NASA Glenn Looking to Transfer Tech Research to Private Sector

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The NASA Glenn Research Center held an open house for the public over the weekend but Tuesday the center was open for business.   The space agency held a Tech Day and invited businesses that might want to take the latest NASA research to market.

ideastream’s Mark Urycki reports NASA may be planning for Mars, but it’s still looking to create jobs back home.


Sometimes it really is rocket science.  Or close to it.  Some 3200 people work at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Brook Park but a lot of them are working on down to earth research.  NASA Glenn has an Office of Technology, Incubation and Innovation. 

Its director, Dr. John Sankovich notes they have some pretty cool facilities like the world’s largest icing research tunnel and more

“Need a wind tunnel?  We’re here for you.  Want to go Mach 3?  No problem.  It’ll cost you a little bit in electricity, but with our partners in FirstEnergy we can make it happen." 

Sankovic says NASA Glenn has been a leader among the 11 NASA centers in generating some 200 patents this year.  And unlike some private concerns, he says NASA doesn’t sit on their patents to keep competitors from using the research.

“We patent things for the exact opposite reasons.  We patent to increase commercial use.  So when we patent it we look to increase licensing opportunities to license it to as many people as we can to raise the technology level.” 

That also allows a company to run with an idea and find new applications for it. The agency signs 75 to 100 partnership agreements a year. 

One polymer company licensing a NASA patent is Flexcon in Massachusetts.  Director Ken Koldan is excited about a NASA substance called aerogel, which insulates heat and cold but also insulates sound. It’s flexible and can be spread as thin as paper and bonded to copper to make an electronic circuit board. 

“Because of the natural ability of this product the polyimide Aerozero the dielectric constant is at 1.2.  Well now this turns also into an excellent radar substrate."

Right?   In other words... it’s invisible to radar.

Koldan says NASA is the brains and his company is the brawn.

“What they do is they look at how do we manufacture it?  How do we get it into the commercial stream?   That’s where Flexcon comes in and works very well with NASA. We can actually take their ideas and then manufacture it at a mass scale."

NASA has done more than just basic research for aerogel, says Tim Burbey, the president of Blueshift, a Texas affiliate of Flexcon.   

“In this case NASA did a really nice job of confirming the relevance by doing some market research.  In that way we were very comfortable to go to NASA for this technology.”

Like area universities, NASA is embracing bio-mimicry, using designs in nature as models for man-made products.   Aerospace companies have been coming to Ohio for years for NASA’s help on de-icing.   Now NASA'S looking to imitate shark’s skin to make a material so slippery that ice can’t stick to it.

It’s not all big stuff.  NASA Glenn has been working with the manufacturing advocacy group MAGNET to connect with area small businesses that could use their help.  Vice President Matt Fieldman recalls one under the earth example.

“A local company called Pile Dynamics does a lot of work in the construction field.  They have sensors that help understand what’s going on at your construction site.  So NASA helped them develop their next generation of sensors because who’s better at sensors than NASA?”

MAGNET, NASA, the City of Cleveland, and Cuyahoga County hold a contest each year they call Adopt a City.  Yesterday they chose seven companies and awarded each 40 hours of free consultation by NASA on technical issues. 

“One company came to us; they really wanted to make their materials fire-proof and the world’s expert on fire retardation is here at NASA Glenn. And so we were able to make that partnership and that has turned into a much stronger product.”

A NASA Glenn experiment in space now will light the largest ever man-made fire in space.  They’ll do it inside an unmanned spacecraft next month to study the effects.

Yes, they’re still involved in space.  Two of the four laboratories on the International Space Station today were built here.

 And they have that mission to Mars.

It just so happens, says NASA Glenn's John Sankovich that the agency has been working on things that a Mars base would need – solar technology, nuclear surface power, ways to use the Martian atmosphere, process its soil, et cetera.

“We joke around here that the path to Mars goes through CLE because the technology needed to get to Mars, you’re only going to get them by going through here.”

He’s hoping any research spinoffs will benefit Northeast Ohio. 


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