Somenath Mitra, a distinguished professor of chemistry and environmental science at NJIT and a groundbreaking researcher in the field of environmental monitoring, was inducted last week into the National Academy of Inventors at a ceremony at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
The ceremony, which was held as part of the NAI's fifth annual conference, welcomed 168 new fellows to the academy. They join nearly 600 inventors from more than 190 research universities, government agencies and non-profit research institutions who, in the words of the Academy, “have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.”
Andrew Hirshfeld, the USPTO commissioner, and Cristin Dorgelo chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) gave keynote speeches on the importance of science and technology to world progress and economic growth. Together, the 2015 fellows account for 5,368 issued U.S. patents.
Mitra has achieved global prominence for his work in several areas, including trace measurements and diverse nanotechnology applications ranging from flexible batteries, to solar cells, to sea water desalination. His work in real-time trace measurement plays a central role in environmental monitoring. He has, for example, developed a variety of air monitoring techniques for parts-per-billion-level measurements in ambient air and industrial stacks.
His work in the area of microwave-induced carbon nanotube purification and functionalization has wide-ranging applications in areas from polymer composites to thin films and nanoelectronics. Related developments for which he received significant recognition were the development of flexible batteries and solar cells using carbon nanotube composites. The resulting batteries can be painted on flexible substrates, even with an inkjet printer. Through nanotube technology, he has also advanced the development of sensors for use in the continuous real-time monitoring of organic contaminants in air and water and devices to purify water.
Mitra has been issued 11 patents, including three this year. In May, he was awarded a patent for a next-generation water desalination and purification technology that uses uniquely absorbent carbon nanotubes to remove salt and pollutants from brackish water and industrial effluent for reuse by businesses and households. His new carbon nanotube immobilized membrane (CNIM) is an energy-efficient device designed to filter higher concentrations of salt than is currently feasible through reverse osmosis, one of the standard industry processes. It is also used to remove pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – chemicals routinely used in solvents – from water. His distillation process runs on energy-efficient fuels such as waste heat, an industrial by-product, and solar energy. This patent was featured in Chemical and Engineering News in August.
“There is a huge and growing demand for potable water coming from developing nations that are modernizing their infrastructure to improve living conditions. At the same time, droughts caused by climate change are reducing supply in many regions of the world, including parts of the U.S.,” Mitra said at the time. “Our hope is to expand the supply of water in places that really need it, while also reducing costs for industry.”
Mitra, who has conducted research on carbon nanotubes for the past 15 years, created a novel architecture for the membrane distillation process by immobilizing carbon nanotubes, which are an atom thick and about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair in diameter, in the membrane pores. One of the key characteristics of carbon nanotubes is their capacity to both rapidly absorb water vapor as well as industrial contaminants, including VOCs, and then easily release them.