Researchers receive grants aimed at technology commercialization

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Four research projects with high potential for technology commercialization have received grants through a Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences program designed to spur innovation.

The college's Research Applications for Innovation Grants -- known as RAIN Grants -- provide financial support that enables researchers in the college to realize the commercial potential of ongoing research projects. The ultimate aim is to stimulate economic development through transfer of technologies to the marketplace, according to Gary Thompson, associate dean for research and graduate education.

"The college is committed to fostering technology development and bringing research to the marketplace by transferring this technology to existing and startup companies," he said. "As part of the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation initiative, the RAIN Grant program is a new source of competitive funds for researchers in the college who are prepared to take the next steps in commercializing technologies generated through their research."

To receive a grant under the program, applicants must demonstrate that funding will significantly advance research projects toward a commercial product or service. Proposals are evaluated on their scientific merit and commercialization potential. The one-year grants can be as much as $50,000.

The following projects were funded for the 2013-14 cycle:

-- Cyanobacterial Biofertilizers. A project led by Mary Ann Bruns, associate professor of soil science and microbial ecology, aims to culture cyanobacteria and monitor their growth on soils. Bruns and her team will work with a company that plans to produce low-carbon liquid fuels by capturing carbon dioxide to grow cyanobacteria.

Applied to soils as a biofertilizer, cyanobacteria are expected to fix additional atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The project's goal is to quantify and validate nitrogen fixation by cyanobacterial biofertilizers following soil application under field conditions. Bruns said these data could be used to develop approved protocols for assessing carbon sequestration and nitrogen fertilizer reduction credits.

Other researchers on the project are Xin Peng, graduate student in the Intercollege Program in Ecology, and Mark Signs, director of the Shared Fermentation Facility in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

-- Biopesticide for Long-term Control and Prevention of Bed Bug Infestations. Nina Jenkins, senior research associate in entomology, leads a research group that developed a biopesticide that exploits bed bugs' trait of gathering in harborages. Studies have shown that the team's novel formulations of a fungal isolate can be applied as a long-lasting barrier treatment. Bed bugs that cross the barrier acquire fungal spores and go on to spread these among insects that remain in their harborages, resulting in debilitating morbidity within two days and greater than 95 percent mortality within a week.

Jenkins has filed patent applications for the technology, which has garnered strong interest from the hotel industry. The grant will support efforts to collect additional data needed to secure Environmental Protection Agency registration of the product for in-home use.

Also on the grant are Matthew Smith, senior technology licensing officer in the Office of Technology Management at Penn State, and doctoral student Deepti Jain, a volunteer intern in the Office of Technology Management.

-- Commercialization of Penn State Interseeder. With cover crops gaining favor for their ability to reduce soil erosion, take up excess nutrients, suppress weeds and provide forage and biofuel feedstock, researchers are seeking ways to improve cover-crop establishment before harvest of the primary crop. A group led by Chris Houser, research technologist in plant science, developed equipment that can seed a cover crop into no-till corn, while also applying fertilizer and post-emergent herbicide.

Seeding into an early growth stage of corn gives the cover crop time to become established before late-season harvest of the corn. In addition, accomplishing three tasks in one pass of the field can save growers time and money, making cover crops more economically feasible. The RAIN Grant will be used to market the interseeder for licensing to potential suppliers and manufacturers. The team has applied for a patent on the technology.

Corey Dillon, farm machinery operator/mechanic and master's degree candidate in agronomy, and Greg Roth, professor of agronomy, are collaborators on the project.

-- From Wastes to Fuels. Nicole Brown, associate professor of wood chemistry, is the principal investigator for a project that will provide a value-added use for lignin and silica-rich rice hull ash, which are wastes from bioenergy, and pulp and paper production. Brown's team has applied for a patent for technology that incorporates these low-value products in bricks that substitute for coke, the fuel source in the metalcasting industry.

Industry trials have shown that these innovative solid-fuel bricks can reduce the energy and carbon dioxide footprints of steel and iron foundries by about 20 to 25 percent, while providing additional value for several waste or low-value materials. The group's RAIN Grant will fund research to optimize brick composition as it relates to economics and product properties.

Co-principal investigators on the research are Sridhar Komarneni, distinguished professor of clay mineralogy, and Fred Cannon, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

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Last Updated September 13, 2013