Banerjee uses NSF I-Corps program to further engineering entrepreneurship

Debjyoti BanerjeeThe National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) program is designed to challenge engineers during a seven-week business boot camp in an effort to help foster entrepreneurship and the commercialization of technology. Engineers participate in a set of activities and programs that are aimed at teaching business skills that can’t be gained in the laboratory alone.

NSF I-Corps teams are comprised of a student entrepreneurial lead (EL), who does most of the marketing and research for the project, a principal investigator (PI), typically the student’s graduate advisor, and an industry mentor (IM), who helps to ensure the project activities are focused on a viable commodity to a specific industry.

Ronita Roy, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University, served as the EL for her team which recently completed the program.

“Our specific project was concerned with creating and developing technology that would increase energy storage and use nano-particles as surface coating to enhance cooling,” said Roy. “The focus of this NSF I-corps program is to explore this technology as an energy application in industries such as the oil and gas industry, HVAC and cooling solutions for electronic companies.”

 Initially, Roy’s team aimed to market its research to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) in both residential and commercial areas. After conducting 100 interviews with HVAC companies, the team learned this was a difficult market to penetrate with new products.

In response to this the team adjusted its targeted industry and pivoted to market its device to electronics companies, such as data centers, which they estimated could still gain from improvement to their current cooling techniques.

Currently a typical water cooling system which can be used in cooling computers consist of four main components: cooling blocks which transfer heat into liquid; radiators used for dumping waste heat; pumps to move the liquid throughout the cooling system; and a reservoir to store and filter the coolant.

“Data centers are becoming more power hungry,” said Dr. Debjyoti Banerjee, a professor in the mechanical engineering department and the PI for the team. “Their waste heat could be used to supply hot water to entire cities rather than dumping the heat into the environment.”

Roy’s team developed paint with nanoparticles. The paint keeps the computer chips cooler by dumping the heat out more efficiently. The paint also has the capability to reduce corrosion (rust) and fouling (gunk).

After going through the NSF I-Corps program Roy credits her growth and success to Banerjee and the teams IM, Dr. James A. Monroe founder of ALLVAR, a startup organization focused on creating affordable, scalable and stable all-variant thermal expansion alloys for laser applications.

“My industry mentor gave me excellent feedback about my interview techniques,” said Roy “He taught me how to really listen to the person I was talking to and adjust my responses based on their body language and other cues. Dr. Banerjee provided expert feedback about the intricacies of our research and consciously geared our research toward commercialization.”  

Research and experiments with this type of technology has doubled cooling efficiency in devices and reduced cost by half. It is also easy to manufacture and retrofit and solves many of the problems of current cooling products.

“Currently there is a 10 year gap between technology development in an academic research laboratory and commercial implementation in a chip-package, especially those involving electronic chip cooling technologies,” said Banerjee.

In Banerjee's opinion this is unacceptable, and he continuously seeks methods to help push the performance envelope in small form factors while reducing cost.

“Industry leaders are just now becoming acquainted with the idea of using nano-particles as additives in cooling fluids or as paints applied to hot surfaces for replacing current cooling technologies, he said. “We are confident that in the next few years this technology will experience exponential growth.”

In January, Banerjee formed another NSF-ICorps team to focus on market research segments in the oil and gas industry — primarily businesses involved in mid-stream operations — for the insertion of nanotechnologies in novel heat exchanger development by leveraging 3-D printing and additive manufacturing technologies.

Though more customer discovery must be made to identify the factors that can accelerate the universal adoption of these nano-particle paints, these innovations were patented by Banerjee to enable Roy and her team to be more effective in its commercialization endeavors and the creation of new markets for these technologies.