Honors Gallery

Efficient Drying with No Heat

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2020

Award Type: National

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

Ultrasonic technology from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is taking the heat out of the drying process, which could drastically reduce industrial and household energy costs. 

Drying is responsible for 15% of all energy consumption in the US, whether it is residential (such as laundry) or industrial (such as paper production). Americans spend $9 billion in utility bills annually on drying their clothes. In the industrial sector, energy costs for drying are even higher. 

Inspired by the way dogs dry themselves by shaking their bodies, an ORNL team led by researcher Ayyoub Momen developed an ultrasonic drying technology that, depending on the application, can be five times more efficient and two times faster than conventional heat-based drying systems.  

The technology uses piezoelectric transducers — materials that contract and expand when a voltage signal is applied. When attached to a custom smart amplifier, the transducers vibrate at an extremely high frequency. These vibrations turn the water into a cool mist made of very fine droplets. This is highly preferable to heat-based dryers, which use large amounts of energy to convert liquid water to steam and take twice as long as the ultrasonic approach. 

Momen and two partners launched a start-up in Knoxville, Tennessee, called Ultrasonic Technology Solutions (UTS) to commercialize ORNL’s technology, with an exclusive license in industrial and commercial fields of use. Because Momen is continuing to work at ORNL, the lab’s Technology Transfer Office worked closely with the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a conflict of interest mitigation plan appropriate for this entrepreneurial activity. 

The original goal of ORNL’s technology, developed in collaboration with GE Appliances under a project funded by the DOE, was to create an ultrasonic residential clothes dryer that could save up to $900 million in consumer utility costs over 10 years and support the creation of 6,350 jobs. UTS is pursuing a separate commercialization approach focused on industrial applications.  

The decision to pursue the customized drying applications of the industrial sector — markets that can absorb the upfront costs of attaining greater energy efficiency — is expected to accelerate the development of new technologies to increase the energy efficiency of drying. 

This technology transfer success could also affect space exploration, thanks to a feasibility study funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The high costs associated with returning astronauts’ solid waste to Earth could be dramatically reduced with the ORNL technology. Furthermore, filtering and reusing the water ultrasonically removed from solid waste would reduce the amount of water needed to be launched into space. This would in turn save payload weight and mass, freeing up storage space and/or reducing spacecraft propellant costs. 

Please view their press release here.

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