By Marcus Woo

Unclogging rock

In hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), pumping liquid into the ground at high pressure creates cracks in rock that increase its permeability, allowing drillers to extract more oil and gas more easily and quickly.

With former UCSC postdoc Thibault Candela, now geomechanics scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, Emily Brodsky, professor of Earth and planetary sciences, co-invented what she calls “a somewhat gentler approach.” Like a plunger unclogging pipes, the new pumping technique pulses water already in the rock back and forth at a certain frequency, cleaning out dirt, salts, and other materials that have plugged up naturally occurring fractures.

The method would also be useful for tapping hot water or steam for geothermal power, cleaning water wells, or environmental remediation, Brodsky said.

Brodsky E, Candela T. Determination of the optimal fluid pulses for enhancement of reservoir permeability and productivity. U.S. Patent 10513909, filed June 20, 2016, issued December 24, 2019.

Foamy carbon

Supercapacitors, fast-charging energy storage devices that deliver power quickly, could help make recharging electric vehicles as fast as filling the tank, but they require materials with a high surface area-to-volume ratio. The carbon foam co-invented by professor of chemistry Yat Li may more than meet this need. Wrapped in a unique structure of interconnecting pores ranging in size from one micron to less than two nanometers, the surface area in just one gram covers nearly six basketball courts.

The inventors have shown the material could serve as an electrode for a potentially better supercapacitor—it is electrically conductive, chemically stable, and can be 3D printed. But it will likely also have other applications, Li said: “It's just a very useful material.”

Li Y, Zhang F, Liu T. Three-dimensional porous carbon foams for supercapacitors. U.S. Patent 10526203, filed March 15, 2017, issued January 7, 2020.

Goodbye perchlorate

Perchlorate, a toxic chemical used in producing rocket fuel and ammunition, often becomes a dangerous contaminate of groundwater near industrial sites. Professor of chemistry Scott Oliver co-invented a potentially more efficient way to remove the problem perchlorate using a metal organic polymer.

This positively charged material traps only the negatively charged perchlorate ion, unlike the polymers used in conventional methods, which bind all of the various negative ions typically found in water. It therefore clears more perchlorate faster. “It has the highest capacity of any method,” Oliver said. The material is also reusable: the reverse chemical reaction removes the perchlorate for disposal and recovers the polymer for indefinite rounds of decontaminating.

Oliver S, Colinas I. Methods for removing perchlorate from water and vessels and systems for practicing the same. U.S. Patent 10597312, filed March 15, 2016, issued March 24, 2020.

Faster chip design

When designing a computer chip, engineers write a program to describe the chip's components. Software then optimizes and translates the code into a map of the chip. To ensure an optimum design, this translation process—which can take hours—must be repeated whenever the code is edited, even if it's just a tweak.

To make the procedure less arduous, professor of computer science and engineering Jose Renau co-created a software tool that, after the initial round, translates only what's necessary while maintaining the optimum chip design. “You don't have to redo everything,” he said. The new tool means a more efficient incremental approach to chip design, reducing the compute times from hours to seconds.

Renau J, Posignolo RT. Interactive incremental synthesis flow for integrated circuit design. U.S. Patent 10614188, filed June 30, 2017, issued April 7, 2020.

Breaking DC circuits

Circuit breakers prevent electrical fires by opening the circuit when the current is too high due to a fault. When electric current crosses the opening, an arc forms, but is extinguished once the current flips to the opposite direction, as is the case with the alternating current that's standard in the U.S. But with the direct current increasingly common with solar power systems, battery storage, and ship and aircraft power, a different kind of breaker is needed.

In response to high current, a new DC breaker designed by professor of electrical and computer engineering Keith Corzine produces a lower current through a transistor, which then shuts off the arc. The new device automatically responds to a fault in microseconds, Corzine said, about ten times faster than conventional DC breakers that rely on current sensors.

Corzine K. Circuit breaker for DC circuits using coupled induction. U.S. Patent 10389104, filed January 6, 2016, issued August 20, 2019.