Without an ecosystem of science-business partnerships to bring a new technology to the market, good science generated in the laboratory seldom sees the light of day as a commercial product.
Because of key partnerships, however, work by Clarkson University professor and GE chair in oil and gas systems David Mitlin on agricultural-derived carbons is an example of new science being translated into a potential commercial product.
For years, Mitlin has been working on creating new materials with state-of-the-art performance from agricultural and forestry wastes. For instance, his work on hemp fiber-derived graphene — a highly specialized and normally very expensive type of carbon — made international news in 2014.
After surveying the state of farming in the U.S. in 2015, Mitlin and chemistry doctoral student Jesse Pokrzywinski concluded that there was a glut in milk and related dairy production, according to an announcement from Clarkson. While working on a dairy farm in high school, Pokrzywinski witnessed milk being disposed rather than brought to market at a loss.
The researchers learned that this was a problem at a national level, with millions of gallons being discarded every year, the university said. Over the next two years, Mitlin and Pokrzywinski developed a process to convert milk products and other agricultural wastes into extremely high-surface area/low-density carbons to be employed for energy storage, carbon dioxide capture and other applications.
Together with a group led by assistant professor of chemistry and biomolecular science Mario Wriedt, along with staff at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Mitlin published a paper on the material -- titled "Unrivaled Combination of Surface Area & Pore Volume in Micelle Templated Carbon for Supercapacitor Energy Storage" -- in the Royal Society of Chemistry's Journal of Materials Chemistry A, a leading energy journal.
For a typical academic study, the publication of results is often where the journey would end. However, Clarkson is interested in translating such innovations into commercial opportunities that have the potential to economically benefit the region and society at large.
With the help of director of research and technology transfer Greg Slack, a patent was pursued, (Activated Carbons From Dairy Products, US Patent App. 15/350,834) and licensed back to Mitlin's company.
Mitlin knew he could not successfully commercialize his inventions alone, however. Through some mutual connections, he partnered with Clarkson alumnus David Hessler, who has many years of experience as a serial entrepreneur, is a consultant for the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) and is active in the energy storage industry.
Hessler, who also is a board member for Clarkson's Reh Center of Entrepreneurship, knew what was needed to move the technology toward commercialization. He made sure they participated as a team in the NEXUS-NY Clean Energy Seed Accelerator, a NYSERDA-funded proof-of-concept center based in Rochester, N.Y.
Through the accelerator, Hessler and Mitlin conducted a thorough customer discovery process, interviewing nearly 100 potential customers to better understand their needs.
In the process, it became clear to the researchers that several potential markets exist for the aerogel-like materials, including fast charge-discharge energy storage devices, or supercapacitors, employed in windmills and for regenerative braking in electric vehicles; water treatment; gas separation, and as coatings.
Hessler's industry connections and Mitlin's reputation in the scientific community gave them access to business development specialists in a range of industries.
As of July, several potentially large customers are awaiting sample carbons to evaluate in their own labs. Mitlin and Hessler are performing the first pilot manufacturing runs to produce kilograms of the carbons. They hope to achieve revenue in 2018 and transition to local manufacturing shortly thereafter.