USF patents: Local scientists pursue innovations to make our lives better

University of South Florida researchers have found a way to help reduce waste associated with the U.S. production of natural gas. By simplifying the conversion of gas to liquid, methane gas that is normally burned as waste could be used to power diesel engines.

“We at least get a single time use out of it,” says John Kuhn, an Associate Professor for the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering. 

The invention is one of 114 utility patents USF received in 2016. It ranked fifth place among the nation’s public universities -- the highest it has ever in the annual ratings -- for the number of patents issued.

USF claimed first place in Florida and 11th place among universities globally, according to the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) and Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO).

The ranking is recognized as a measure of institutional productivity and prominence.

A number of the inventions center around health, such as one to help stroke victims regain their ability to walk correctly. Another attempts to prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s Disease through the use of electromagnetic fields like those used by cellphones. Yet another seeks to help quadraplegics with robots and brain waves.

Salvaging methane to make diesel fuel

Methane is released naturally during oil production, at landfills as waste decomposes, in breweries and in water purification systems. When it is recycled, it is considered a green or renewable fuel.

While the methane has traditionally been used for electricity, it’s usually available in remote places where there is no need for it. Converting the gas to liquid is a better idea, Kuhn says.

A multi-step process already makes it possible, but the USF invention makes it a single-step procedure with “multiple components,” Kuhn explains.

The cost is between $2 and $3 a gallon, which is in line with current pricing.

Kuhn and another USF faculty member, Babu Joseph, a Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, came up with the idea about five years ago while brainstorming about how to make biofuels more economical.

With help from students Nada Elsayed, Ummuhan Cimenler, and Nathan Roberts, they tested it in the USF lab and proved it works. The next steps are licensing it to a company to run pilot testing and then commercializing it. “There’s been a little bit of interest,” Kuhn says.

Some $50,000 in funding has come from the Gainesville-based Hinkley Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, which is interested in ways to use methane gas at landfills.

“We think it [the technology] definitely has applications. We are looking at several companies,” says Glenn Whichard, PhD., a USF licensing manager.

Kuhn doesn’t expect this technology to be a major producer of fuel within the next 20 years. “After that it could be. It depends on how much they keep taking out of the oil fields in the U.S.,” he asserts.

Regaining strength after a stroke

Strokes usually impact one side of the brain, affecting motor skills on one side. When stroke victims walk, they tend to favor the stronger side, putting less weight on the weak one. 

“This asymmetry is very bad for long-term health,” says Kyle Reed, PhD., an Associate Professor at USF’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “It can cause hip damage. It’s less energy efficient.”

But an invention patented by USF may provide a solution. Reed calls them Gait Enhancing Mobile Shoes, or GEMS.

“It is a shoe to help rehabilitate individuals who have a stroke,” he says. “It helps them to learn more symmetrically.”

He was inspired to develop the shoes about eight years ago when he saw a split-belt treadmill help stroke victims with two treads operating at different speeds. He wanted to help them walk more evenly on the ground.

Co-invented with Ismet Handzic, the shoe is used on the patients’ stronger side and operates without a motor or battery. As they walk, the downward force causes the spiral wheels to push the foot backwards. “It encourages you to walk on your impaired side, which is a good thing,” he says.

A second shoe is used to adjust for height and weight only.

Therapy might consist of three, 30-minute sessions a week for four weeks. Each session can last more than an hour because of breaks. “We are in the process of figuring out the dosage of it if you will,” he says.

They prefer for the therapy to be done at home, which would allow more frequent treatment for shorter periods.

“If you do a little bit every day it’s better than doing that same amount all at once,” he says.

Multiple investors have kicked in funds, including National Institutes of Health, which supplied $102,000 in a two-year period, and the Florida High Tech Corridor, which gave $75,000.

The Greenville SC company, Moterum, which already has invested $60,000, has obtained the commercial rights to the invention. It may be available sometime in 2018, Reed says.

Dr. David Rose, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology has been helping to recruit patients to test the shoes while Seok Hun Kim, PhD., an Associate Professor from the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences, has been doing the training.

