Students Aim for Smarter Fuel, Smarter Homes

June 1, 2006

With gasoline prices on the rise, graduate students in the Master of Engineering Management Program are working toward a solution. A business plan they wrote for a novel fuel additive meant to boost gasoline efficiency and reduce tailpipe emissions won them a spot in the final round of a national licensing competition.

The glycerin-derived chemical, GTBE, could replace one recently phased out due to problems with water contamination.

"We aim to capture the emerging market for fuel additives," said student competitor Srikanth Chunduri, who is from India. "GTBE is a promising replacement fuel additive that could fill the gap from the loss of the additive MTBE."

The students developed the plan for GTBE through ECE 299: Intellectual Asset Management and the Patent Process, a course taught by Pratt School professor and alum Guerry Grune. "The class is designed to teach students how to leverage the intellectual property value of patents," said Grune, who is also a registered patent agent.

"It's amazing what the students accomplished in a very short period of time," Grune said.

"The students had several technology options from which to choose," he added. "They selected GTBE because it's a white-hot area right now. The high price of gasoline has everyone interested in alternatives."

Low levels of MTBE had been a standard component of gasoline since 1979 to help engines run more smoothly, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Higher concentrations came into widespread use in 1992 to fulfill requirements set by Congress in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.

MTBE allows gasoline to burn more completely, thereby reducing harmful tailpipe emissions. However, the additive has come under fire in recent years due to its role in groundwater pollution. At many east coast gas pumps over the last month, MTBE has been replaced with ethanol.

However, the move to ethanol is expected to spike the already high price of gasoline this summer. The chemical also has some other potential limitations, for example, ethanol lowers the miles per gallon because it possesses less energy than gasoline.

And that's where GTBE comes in, according to the MEMP students.

GTBE, a chemical invented and patented by David Bradin, has numerous advantages for making gasoline go farther and for cleaning up automobile emissions, they said. It can be manufactured from glycerine, a waste by-product of biodiesel, or other renewable materials using the existing infrastructure for biodiesel plants.

The students had the opportunity to work directly with Bradin, an organic chemist and patent attorney, and Grune to create a business plan for their newly formed company CPS Biofuels.

"There are no blockbuster fuel additives on the horizon," said MEMP student Brian Glassman, a native of Miami, FL. "The major gas companies are focused on big markets; we are finding our niche in a smaller, emerging market."

The quality of the students' written plan landed them the opportunity to present at the 2006 Edwin A. Shallaway Graduate Student Licensing Competition held in Philadelphia in conjunction with the Spring Meeting of the Licensing Executive Society.

"The students did a ton of patent analysis, mapping and licensing to create a strong business plan with appeal to investors," said GTBE inventor Bradin. "They took the chemistry to a marketable plan to become finalists in a national competition. How cool is that?"

The Duke team was one of three runners up that each received $1,000 prizes for their submissions. Other students on the Duke team included Mariella Corcuera from Toronto, Batul Tambawalla from Raleigh, NC, Harish Jaysankar from India and Michael Durbin from St. Louis, MO, all of Duke, and Pratik Jhanb of North Carolina State University.

Two graduate students from the University of Illinois at Chicago took first prize and $10,000 for their plan to develop groundbreaking cancer therapies based on a new technology. Other finalists included a plan for the development of a smaller and longer-lasting battery for implantable medical devices from Stanford and a plan for a device that would help those with chronic ear ringing from Wake Forest.

"Students are often not taught about the opportunity and value that can be gained through the licensing of IP," said Richard Razgaitis, president of the Licensing Foundation, in a news release. "Our competition is unique in that it promotes an awareness and demonstrates how things like patents and trademarks can bring tremendous benefits in both time-to-market and sustainable competitive advantage. It's how most small companies succeed."

Sponsored by the Licensing Foundation Inc., a non-profit subsidiary of the Licensing Executives Society (USA & Canada) Inc., the Licensing Competition, is designed to simulate a real-world venture capital experience. Entries were judged based on a variety of factors including attractiveness of the venture, quality of the product or service offered, market opportunity and investment potential.

Smarter Homes: Duke at EPA's P3 Competition

Duke was one of 41 teams selected to compete for the EPA's P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) Design Contest held on the National Mall in Washington, DC,in early May. An interdisciplinary team competed with actual technology prototypes related to the Duke Smart Home, including a solar tracker, a hot water recovery system, a photovoltaic water cooling panel, and a grey water recovery system.

Duke Smart Home Director Tom Rose called the experience fantastic. "It was an amazing opportunity for our students to connect what we've been doing with the real world. We demonstrated working prototypes to people and felt we really made an impact," he said. "We were literally 200 yards from the capital building. It felt like we were part of something big to be there."

The team had ample opportunity to explain their research to the families, businessmen, congressmen and senators who came to see the P3 event on the National Mall. "Every student took at least 3 steps up in presentation ability after spending the day talking with people about our projects and honing our messages. They went from nervously saying 'I've never talked to the media before,' to sounding very professional," said Rose.

"It was an absolutely magical moment when we were approached by an engineer from a senate advisory committee who has been commissioned to 'green' some public buildings. He wanted to know what we recommended," said Rose. "We've been working for years to develop this body of knowledge about smart buildings and homes and suddenly there was an outlet for it. It was amazing."

The team who traveled to Washington included Smart Home Director Tom Rose, sophomore Jeff Schwane, ME juniors Byron Alvarez, Kellan Dickens, Frank Coleman and, Steven Felkins, CE junior Lisa Duty and Master of Engineering Management graduate student Rob Liebert. They were accompanied by faculty adviser, Associate Professor John Board as well as Professor David Schaad.

Because the Duke team was one of the few with actual technology prototypes, they received a lot of media attention, and provided interviews to MSNBC, Voice of American, HDN, RadioHotline with Dennis Price, NBC News, the Associated Press and Getty Images.

"Even though we didn't win the competition, we don't feel like we lost," said Rose. "We got all the benefits of taking part in the competition. The contest was a huge motivator for our team and knowing we were going to represent Duke to the public was important to us. This experience really reinforces for us the importance of having public interaction as part of the curriculum for all future Duke Smart Home students."