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Intriguing Finds: Research Spinoffs and Successes

After a recent interview I conducted with Joan Vernikos, former Director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, I was inspired to look deeper into an aspect of NASA that I had not thought about before.  What products/inventions have stemmed from the Agency’s research?  What did I find?  A lot of Spinoffs and Successes.  Spinoffs are NASA research findings which influence new technology development or applications of new knowledge.  Successes are not product focused, but provide public benefits in other ways.  One “success” I found was a process to help save valuable fire-damaged art. 

Many think of products associated with spaceflight, such as Tang which was made famous by John Glenn or the use of Velcro by astronauts to hold down instruments in zero gravity environments, as NASA inventions.  This view is based on myth, since they were not inventions by NASA.  Nor was the cordless power tool, though one was created when Black & Decker collaborated with NASA to develop a tool usable for astronauts while working outside a spacecraft.

Reportedly, to date NASA has filed approximately 6,300 patents with the U.S. government, and since 1976 has 1,400 documented inventions which have benefited the public.  Some “spinoffs” include:  kidney dialysis machines, freeze-dried food, memory foam, ear thermometers, water-purification technology, scratch resistant glasses, safety grooves in concrete runways and roads, and the popular invisible braces. 

The latest posted inductee (2007) into the Space Technology Hall of Fame is a developed NASA technology that benefits the environment.  This winning technology, Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron (EZVI), neutralizes toxic chemicals:  specifically, dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs) which are chemicals used widely in manufacturing businesses. 

DNAPLs are difficult to detect and can irreparably contaminate soil and groundwater.  As explained on the Space Technology Hall of Fame website, “EZVI uses iron particles in an environmentally friendly oil and water base to neutralize toxic chemicals.”  Originally created to counteract DNAPLs being used to flush rocket engines, it is now being used by several companies who have been issued non-exclusive licenses for the use of EZVI’s to clean up contaminations.

These finds have been worth my research, because not only do they validate how space research can benefit the general public, but each of the products and technologies has an intriguing story behind it.  Most fascinating to me was the explanation of the ear thermometer being a spinoff of technology initially used to detect the birth of stars! 




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