UNM Rainforest Innovations

The STC.UNM Innovation Fellow Award recognizes the achievements of prolific innovators at the University of New Mexico. Proliferate (as in rapidly multiply, expand, accelerate, mushroom) is a good word to use in describing the breadth of research endeavors, relationships, and collaborations of the recipient of the 2014 STC.UNM Innovation Fellow Award, Dr. Plamen B. Atanassov. An outstanding example of how one individual can have a tremendous impact on fostering a culture of innovation, Dr. Atanassov is a one-man rainforest of proliferating creativity and economic output.

Dr. Atanassov, a Professor in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering, has been a faculty member at the University of New Mexico for 22 years, with valuable time also spent as an industry scientist. He came to UNM in 1992 as a member of the research faculty in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering and rose through the ranks to Research Assistant Professor. Most of his research during this time period focused on biomedical engineering and developing implantable sensors and environmental sensors for monitoring food pathogens. His biosensor technologies were designed to detect bacteria, viruses, pesticides and heavy metal pollutants. The design improved upon traditional immunoassay techniques used in medical labs. Called a flow-through amperometric immunofiltration as- say system, the sensor was essentially a filter loaded with antibodies that counted the pathogens and contaminants electrochemically. The platform was patented and licensed to MesoSystems Technology, Inc. Other biosensors were developed, including an intravascular needle that could monitor glucose and lactate levels in patients in shock due to massive blood loss, and an implantable glucose sensor and insulin pump for diabetic patients. During this time, he also started a company supported by Technology Ventures Corporation.

In 1999, Dr. Atanassov left UNM briefly to join a very successful UNM start-up called Superior Micropowders LLC as the lead research scientist and project manager. The company was founded by former UNM faculty Toivo Kodas and Mark Hampden-Smith. Superior Micropowders was located in the I-25 technology corridor in Albuquerque and grew to employ 200 people. The company developed a new spray-based method for electrocatalysts. The method was very useful because it was scalable and could be applied to a variety of materials due to its ability to control particle size, composition, porosity and structure. Performance was five times better than conventional catalysts. In 2003, Superior Micropowders was sold for $16 million to Cabot Corporation when that company came to Albuquerque to establish an R&D manufacturing center.

In 2000, Dr. Atanassov returned to UNM to join the teaching faculty in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering. In 2007 he founded and became the first director of the Center for Emerging Energy Technologies (CEET), a research center at UNM’s School of Engineering devoted to conduct-
ing innovative research in sustainable energy technologies. The Center provides a rich environment for engineering faculty and students to interact with researchers from national labs, other universities and industry to develop and commercialize new materials, devices and systems that are energy efficient, clean and renewable. CEET’s goal is to become the lead organization for an NSF Engineering Research Center and/or a DOE Innovation Hub. In 2011, Dr. Atanassov served as the Associate Dean for Research at the School of Engineering where he hopes, as he modestly states, that he “contributed to the School’s research portfolio.” Dr. Atanassov stepped down as Associate Dean at the end of 2013 to return to the teaching faculty and “couldn’t be happier.” Dr. Joseph Cecchi, Dean of the School of Engineering (SOE), and colleague in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering,commented on Dr. Atanassov’s contributions to the SOE and UNM: “Professor Atanassov has made SOE a world leader in the field of alternative energy. His work as an inventor and entrepreneur in the area of fuel cells has made UNM well known among the major automakers in the world. His non-platinum catalyst technology was recently highlighted at the Tokyo Motor Show. Furthermore, Professor Atanassov is having a large impact in the development of the New Mexico economy, collaborating with local companies such as Pajarito Powder (a Verge Company), Pucara Engineering and Batterade LLC both student/alumni-owned start-ups), ICx (formerly MesoSystems), Intelligent Energy (formerly Meso-Fuel), XF-Tech (formerly Incitor), and several others.”