When available, the shoes may cost in the “single thousands of dollars” to purchase, significantly less than other treatment options, he says.

For the time being at least, stroke victims are expected to get the most benefit. But later on they may study how to help those with asymmetric spinal cord injuries as well as amputees.

Cellphones, electromagnetic fields and Alzheimer’s disease

With all the talk a decade ago about the safety of cellphones, Gary Arendash figured he would study the deleterious effects of EMFs on the brain. What he found surprised him.

“We had to repeat the study a number of times before I was confortable coming out to say this electromagnetic treatment is actually providing benefits. It reverses the disease in these Alzheimer's mice,” says Arendash, a PhD, now retired from USF. 

With more than 5 million people suffering from Alzheimer’s in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the stakes are high. The first effective Alzheimer’s treatment is expected to bring in billions annually. 

“We like to think that this could be that treatment,” says Arendash, who is continuing his work as President and CEO of the Phoenix-based NeuroEM Therapeutics, which has exclusive rights on the patent.

The EMFs, the same type as those in cellphones, are used to break up bad proteins inside brain cells. The proteins are believed to collect and potentially diminish energy and kill brain cells.

“There’s no drug that can disaggregate this bad protein inside brain cells,” he explains. “This is the only technology that can do it, to my knowledge.”

The Transcranial Electromagnetic Treatment could be given at home using a head device for short periods of time during a two-month period.

The next step is a clinical trial at USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute to test it for safety on Alzheimer’s disease patients. It also may provide some information about the effectiveness.

Basic research on the technology is continuing at Arizona State University. 

There’s been no shortage of funding; he’s raised more than $1 million in the last year alone, including some $255,000 from NIH (National Institutes of Health) and $145,000 from angel investors.

“We believe we can fast track our technology such that, if it’s effective against Alzheimer’s, it could be available within five years,” he asserts.

“The FDA is willing to fast track anything that looks promising as far as Alzheimer's treatment goes. They’re very supportive,” he adds.

Relief for quadraplegics and their caregivers

Quadraplegics, or tetraplegics, are dependent on caregivers to dress, feed and bathe them. But an invention patented by USF can give caregivers a break by allowing those with four impaired limbs to do simple tasks using a robot. The device relies on brain signals to command the robot.

“They don’t have to do anything manually,” explains Redwan Alqasemi, PhD., a Research Professor at USF’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Center for Assistive, Rehabilitation and Robotics Technologies.

The goal is to help people with severe disabilities keep or increase independence. They may be suffering from Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome (UWS), or similar conditions.

Nearly 5 million people 15 and up need assistance with daily living activities, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Work began about five years ago on a system that uses a number of flashes to engage the patient, who counts the flashes. The device picks up the brain signal, much like the signals issued normally to move your hand, for example. The individual needs to be focused and calm for a good reading.

The robot can help with daily living activities such as filling a cup of water and bringing it to the person, retrieving a bottle, or bringing a plate of food from the refrigerator. “The robot can’t feed the user,” he points out, although it can fill a spoon and bring it closer to the mouth. The patient has to be able to open his or her mouth.

The device keeps communication open with ALS patients who can’t talk or blink their eyes. 

The system includes a robot, a brain-robot interface, which is basically a scalp-reader device, and computer, which might cost $20,000 or less when mass produced. It was developed as part of a Wheelchair-Mounted Robotic Arm project funded with $450,000 from the National Science Foundation.

Alqasemi has been working on the project along with Rajiv Dubey, PhD., Professor and Chair of the USF Department of Mechanical Engineering and Director of CARRT. Student Assistants are Indika Pathirage, Karan Khokar, and Elijah Klay.

It has been tested with people, but not those completely paralyzed. “We had between 80 to 95 percent accuracy,” he says. “We picked up the object and the task that the person intended to pick up.”

It’s hard to say when the system might be available. The first step would be finding a company to commercialize the product. “Anytime you have a new technology it takes time to get into the marketplace,” he explains.

“It has garnered a lot of interest,” adds Steve Medina, a USF licensing manager.

In the meantime, they are looking at working with audio and the sense of touch to stimulate brain signals for those that cannot see.
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune