Chemistry students making history with first patents for WBU

PLAINVIEW – As Wayland Baptist University approaches its 100th birthday next August, the school can add another historic milestone to its bragging list. The first patent application ever filed in Wayland’s name is officially recorded and on its way to getting full approval. 

The brains behind the patent are Wayland chemistry students, many of whom have spent the last several summers doing research projects as part of WBU’s summer science research program that allows undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in real, hands-on research and gain valuable experience toward graduate school, professional schools or other career ventures.

Specifically, senior Lori Pretzer of Glendale, Ariz., and Philip Carlson, a May 2007 graduate, developed the technique under patent, filed on the provisional level last October. The full application was completed recently, but according to Dr. Joel Boyd, associate professor of chemistry and the faculty advisor for the project, the process will take another few years to complete, with a patent lawyer working on the university’s behalf.

The patent is for a technique of depositing titanium dioxide onto acrylic materials for use as a photocatalyst in the purification process of water. The technique is beneficial, Boyd explained, because the titanium doesn’t wash off the acrylic and have to be filtered out of the water after it does its job.

That technique has the potential to be used in various applications for the purification of drinking water, and that, Boyd explained, is one reason why the provisional patent was sought.

“What we’re really all about is the academic preparation of our students,” he said, noting that the patent protects the work so students can communicate their research through presentations at conferences and on campus. “This project has laid the foundation for lots of additional research in the department.”

Indeed, four students spent their summer doing related projects to improve the process created by the initial technique discovery, and, in turn, another provisional patent was filed recently to protect the design of a reactor created by Luke Loetscher, a senior from Wyoming, working in Boyd’s research group.

The reactor uses LEDs – light emitting diodes – as the light source to speed the photocatalytic process. The design is positive, Loetscher said, because the LEDs are one of the most energy-efficient light sources, they are available across the ultraviolet spectrum, they are durable and have long life and are relatively inexpensive.

“The biggest challenge is determining how to distribute the light through the reactor for the best effect,” said Loetscher, who hopes to become a missionary and take his discovery to countries where poor quality of drinking water is a major problem.

Loetscher and Jonathan Carey, a junior from Hobbs, N.M., are now working on an additional project to modify the design of the World Health Organization’s solar disinfection system (SODIS) – which uses an ordinary plastic water bottle set in the sun to sterilize water – and adding the titanium dioxide as a photocatalyst to speed the process. The titanium dioxide has added benefits, Loetscher noted.

“Not only are you killing bacteria in the water, but the titanium dioxide also removes chemical contaminants, and there’s less chance of bacteria regrowth,” he said.

To add to their list of accomplishments, Carlson, Pretzer and Boyd recently published an article on the deposition technique in the November issue of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society. That, Boyd said, is another major milestone since competition to be published in scientific journals is stiff at best.

While Boyd is proud of the students’ research and the “firsts” achieved, he said the patents and publications just prove the well-rounded nature of the education being provided at Wayland.

“The best indicator of fruitful scientific investigation is that it produces more questions, and this project has done that every year,” Boyd said. “As a university, we’re not in this for the patents; they are a sign of success, but not the goal. We do it because it would be a shame to let that ‘fruit’ of research stay on the ground and rot.”

Though the classroom work and the lab research are vital to the students’ preparation for the future, he said this project has allowed the students to see the full spectrum of research, including communicating it to the scientific community (through the journal article) and protecting it legally.

“What they’re having the opportunity to do here is so neat,” Boyd said. “These are their projects that they’re researching and they’re writing; they’re not just an extra set of hands for someone else’s research.”

The students echo that sentiment.

“I don’t think there is a better opportunity out there for me to do real research at this level,” Loetscher said.

Boyd said once the patent gains full approval, the likely outcome is for the university to license the technique or design to a company who will use it to produce products that will improve the lives of many. The patent protection means WBU can assure that the technology will be put to good use.

“What I love is that this work has real applicability in areas that are so near and dear to the mission of the university,” Boyd said, noting that he has appreciated the support of WBU administrators in covering the cost of patent applications and encouraging the student work.

The enthusiasm of Wayland officials, though, is just as vibrant as the students.’

“The emphasis and demonstrated success of the undergraduate research initiative in the Division of Mathematics and Sciences has led Wayland to a unique place in its history,” said Dr. Bobby Hall, provost and vice president of academic and graduate services. “The work of our faculty and students in creating patentable research is a tremendous step forward and is a clear indicator of the quality and cutting-edge experimentation present in Wayland’s academic program. We are, of course, quite enthusiastic about future developments in this field.”