Wyoming company’s robot key to Brookhaven research breakthrough

By KIM KITTEL I  Wyoming Business Council

A Wyoming company’s sample exchange robot recently helped staff at a premier New York physics lab generate their first scientific result using a new high-powered x-ray imaging machine.

The 250-pound robotic arm at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island was created by Square One Systems Design of Jackson, Wyo. It switches samples inside a hutch full of heat, radioactivity and x-ray beams lethal to humans. The technology allows scientists to expedite research into drug discovery, solar energy, use of high-temperature superconductors and development of the next generation of nuclear power systems.

“It is a very tedious, time-consuming process to (manually) exchange a sample,” said Bob Viola, founder and director of engineering at Square One. “The entire process can take 15, 20 minutes.”

Viola estimated the robotic sample exchange process improves the rate of production in experimental research by a factor of 10 or more, because researchers no longer have to wait for experiments to end in order to switch samples.

This isn’t the first robot of its kind Square One has built.

In 2005, the company began a feasibility study and ultimately built a prototype of the sample exchange robot for Oakridge National Laboratory using the Wyoming Business Council-funded Wyoming Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 0 program for its seed funding.

The federal SBIR program encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research and development solutions that have the potential for commercialization. Wyoming created a Phase 0 SBIR program that provides up to 24 awards annually of $5,000 each to help Wyoming small businesses prepare competitive proposals for federal Phase I SBIR/STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) awards.

“Basically, it helps level the playing field for Wyoming’s companies by providing the assistance needed to get their foot in the door,” Wyoming Business Council Chief Executive Officer Shawn Reese said.

Square One was awarded a $5,000 Phase 0 award in November 2004 to determine the feasibility of its research and apply for an SBIR Phase I award from the U.S. Department of Energy. Square One ultimately received about $850,000 in Phase I and Phase II awards and used that funding to conduct research and build the prototype of the sample exchange robot.

“That initial $5,000 investment from the state of Wyoming has led to what is now commercial technology that is generating $1 million and counting in commercial contracts,” Viola said. 

Gene Watson, program manager for the Wyoming SBIR/STTR Initiative (WSSI), said Square One’s success underscores the importance of the program to Wyoming’s small research companies.

“Square One’s success in transforming itself from a one-person design activity into a product development and production enterprise is a great example of what innovative entrepreneurs can achieve using Wyoming SBIR Phase 0 funding to raise $1 million or more in non-dilutive SBIR seed capital,” Watson said. “There is a growing number of similar Phase 0/SBIR tech-based success stories in Wyoming, leading the way towards a more diverse economic base.”

Road to Prosperity

Viola believes Square One has positioned itself for tremendous growth.

“There are maybe half a dozen other large physics labs around the country and it’s a rather tight-knit community,” Viola said. “I hope and believe that these other facilities will become aware of what we did at Brookhaven.”

Viola said a large Japanese company also known in the industry recently contracted parts of its bigger projects to Square One. The Jackson-based business also recently was awarded another Brookhaven lab project, with more expected.

“I don’t think we would have had a chance to bid, much less win them, if we hadn’t already demonstrated our competence and capabilities with this robot project,” Viola said. 

Viola said the SBIR program provided the only opportunity to fund his company’s business development.

“The kind of work we do is unique and not entirely accessible to the layman. Consequently, pitching its potential to a venture capitalist is much harder for them to appreciate than if I was pitching a more family consumer product. So, that avenue of funding has been closed to us,” Viola said. “The SBIR program is perfectly tailored to a company like ours. We can put together detailed proposals that describe the need and what our solution is, and those proposals are going to be reviewed by people who work in that field and can make an informed decision about whether what we’re proposing has potential.

“We couldn’t have bid this project if we hadn’t already developed the sample exchange technology to some level of technical maturity under a previous SBIR award,” Viola said.

Brookhaven Success

Back in Upton, N.Y., Brookhaven’s launch in November of its new National Synchrotron Light Source II figures to generate wide-ranging positive impacts on everything from human health to energy technology.

NSLS II provides world-leading capabilities for x-ray imaging and high-resolution energy analysis of material properties and functions. The machine uses a scientific technique called X-ray Powder Diffraction (XPD), which employs powerful x-ray beams on powder samples to determine the structural characterization of materials.

Square One’s robot will also enable landmark experiments of radioactive samples, according to a Brookhaven media release.

In November, scientists captured light for the first time at the XPD beamline and, with help from Square One’s robot, were able to conduct their first scientific sample run on XPD.

The sample consisted of sulfur-doped tantalum selenide, a new material system being studied by Cedomir Petrovic in the Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Sciences department at Brookhaven, according to the release from the lab.

The hope is this research will lead to understanding the phenomenon of unconventional high-temperature superconductivity, currently our best hope for technological devices for low loss power transmission, according to the release.


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