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Andlinger Center News

March 29, 2024
Dense rows of low crops growing in a field, with trees in the distance and a clear blue sky.
Seed farm for the lab of Jonathan Conway, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, in July 2023. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Conway

Princeton IP Accelerator funding supports four energy and environmental technologies

A sensor that detects planet-warming gases, a laser-engraved ceramic tile engineered for evaporative cooling, and a method to improve the nutrition and production of worldwide agriculture are among the energy and environmental innovations awarded funding from the Intellectual Property (IP) Accelerator Fund.

The fund, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, provides support to researchers who have made a discovery but need to conduct extra studies to demonstrate that the discovery can meet a societal need. This support can help advance technologies to the stage where they can attract investment and licensing by a startup or existing company, enabling them to make a meaningful real-world impact.

Each grant provides up to $100,000 for prototyping and research.

“Princeton researchers are at the forefront of solutions to challenges across sectors such as health and medicine, energy and the environment, agriculture and many other areas essential to society and our future,” said John Ritter, executive director of Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing. “Through these grants, Princeton University helps ensure that these discoveries can become the basis of tomorrow’s life-changing technologies and services.”

This year, four of the seven funded projects focus on technologies that address energy and environmental issues:

Headshot of José Avalos.
José Avalos

Sustainable method to create flavors and fragrances

José Avalos, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

A new method of producing the chemical compounds used in fragrances, flavors and pharmaceuticals could serve as a sustainable way to meet rising global demand for these products. The current industrial production of chemical compounds called monoterpenes relies on extraction from plant sources and chemical synthesis. These methods have become increasingly unsustainable because they generate significant amounts of chemical waste and consume large amounts of land, water, and fertilizer. An alternative approach that uses genetically engineered microorganisms to create monoterpenes could meet the rising demand, but to date it has been difficult to synthesize the desired outcome. This is because the key enzyme that is responsible for creating “GPP,” the monoterpene precursor, can also catalyze an alternative reaction that creates “FPP,” an enzyme that promotes cell growth but doesn’t enable monoterpene production on its own.

Princeton researchers led by Avalos are tackling this challenge by editing the genes of the key enzyme to favor production of GPP while still producing enough FPP to promote cell growth and result in a high yield of monoterpenes. The technology may enable cost effective and sustainable production of highly valued monoterpenes, and could immediately enter the $30 billion global market of flavors and fragrances.

Headshot of Jonathan Conway.
Jonathan Conway

Biotechnology to meet global agricultural challenges

Jonathan Conway, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering

A new technology aims to harness beneficial bacteria to enhance the growth and nutrition of widely grown food crops to help meet the challenges of a growing global population and warming climate. The approach is based on a natural phenomenon where disease-causing bacteria invade plants and force them to start producing molecules that serve as the bacteria’s food. A number of research groups have tried to adapt this phenomenon to benefit plants by replacing the harmful bacteria with more beneficial bacterial strains. This approach is challenging, however, as the good bacteria may not successfully colonize the plant due to competition from other soil bacteria, or may take up residence in the surrounding weeds instead of the intended plant.

To tackle this, Princeton researchers led by Conway genetically engineered a model plant called Arabidopsis to secrete molecules, and engineered growth-promoting bacteria to consume these molecules and colonize the plant, ensuring success for this widely sought-after approach. With support from the IP Accelerator Fund, they plan to extend this technology to be used for corn and soybean plants to enhance agricultural health and productivity worldwide.

Headshots of Reza Moini, Forrest Meggers, and Lara Tomholt.
Reza Moini, Forrest Meggers, and Lara Tomholt

Laser-engraved tiles for evaporative cooling of building façades

Reza Moini, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, Forrest Meggers, associate professor of architecture and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and Lara Tomholt, distinguished postdoctoral fellow, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

A new technology aims to enable buildings to shed their excess heat by evaporating water from their surfaces in a mechanism similar to how humans cool the body — by sweating. Buildings consume significant amounts of energy to heat and cool their interiors. This new approach reduces overall energy consumption devoted to cooling building interiors by evaporating water from the exterior walls. Until now, however, similar ideas have failed due to the challenge of evenly spreading a thin layer of water on a vertical surface.

To overcome this challenge, the team created cement-based tiles etched with tiny channels that rapidly wick fluid into a thin layer on the surface of the material so that the liquid can evaporate, providing significant cooling. The team used lasers to engrave the channels onto the tiles, producing capillary pathways in branched networks. With IP Accelerator funding, the team will explore the energy benefits for buildings in various climates, taking into consideration factors such as temperature, humidity, wind conditions and amount of sunlight. The team estimates that significant reductions in surface temperature could be achieved in warm and dry climates.

Headshot of Mark Zondlo.
Mark Zondlo

Laser-based system to track emissions of planet-warming gas from farm fields

Mark Zondlo, professor of civil and environmental engineering

A sensor that detects the planet-warming gas nitrous oxide could help farmers reduce agricultural contribution to climate change. Farms rely on nitrogen-based fertilizers to aid plant growth, but much of this nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. Existing methods for tracking nitrous oxide farm emissions require finicky gadgets and computer models that create estimates rather than hard data that farmers can use to adjust fertilizer application to lower emissions.

With support from the IP Accelerator Fund, Zondlo and his team will build a laser-based nitrogen-detection system that takes a virtual “CAT scan” of emissions coming off the farm field. As the eye-safe laser scans around the field, inexpensive reflectors will return the laser light back to the sensor. The web of measurements will provide maps of nitrogen hotspots to farmers on a daily basis. The system, developed by the Zondlo group as part of a U.S. Department of Energy-funded ARPA-E SMARTFARM project, costs as little as $10 per acre per year at scale. The resulting data will allow farmers to adjust practices to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals and take advantage of climate-smart agricultural practices through a verifiable accounting system.

The full story originally appeared on the Office of the Dean for Research website.