Two NJIT Researchers Named 2015 Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors

Atam Dhawan, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Somenath Mitra, a distinguished professor of chemistry and environmental science, were named this week to the National Academy of Inventors.

Somenath Mitra, a distinguished professor of chemistry and environmental science, and Atam Dhawan, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, were named this week to the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) for diverse technological innovations that have had impacts in areas ranging from environmental monitoring to point-of-care (POC) devices  in healthcare.

They join nearly 600 inventors from more than 190 research universities, government agencies and non-profit research institutions who, in the words of the Academy, “have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.”

Mitra has achieved global prominence for his work in several areas, including trace measurements and diverse nanotechnology applications ranging from flexible batteries, to solar cells, to sea water desalination. His work in real-time trace measurement plays a central role in environmental monitoring. He has, for example, developed a variety of air monitoring techniques for parts-per-billion-level measurements in ambient air and industrial stacks.

His work in the area of microwave-induced carbon nanotube purification and functionalization has wide-ranging applications in areas from polymer composites to thin films and nanoelectronics.  Related developments for which he received significant recognition were the development of flexible batteries and solar cells using carbon nanotube composites. The resulting batteries can be painted on flexible substrates, even with an inkjet printer. Through nanotube technology, he has also advanced the development of sensors for use in the continuous real-time monitoring of organic contaminants in air and water and devices to purify water.

Mitra has been issued 11 patents, including three this year. In May, he was awarded a patent for a next-generation water desalination and purification technology that uses uniquely absorbent carbon nanotubes to remove salt and pollutants from brackish water and industrial effluent for reuse by businesses and households. His new carbon nanotube immobilized membrane (CNIM) is an energy-efficient device designed to filter higher concentrations of salt than is currently feasible through reverse osmosis, one of the standard industry processes. It is also used to remove pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – chemicals routinely used in solvents – from water. His distillation process runs on energy-efficient fuels such as waste heat, an industrial by-product, and solar energy. This patent was featured in Chemical and Engineering News in August.

“There is a huge and growing demand for potable water coming from developing nations that are modernizing their infrastructure to improve living conditions. At the same time, droughts caused by climate change are reducing supply in many regions of the world, including parts of the U.S.,” Mitra said at the time. “Our hope is to expand the supply of water in places that really need it, while also reducing costs for industry.”

Mitra, who has conducted research on carbon nanotubes for the past 15 years, created a novel architecture for the membrane distillation process by immobilizing carbon nanotubes, which are an atom thick and about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair in diameter, in the membrane pores. One of the key characteristics of carbon nanotubes is their capacity to both rapidly absorb water vapor as well as industrial contaminants, including VOCs, and then easily release them.

Atam Dhawan: Health IT Inventor and Advocate

Dhawan is a pioneer in the field of point-of-care technologies in healthcare, focusing on optical imaging devices. His patent on low-angle transillumination technology for examination of skin lesions has led to the formation of two start-up companies with Veinlite and DermLite products that are now being used, respectively, for treating spider vein diseases and the examination of skin lesions for diagnosis of skin cancers, specifically, malignant melanoma. His research also includes a new method and instrumentation for in-situ measurements of concentrations of melanin, oxygenated hemoglobin, de-oxygenated hemoglobin and glucose in the blood through skin-tissue imaging.  He is in the process of commercializing a wearable, painless glucose monitor. 

In the health technology arena, Dhawan has worked assiduously to develop a community of stakeholders, including policymakers, entrepreneurs, clinicians, academics and insurers to discuss policy and practice around POC devices in order to speed the pace at which vital technologies reach doctors and patients. He is currently helping lead a federal initiative backed by the National Institutes of Health to map out strategies for better integrating POC technologies such as heart monitors, cancer-testing kits and rehabilitation devices into the healthcare delivery system. As part of this effort, he is chairing a diverse panel developing a plan of action for POCs that will be published sometime next year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and the Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine and distributed to all NIH institutes. It is expected to discuss ways in which patients, care providers and insurers can collaborate to develop these technologies and to optimize their use.

“By coming together we are more productive and efficient and can make an impact on health outcomes in a shorter amount of time,” Dhawan says. “It now takes well over a decade in many cases to deliver a promising technology into the hands of clinicians.”

Dhawan, who is vice provost for research, founded and directs NJIT’s Undergraduate Research and Innovation program, which provides guidance, as well as academic and corporate mentors to students conducting research and development on real-world topics such as smart information systems for social networking, biofuel energy and  breakthrough methods to counteract the ravages of drug addiction.

“We wanted to create a platform for students that will allow them to try their hand at inventing and even commercializing innovative devices without the risk,” he says. “So many first-time start-ups fail because their founders are learning the process as they go.”

Dhawan is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) and Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) for his contributions in medical imaging and image analysis and healthcare innovations. He is the founding co-editor-in-chief of the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine. His four issued patents also include cyber-security and secured data-communication systems inventions.

Together, the 2015 fellows account for 5,368 issued U.S. patents. They will be inducted next April at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) with USPTO Commissioner for Patents Andrew Hirshfeld serving as keynote speaker.

Tracey Regan