PPPL researchers win Edison Patent Award for inventing a liquid centrifuge with numerous industrial applications

Nov. 14, 2022

A team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory recently received a 2022 Edison Patent Award for their invention of a liquid centrifuge that could be used to treat waste streams and extract valuable solids from mining tailings. 

The researchers received the award for industrial processes at the Research and Development Council’s 43rd Edison Patent Awards ceremony on Nov. 3  at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. 

The advanced liquid centrifuge can be used for a variety of industrial uses from processing domestic wastewater known as gray water for toilet flushing or irrigating crops in areas where there is a water scarcity to stopping the spread of invasive species by removing them from ballast water in ships before it is released. 

“It’s been a pleasure to see this technology, which we’ve been marketing for so many years, honored by an Edison Patent Award,” said Laurie Bagley, head of Technology Transfer. 

The liquid centrifuge uses a set of inner and outer cylinders in which the inner cylinder spins faster than the outer cylinder, along with segmented end caps that also spin at different rates. 

The centrifuge mixes or separates materials more quickly than standard centrifuges and does so without creating turbulence. This ability could make it very useful in a variety of industrial applications. 

“I’m really excited about the technology,” said physicist Erik Gilson, one of the inventors who has taken the lead in promoting the invention. “There are a lot of people interested in cleaning up dirty water, getting rid of plastics in the water, cleaning up settling ponds where wastewater is just sitting…There are so many applications that are becoming more important every day and people are looking for tools to solve these problems. It’s exciting that the centrifuge could be one of these tools that people want to use.” 

“It’s an honor and it’s humbling to be recognized,” Gilson said of the award. “To have an idea and see it to the market and be acknowledged for that. It’s very rewarding. 

Began as a basic research project 

Inventor Hantao Ji, a distinguished research fellow at PPPL and a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, noted that the idea for a liquid centrifuge began as a basic research project to study accretion discs as part of the Magnetorotational Instability Experiment. These disc-like rotating flow of gas, plasma, dust or particles around a black hole or other astronomical object plays a role in the formation of planets and stars. “I take this award as an inspiration to everyone doing basic research,” Ji said at the ceremony. “Don’t forget about the real world. You may be able to contribute in one way or the other.” 

Also attending the award ceremony was collaborator Phil Efthimion, head of PPPL’s Plasma Science and Technology Department, who previously received an Edison Patent Award in 2017. “It doesn’t get old,” Efthimion said at the ceremony. “It’s quite an honor and I really appreciate getting the second one.” 

The other collaborators on the team were Adam Cohen, former deputy director for operations at PPPL and a former deputy undersecretary for science and energy at the DOE; and Eric Edlund, a former physicist  at PPPL who is an assistant professor at the State University of New York – Cortland.

PPPL’s fourth Edison Patent Award

The Edison Patent Award was PPPL’s fourth in the past several years. PPPL inventors won the award in 2016 for a method of producing radionuclide molybdenum that could be used in medical imaging; in 2017 for an EUV microscopy and EUV lithography and X-ray imaging technique that could be used to etch computer chips; and in 2020 for a fusion-powered rocket engine. 

Gilson credited numerous programs offered by PPPL’s Technology Transfer Office that helped him learn how to market the technology. Last October, he presented the invention to a panel of judges at the National Laboratory Accelerator Pitch Event, hosted by the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He also participated in the DOE’s Energy I-Corps Lite program, a workshop aimed at teaching inventors how to take the first steps to bring their inventions to market. Another program where he presented the technology was the Technology Showcase, an event in which inventors present their technology to potential investors and business owners. He also won third place at Princeton University’s Innovation Forum

“The Lab offers lots of opportunities for people to get involved in technology transfer – events where inventors with technology get a chance to speak in front of real investors and real businesspeople to get feedback,” Gilson said. “ It gets you to think about how to make the ideas easily communicable, to think more like a businessperson about what your market is, what your value proposition is.”