An electrochemist, his research interests since 2000 have mostly gravitated to energy materials. “In a way it is a homecoming because I started my career as a research scientist in the late 1980s at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ Central Laboratory of Electrochemical Power Sources in Sofia, focusing on batteries and fuel cells. The research I’ve been doing since 2000 closely corresponds to my beginnings as a scientist.” Engaging in energy materials research over the past 14 years has allowed him to build a portfolio of fuel-cell and bio fuel-cell technologies. His lab is nationally and internationally well known for its research in non-platinum catalysts and biological fuel cells. “The lab’s technologies have been extremely well protected and commercialized by STC, one of the best functioning units at UNM. We are trying to provide solutions for either low-rate energy harvesting with bio fuel cells or with replacing expensive and scarce platinum with generally available materials mostly based on iron, carbon and nitrogen for platinum-free automotive fuel-cell technology.”

A good part of his research is dedicated to designing catalysts for fuel cells, primary among those is designing non-platinum electrocatalysts. Catalysts are important in many industrial processes, but concerns over greenhouse gases and oil consumption have focused energy research today on alternative fuel sources. A fuel cell is a device that changes a fuel’s chemical energy into electricity by chemically reacting with oxygen or another oxidizing agent (usually hydrogen and methanol). Through this process, fuel cells are able to produce clean electricity (byproducts are primarily water and heat, depending on the fuel source). The catalyst helps the fuel to oxidize so fuel-cell efficiency is determined by how well the catalyst performs. The catalysts of choice for fuel cells are platinum group metals because they are durable and highly active in reducing oxygen reactions. However, platinum is scarce, making it very expensive and an obstacle to widespread commercialization of fuel cells. First, Dr. Atanassov developed a non-precious metal electrocatalyst and worked with the Army Research Office to make a small 20 watt fuel cell. The new catalyst had an open-frame structure and an increased surface area which made the catalyst more efficient. Now he and his team have made a big innovative jump in creating a platinum-free catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells.

In 2012 local start-up Pajarito Powder was created by cofounders Tom Stephenson and Paul Short and has licensed a portfolio of Dr. Atanassov’s non-platinum cathode catalyst technologies for fuel cells. Stephenson explains: “Fuel cells represent a tremendous opportunity for the efficient and clean production of electricity. In particular, it is the only viable alternative to the internal combustion engine for longer-haul transportation applications. However, the market adoption of fuel cells has been hampered by the fact that fuel cells are too expensive. The primary reason they are too expensive is that they depend upon catalysts made of precious metals, like platinum. Pajarito Powder was created to solve that problem and bring affordable fuel cell catalysts to market.” Dr. Atanassov is also working with Daihatsu Motor Company on the development of his anion-exchange membrane fuel cell technology, optioned from STC, that will use the non-platinum catalyst for automotive applications.

He also has a relatively large portfolio of biocatalysts for energy harvesting—essentially designing enzymatic and microbial biological fuel cells. Enzymes are appealing catalysts because they are naturally designed, low cost, and have a wide variety of applications from medical devices to micro-electro-mechanical systems. Dr. Atanassov has been advising two new companies started by some of his students who have taken exclusive options to his biofuel cell technologies. Batterade LLC is working to commercialize his paper-based biofuel cells technology (co-invented with Dr. Scott Sibbett) that is capable of charging small electronics such as cellphones with sugar, and Pucara Engineering and Logistics LLC is working to commercialize a portfolio of innovative biofuel cell technologies.

For Dr. Atanassov, the importance of patents in protecting his valuable technology portfolio starts with the disclosure process. He has a very personal approach to deciding what a good idea is as evidenced by the file cabinet in his office with drawers labeled “great ideas,” “crazy ideas,” “so-so ideas,” and “dumb ideas.” Dr. Atanassov and his co-inventors disclosed a lot of great ideas in 2013 with 21 disclosed inventions, representing 15% of total UNM disclosures in FY2013! He states: “Invention disclosures are the direct spark of new ideas that are reported. I think patents are extremely important because we work at the interface of academic research, national lab research and industry, and patent protection gives us the ability to assert our innovation and to propagate our ideas in this complex, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional, multidirectional kind of environment. We currently have research associations with many companies in the automotive world, in the materials world and also with companies that design boutique fuel cells for military applications.

