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Two from MIT win Discover Awards

Professor James G. Fujimoto and Dr. Daniel R. Cohn have won 1999 Discover Magazine Awards for Technological Innovation, sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Foundation.

Dr. Fujimoto, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, was recognized for optical coherence tomography (OCT), a new system for performing noninvasive high-resolution, cross-sectional tomographic imaging. Dr. Cohn, a senior research scientist and head of the Plasma Technology Division in the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) won for a micro-plasmatron fuel converter that reduces vehicular pollution.

Their awards were presented June 5 at the 10th annual awards ceremony at Epcot/Walt Disney World Resorts in Florida.

The ceremony was "very inspiring," Dr. Cohn said, bringing together inventors in nine categories for a weekend of networking. Twenty-seven finalists were present at the gala from the original field of 4,000.

Competitors in the transportation category were Dr. Cohn's microplasmatron fuel convertor; Toyota's Prius (a hybrid car blending conventional features with electric power); and NASA's intelligent flight control system, which allows a plane to keep flying when it loses a flap.

Professor Fujimoto's competitors in the medical diagnostics category were a new type of microscopy developed by Cornell University and Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies, and an application from Arcturus Engineering and the National Institutes of Health that facilitates studying small groups of cells.

Professor Fujimoto's winning invention is a system for performing noninvasive, high-resolution, cross-sectional tomographic imaging. Measuring the intensity of back-reflected infrared lights (as opposed to sound waves), OCT has a resolution more than 10 times greater than conventional ultrasound.

OCT, said Professor Fujimoto, can perform "optical biopsies," imaging at a resolution approaching conventional biopsy but in real time and without the need for removing tissue. OCT was invented in 1991 and was first applied in ophthalmic imaging. An ophthalmic diagnostic product was introduced in 1996 and the imaging technique is now used in leading eye research clinics around the world.

Recent advances have enabled imaging in a wide range of tissues and organ systems, Professor Fujimoto said. Preliminary clinical studies in cancer detection and in imaging the gastrointestinal and pulmonary tracts and the female reproductive system are under way.


Dr. Cohn's fuel converter, which is about the size of a beer mug, works as an onboard "oil refinery," converting a wide variety of fuels into high-quality, hydrogen-rich gas. Adding only a small amount of such gas to the fossil fuel powering a car reduces emissions of pollutants like nitrogen oxides by up to 90 percent.

"This device could greatly reduce air pollution from cars, trucks and buses, using present internal combustion engine technology, without a major increase in costs and without any inconvenience to the driver," said Dr. Cohn. "Thus, it could be possible to have a significant effect on the environment within the next decade."

Dr. Cohn's colleagues on the work are PSFC principal research engineer Leslie Bromberg and PSFC research engineer Alexander Rabinovich. "This work is a spinoff from the PSFC's fusion activities," said Dr. Cohn.

Collaborating with Drs. Cohn, Bromberg and Rabinovich were Jeffrey E. Surma and Jud Virden at the Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Charles H. Titus of T&R Associates also collaborated with the MIT team.

The new device is a kind of electrical gas heater known as a plasmatron. Fuel injected into the plasmatron is exposed to an arc of electricity that turns the fuel and surrounding air into an electrically charged gas, or plasma. The plasma accelerates reaction rates, allowing the production of hydrogen-rich gas in a compact device.

The microplasmatron fuel converter facilitates the use of alternative fuels, such as natural gas, diesel oil and oils derived from biomass. The relatively clean emissions from natural gas cars can be made much cleaner, Dr. Cohn said. In addition, biomass derived oils, which ordinarily are hard to use, might in the longer term be used in internal combustion engines. These fuels could be derived from rapidly growing trees, which absorb CO2 and therefore greenhouse gas emission might be substantially reduced.

Plasmatrons have traditionally been used to produce hydrogen-rich gas for industrial applications such as metallurgical processing. They are usually quite large -- about the size of a car engine -- and require large amounts of electrical power.

"Our key step was the development of a compact, efficient, high-throughput, plasma hydrogen generator," said Dr. Cohn. "You can hold the device in your hands, operate it at low power (around one kilowatt) and can process difficult-to-use fuels. We have processed canola and Mazola oils."

This work is supported by the Department of Energy's Office of Heavy Vehicle Technologies. "We'd been considering these applications for some time, but it wasn't until we received this DOE funding that we could really move forward to try to validate our concepts for vehicular applications," Dr. Cohn said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).

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