Dayton innovators: UD researcher measures success in aviation, energy

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Local inventors make a difference.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

They work in university labs and two-car garages, in spaces set aside for entrepreneurs and home offices.

Robert Kauffman is one of those Dayton-area inventors.

Kauffman, a distinguished research chemist and group leader at the University of Dayton Research Institute, has literally lost count of his patents.

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Between U.S. and international patents, between those still in force and those he has allowed to expire, the 37-year UDRI veteran estimates he has secured 20 to 30 patents over the years.

“Really, I have no idea,” he said.

Kauffman was part of a research team that in the early 2000s identified a possible ignition source for aviation fuel tanks, research that was launched after the 1996 airplane fuel tank explosion of TWA Flight 800.

That crash into the Atlantic off Long Island, N.Y., killed 230 people. Conductive residues were found on wires recovered from the accident site, according to UDRI.

“We can’t say that we found the source (of the explosion),” Kauffman said. “But we could duplicate something that caused great concern.”

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From that work, Kauffman devised a way to have wires “self-heal.” He found a material that could create an insulating layer around a wire break under certain conditions.

“We took it from airline wiring to simple wiring around your house,” he said.

The technology won an R&D magazine 100 award in 2009. It was in time licensed to a small Dayton company, D’Angelo Technologies.

Another Kauffman innovation, his first, in fact — creating a device that can measure anti-oxidants in engine oil.

It turns out, anti-oxidants are not just good for human bodies but for engine oil, too.

Fluid-Tech — a Dayton joint venture between Gem City Engineering, UDRI and a Belgium firm — developed what Kauffman called the “Ruler” to measure anti-oxidants in engine oils.

“As the anti-oxidants come down, bad things start to happen,” he said.

The Air Force liked the invention, but service leaders weren’t certain how to put it to use with large fleets of planes, Kauffman said. “They didn’t really have the manpower to use it.”

The Ruler languished – until it turned out that utilities operating large power plants could find a use for the device.

The Ruler helped electric companies assess the state of lubricating oil in turbines.

It’s not enough for an invention to be new, Kauffman said. It needs to solve a problem.

“Until you find a problem that you can solve they (patents) don’t really go anywhere,” he said.

The self-healing wire and the ruler between them – together with a third invention, a smart oil dipstick Kauffman calls “the Intell-istick” — have generated about $800,000 in licensing income for the University of Dayton, the researcher said. He estimated that all of his other inventions combined have generated an additional $200,000 in income.

$1 million total. And that’s fine with him.

“It’s over 20 years, but still: A million is a million,” he said with a smile.

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