lovely said.

“It’s an artificial form of photosynthesis,” Lovely said. “It’s a more efficient process that can convert solar energy into useful products.”

Global ranking

Lovely’s patented invention helped push the university to set a record and rise in stature in 2015. Last month, the university announced it vaulted to 30th globally on the list of the Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Patents in 2015.

The 62 patents represent a 55 percent increase over the 40 patents awarded to UMass in 2014 and set a record for the most patents issued to UMass in a calendar year since the university began its patent transfer program in 1995, according to a statement from spokesman Robert P. Connolly. 

The university shares the global ranking with the University of Utah Research Foundation and the Research Foundation for The State University of New York. UMass placed third in Massachusetts and New England and was tied for 24th among American universities, according to the statement.

“Our faculty continues to shine with cutting-edge research and innovation that places us in the top tier of universities in the world,” UMass President Martin T. Meehan said in the statement. “They lead us to new frontiers of human understanding and their work opens the door to a more prosperous economic future.” 

The annual report is published by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association using data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 

Amherst researchers

UMass Amherst secured 14 of the 62 patents in 2015, helping to boost the five-campus system to its global ranking.

According to Lovely, his research is based on a UMass discovery that some microorganisms can feed on electricity. He and his team embarked on the project in 2008 and published the project’s first research paper in 2010. 

The researchers worked in the lab to genetically modify the microorganisms to create organic compounds from carbon dioxide. The research work was done on a small-scale using reactors, Lovely explained.

Lovely said the microorganisms live on the surface of electrodes and consume the electrons for energy. The tiny beings “breathe in”  the carbon dioxide, convert it to organic compounds, and then release the compounds that scientists can use to create products like butanol, a transportation fuel. 

According to Lovely, a handful of graduate and undergraduate students assisted with the project. 

“We’re helping people learn to become scientists,” Lovely said. 

Lovely said the microbial electrosynthesis patent will be a financial benefit to the university because those interested in the technology for commercial use must license it through UMass.  

The method is gaining more momentum in European countries than the United States, especially in Denmark where there is an abundance of leftover energy, Lovely said. He said the technology may catch on closer to home if a carbon tax is adopted or gasoline becomes more expensive.

New plastics

Todd Emrick, a professor of polymer science and engineering, is another UMass Amherst inventor to secure a patent in 2015. His decade-long research with professor E. Bryan Coughlin aims to produce new plastics that are inherently flame-resistant and easier on the environment.

“The 2015 patent builds on our initial ideas, also patented and published in the academic literature, and allows the development of new types of materials where non-flammability is needed, such as epoxy glues and materials that must withstand high temperatures,” Emrick said. 

Emrick explained that typical plastics and polymer products like foam mattresses and the interior components of transportation vehicles require flame-retardant additives to meet government regulations. His project aims to eliminate the need for flame retardants with new polymers that look, feel and have the properties of plastics and foams people are already familiar with. 

“We are trying to produce new plastics that are inherently flame-resistant such that rather than burn, these new plastics form a char-like substance.  This would be a major advance in the area of safe materials for society, since it would eliminate the need for flame retardants which are expensive and in many cases toxic,” Emrick said in an email. 

A coincidental benefit is that the new monomers, or building blocks of plastic, pioneered by researchers could function as BPA replacement, Emrick said. 

According to a statement from UMass Amherst, polymer scientist Alfred Crosby secured a patent for Geckskin, a strong adhesive modeled on the mechanics of gecko feet that can be reused without losing effectiveness. He collaborated on the project with biology professor Duncan Irschick and graduate students.

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