Scientific research equipment developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to detect and measure substances at the molecular level has brought in a record level of licensing income.
For the first time, income tied to a specific technology developed at the Department of Energy national lab in Richland has brought in $10 million to PNNL and Battelle, the contractor operating the lab. The money was collected over nearly 20 years, with the annual amount steadily increasing over the past five years, PNNL said.
PNNL researchers have been improving the performance of mass spectrometers since 1989, with an initial goal of developing equipment that would allow them to advance research at the lab.
But what was once developed with taxpayer dollars to solve research problems at the lab now is being manufactured commercially, allowing more widespread use.
The licensing money comes from about six or seven technologies that allow mass spectrometry to be used more effectively, but two technologies are primarily responsible for the licensing money. Mass spectrometry allows the type of elements, molecules and isotopes present in samples ranging from soils to proteins, to be identified and measured.
Non-scientists may be most familiar with the technology from television crime shows. But it has a wide range of uses in fields ranging from national security to environmental work to medical and drug testing.
It can be used to find pesticide contaminants in food, to make sure that semiconductors are not contaminated, to detect biomarkers of disease for early diagnosis and to track what a pharmaceutical drug may combine with in the human body.
“There has been a tremendous growth in mass spectrometry,” driven by the growing number of applications it has, said Bruce Harrer, a PNNL commercialization manager.
“Based upon the royalty rates in the various licenses, it is estimated that the royalties received by PNNL represent more than 5,000 mass spectrometer instruments sold to date that were based in part on PNNL intellectual property,” he said.
Many of the sales have been for mass spectrometers equipped with ion funnel technology developed by Richard Smith. He was named Battelle Inventor of the Year in 2000 in part for his work on the funnel, which has seen more widespread use through the years.
Ion funnels can dramatically increase the sensitivity of mass spectrometers, allowing very small samples to be analyzed. Before the technology was developed only a small fraction of the ions that were created for analyses were transmitted through the mass spectrometer and detected.
It uses a series of conductive ring electrodes of increasingly smaller internal diameter to which radio frequency and direct current voltages are applied. The combination causes ions to be confined and more effectively focused and transmitted.
The second technology responsible for much of the licensing money was commercialized about 15 years ago as a way to sort out interferences caused by the gas used to transport the sample material. If the sample forms bonds with the carrier gas, the mass spectrometer results can lead to an incorrect conclusion.
PNNL researchers came up with a “simple but elegant” fix, Harrer said. They inject hydrogen, which combines with the common carrier gas argon, and then the hydrogen carries the argon out.
Through licenses, PNNL has transferred technology enhancements for mass spectrometers to Agilent Technologies, Bruker Daltonics and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
“We’ve benefited greatly from PNNL’s developments,” said John Fjeldsted, an Agilent senior director, in a statement. “One of the PNNL technologies — the ion funnel — has made significant contributions to the sensitivity of our top-tier products.”
Under Battelle’s contract with DOE, Battelle and DOE may share the costs of bringing a technology to the point that it can be licensed, and Battelle may share in the proceeds with DOE.
Most of the licensing income has been reinvested into research programs, laboratory equipment and staff at PNNL or reinvested by Battelle, a nonprofit, in research-related activities.
Licensing proceeds reinvested at PNNL, benefit, by extension, the Mid-Columbia region, said Cheryl Cejka, director of technology deployment and outreach at PNNL.
Work on mass spectrometry improvements continues at PNNL and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, or EMSL, a national scientific user facility, on the PNNL campus.
EMSL’s new 21 Tesla Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometer, manufactured by Agilent and co-developed with EMSL, is one of the two strongest mass spectrometers being used by scientists anywhere for research.
“It enables science that is not otherwise possible,” Harrer said.
In another PNNL project, researchers are developing vapor detection technology to use with mass spectrometers that could put explosive-sniffing dogs out of business.
The technology samples the air and converts a small number of explosives molecules to ions that move directly to a mass spectrometer. It shows promise to provide a quick, accurate and highly sensitive evaluation process to detect minute amounts of explosives. It could be used to screen passenger or luggage at airports or to assess large cargo containers at ports.