“The second level of patent value comes with licensing agreements. Through the licensing agreement there is an industrial entity that comes and says, ‘yes, I like it, I need it and I’m ready to pay for it.’ Licensing agreements do verify that the patent investment is the right decision. So, patents and the commercial activity that come with them are very valuable and we need to engage in it. But we also should be careful not to substitute the evaluation of research productivity of faculty with our economic development efforts. Economic development efforts and the development of an IP portfolio is a very important component of a serious engineering school but it results from a serious, fundamental applied research program. It is not the beginning of it—it is the end of it. That is my personal opinion—but I have a personal opinion on almost anything!”

Dr. Atanassov has high praise for his team of researchers and co-inventors. “I’m lucky to be associated with a fantastic set of people. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for my close collaborators, associates, and students, both undergraduate and graduate. I’m extremely lucky to be immersed in the product of their intellectual endeavor. My laboratory has kind of self-organized over the last 15 years into materials synthesis, materials characterization, and materials theory. There is also a component of biological fuel cells, or a bio electrochemistry lab. Through the years, I have always had 1-3 postdocs, then some of them stayed for a longer period of time, and manifesting their strong adherence to the institution and the lab, they became research faculty, or they were recruited as research faculty.

“The people who currently lead these research areas are all highly professional, highly accomplished individuals. Kateryna Artyushkova, who is the Associate Director for the Center for Emerging Energy Technologies and an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering, has been working in collaboration with me and other faculty for approximately 10 years. She has been a key contributor to materials characterization research. She has brought her art, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, to the point that she is an expert in catalyst characterization and evaluation. Alexey Serov, a Research Assistant Professor who is currently leading the lab in material synthesis re- search, is a materials chemist who is an extremely talented and productive scientist and co-inventor on many of the technologies in my portfolio. Alexey spent his formative years at Samsung, so he’s an industrial scientist who now operates in a university environment as an exceptional researcher and inventor. Sofia Babanova, Research Assistant Professor at CEET, leads the bio electrochemistry component of the lab, has expertise in microbial fuel cells and has strengthened our enzymatic bio fuel-cell research, which is internationally recognized. We have three STTR Phase II funding grants in this area which has brought industry-supported funding in biological fuel cells on a par with our DOE-funding for fuel-cell technology. Another young and very taIented scientist is helping us understand the quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics computation in the biological engineering part of the group. Ivana Gonzales is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering and comes to us from Los Alamos National Lab. I have enjoyed a long-term collaboration with New Mexico State University physicist Dr. Boris Kiefer who specializes in computational material science and who has been the de facto lead in the computational and theory component of the lab. He has published many papers with our group and collaborated on several large, national grants and we continue to collaborate. So, these are the research faculty associated with the group.

“We try to expand our relationship beyond the formal appointments with other collaborations. Linnea Ista, Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Biomedical Engineering, is an environmental microbiologist who is helping us a great deal. We have 3-4 post-doctoral fellows and 18 graduate students—12 of them in the lab and the rest at Los Alamos and Sandia—who are pursuing their advanced degrees while working for us. The lab is home to about 6-7 undergraduates at any given time (and I do know their names!) Many of them are daughters and sons of colleagues and other faculty at UNM. Every summer we provide research experiences for undergraduates through a fantastic NSF program that has been managed by Dr. Abhaya Datye for many years. It has given us the opportunity to recruit students locally, nationally and internationally. I like to teach senior classes in order to be able to recruit our most successful undergraduates and keep them in the program. We are very lucky to have so many interdisciplinary programs at UNM, such as the Nanoscience & Microsystems (NSMS) and the biomedical engineering programs. Half of my doctoral students are from the NSMS program.”

Plamen Atanassov is an influential innovator. He propagates and validates qualities that are conducive to innovation, such as diversity, trust, openness, and paying it forward. He easily crosses disciplines, which means his ideas are original and lead to new science. He has remarkable engineering skills, which means his well-designed technologies are easily adapted into products. And everything he does is done in his own inimitable style, which is to say with a healthy dose of whimsy! The STC.UNM Board of Directors is proud to bestow the 2014 Innovation Fellow Award on Dr. Plamen B. Atanassov.

Skip to content