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HAMMOND | Say, hypothetically, a refinery spilled ammonia into Lake Michigan.

Emergency responders would have to go out, take samples in bottles and send them to a lab, which would need anywhere between 48 hours and seven days to determine how badly drinking water had been contaminated.

But a research team at Purdue University Calumet devised a way for them to know on the spot, in five minutes or so, how much ammonia contamination existed.

A team from the Purdue Calumet Water Institute and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, led by professor George Nnanna, secured a patent last year for a sensor that uses optics to measure the amount of ammonia contaminating water without any need for taking samples.

Even small amounts of ammonia can kill fish and pose a danger to people who consume it over a prolonged period. Purdue Cal's optical sensor can detect ammonia concentrations of as little as 1.4 parts per million, and it works in both stagnant or moving water.

The technology could reveal if a farm were polluting a nearby creek or thwart a terrorist trying to poison a water supply.

Nnanna and the Water Institute are working on similar sensors for mercury and vanadium, which also are commonly released during refinery discharges but which have different wavelengths on the optical spectrum.

Another research team at Purdue Cal led by professor Robert Kramer successfully patented and is now trying to commercialize a new coke-making process that would allow steelmakers to use lower-grade Indiana coal in an environmentally friendly way while producing byproducts they can sell like fertilizer, electricity and hydrogen.

Kramer is applying for a patent for a modular waste processing system that can use solar power to clean polluted waterways to create hydrogen, heat, electricity and potable water. Ethanol plants and craft breweries also could use it to capitalize on byproducts that now go to waste.

Such discoveries are taking place frequently at Purdue University, which has emerged as a patent powerhouse.

Last year, Purdue tied with the National Taiwan University for 16th worldwide in the number of patents, up from 27th the previous year, according to the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association. The university system had 93 patents last year, placing it ahead of Carnegie-Mellon, New York University, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and many other prestigious institutions of higher learning, both at home and abroad.

Internationally, it outpaced Kyoto University, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and King Saud University.

What about the Ivy League? Well, Purdue beat out Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Cornell. North Carolina's much vaunted research triangle? Purdue clobbered The University of North Carolina, Duke University and Wake Forest University.

"We set out two years ago to make Purdue 'Entrepreneur U' by lowering every barrier and providing any support we could identify to enable our world-class faculty to move their research from lab to market," Purdue University President Mitch Daniels said. "This ranking joins other developments, such as back-to-back years of record startup companies, as markers of real progress in becoming an economic engine for Indiana and the nation."

Ball State University professors secured no patents last year, while Indiana University secured 25, placing it 86th worldwide. Indiana University Northwest and Valparaiso University, which focus more on academic areas that involve less patentable research, received none in 2014.

Purdue Cal in Hammond recently secured patents for the water contamination sensor and the coke optimization process for steelmaking. Wei He, an assistant professor at Purdue University North Central, also obtained a patent during the last fiscal year.

The West Lafayette-based Purdue University system has more than 400 research laboratories and 139 research centers and institutes. The Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization also is active in helping Purdue inventors land patents and move technology to the market.

More than 240 faculty and staff innovations are expected to be licensed to startups and businesses this year. Purdue just posted record-breaking commercialization numbers for the second straight year after launching 40 startups, which earned more than $25 million in venture funding and created 75 new jobs.

"It was certainly cause to celebrate last year's record in commercialization activities, but to follow such an occurrence with another record-breaking year demonstrates that there is something bigger happening at Purdue," Daniels said. "These back-to-back increases represent a meaningful shift in the way Purdue's outstanding faculty, staff and students are managing the commercialization of their innovations."

Patents were up 14 percent, and invention disclosures rose 12 percent in the last fiscal year, which ended at the end of June. More than 130 Purdue-related entities secured licensing deals for more than 241 technologies.

Academics at Purdue get the time to pursue innovation, professor Libbie Pelter said. Pelter has worked with Kramer in developing the waste processing module and the coke process that can use 40 percent lower-rank coal from southern Indiana in an environmentally friendly manner. The local steel industry requested such research, which could potentially reduce their exposure to volatile spot-market coke prices.

"The university has been very supportive," she said. "They've been very supportive of us using our time in pursuit of research."

A few companies have expressed interest in acquiring rights to the coke technology the team developed.

Kramer's research team focuses on projects that have multiple benefits, such as generating clean water and electricity. 

"Our philosophy is that projects shouldn't have only one value," he said. "Markets change, so you want your process to have multiple value streams. We want to be realistic about getting products out into actual usage."

Utility companies and the agriculture sector potentially could use Purdue Cal Water Institute innovations like the optical sensor, Nnanna said.

"Developing patents and commercializing them puts the university at the leading edge of technology," Nnanna said. "Developing the technology continues to make the university relevant."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.