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Winning Product in 2021 R&D 100 Awards Received Marketing Help from Haslam Students

November 15, 2021

It takes a village to raise a child, the saying goes. To nurture an idea from mental construct to marketable product, it takes several parties willing to work for years on a device that could very well fail.

Precision Deicer, an innovative road brine delivery system, came to fruition through just such labors. Recently among the winners in the Software/Services category for R&D World magazine’s highly regarded R&D 100 Awards, this successful creation stems from the efforts of:

  • Olufemi “Femi” Omitaomu, with Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, Budhendra "Budhu" Bhaduri, director of ORNL’s Geospatial Science and Human Security, and other ORNL staff, including Dan Koch, Christi R. Johnson, Frederick Kyle Reed and Matthew Garrett, who developed and refined the initial deicer prototypes
  • David Brace, the City of Knoxville’s (CoK) deputy mayor and COO, Chad Weth, the city’s public services director, and road crews from the city, who gave the ORNL scientists input on their snow/ice removal system and helped install and test an early Precision Deicer model on a CoK truck
  • Students from Fisher Professor of Innovative Learning Ernie Cadotte’s 2018-19 Innovation and Creativity classes in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, who evaluated the deicer and made recommendations regarding its commercial viability, as well as doing field work for the project
  • Kevin Homan, president of Clinch River Computing, LLC, who continues to refine the deicer and entered it into the R&D 100 Awards

“I am excited and honored for the Precision Deicer to be one of the R&D 100 winners,” Homan said. “I am also humbled, as I know it was a community as much as myself responsible for that honor.”

Omitaomu said this is not the first time applications on which he worked won a competition, but the R&D 100 is different. "It's like, 'This is something that you worked hard on, and it was found worthy by people who don't know you and aren't familiar with your expertise,'" he said. "That takes you to another stage in terms of research and development."

Bhaduri added, “What’s special about R&D 100 is the aspect of technology being licensed, so you have a place in the top 100 inventions that make a societal impact.”

Precision Deicer – A Long Development Journey

In 2015, Bhaduri and Omitaomu were pondering applications of Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging), which surveys the Earth’s surface via satellite using ultraviolet, infrared or near-visible light to closely map geographical and infrastructure features. Omitaomu thought it might be used to gauge which of a city’s streets are most susceptible to snow and ice based on their environmental conditions or topography (shaded, sloped, curvy, etc.). Over the next two years, they met with CoK representatives to exchange information about the deicer concept and the city’s deicing process, developed the computational and engineering framework for the Precision Deicer, created a laboratory prototype and demonstrated it to local media, and then explored equipping a Knoxville brine-dispensing truck with a more advanced version.

In early 2018, Cadotte asked Bhaduri about any inventions his students could study for marketing possibilities. Bhaduri suggested the deicer. Cadotte’s students surveyed the scientists and CoK public services staff about the deicer’s capabilities and challenges in deicing roads and made suggestions to improve its marketability. Cadotte also invited Homan to look at the device’s commercial applications from a technical perspective. In winter 2018-19, another prototype was successfully demoed on a CoK brine truck. Homan licensed the Precision Deicer from ORNL to pursue commercial applications.

Cadotte said, “It took people from multiple organizations to get together and work together. They were doing it because it was a good idea, but without knowing that it would ever amount to anything. Everybody took a chance. And it worked.”

Dissecting Deicers

Standard brine truck dispensers are gravity-induced with simple on/off mechanisms, so the brine (a mix of rock salt and magnesium chloride, dissolved in water) is spread on roads without considering relevant factors, such as the truck’s speed or the degree of snow/ice risk.

The Precision Deicer prototype equipped the dispenser with a variable control mechanism to optimize the amount of brine applied to roads, minimizing waste and conserving supplies. Additionally, a tablet read the LiDAR data and GPS AVL (automatic vehicle location) speed detection data to determine the amount of brine to use, based on the truck’s speed and the degree of risk presented by environmental conditions and topography. The tablet then communicated instructions to equipment attached to the truck, which regulated the amount of brine distributed by electronic solenoid valves.

Among Homan’s improvements to the Precision Deicer (now in its fifth iteration) are a user-friendly mechanism to calibrate flow rates; a system that verifies flow functionality; a feature that determines the most efficient application for a given route; and enhanced tablet-user interface, along with several more.

Group Effort Delivers Positive Outcomes

According to Omitaomu, Bhaduri and Homan, if municipalities use the Precision Deicer – especially smaller, rural communities – they should see not only economic benefits from conserving brine through more precise, targeted application, but other benefits, too, since deicing roads reduces potential loss of life and property damage. Also, runoff from salt and brine on roads harms wildlife, pollutes freshwater systems and corrodes infrastructure, so more efficient brine dispersal lessens those impacts.

Those who labored on the Precision Deicer’s evolution hailed the teamwork that led to its development. Bhaduri noted that partnership was key to the project’s success, saying, “This collaboration could be an inspiration and motivation to other scientists, professionals and business schools.”

Noting that COK still has one of the prototypes mounted on a brine truck, Weth said, I thought the whole process was great. We're fortunate to have a place like ORNL in our back yard and for them to partner with the students was a great idea.”

“I never thought I'd be collaborating on a product launch during my undergrad, let alone one that resulted in a marketable commercial product that involved working with entities like ORNL and the City of Knoxville,” said Selin Anitsal, who was in the Innovation and Creativity class at the time and is now a graduate assistant in marketing analytics at the University of Maryland.

Thanks to his contacts with other project collaborators, including those in the CoK public works department, Homan has been in meetings with county highway officials, who have agreed to test the product. Although he is still refining the Precision Deicer, as the latest wave of the Covid pandemic wanes, he is ready to start slowly rolling out the marketing of it.

“My goal is to change the industry to become more efficient and more environmentally friendly,” Homan said. “If either of those happen, then I will have achieved my goal and rest easy that I’ve honored the community of folks that have supported me and this effort.”