Idaho company, Positron Systems, could help NASA test parts from shuttle-Technology can detect even the tiniest weakness

A Boise company´s emerging technology could prove useful in ensuring future space shuttle safety and assist in the investigation of the Columbia space shuttle disaster.

Julie Howard
The Idaho Statesman

Positron Systems, a start-up incorporated in 2001, already had garnered interest from companies involved in the shuttle before Saturday´s Columbia disaster because of patented technology that allows it to determine structural weakness at the subatomic level.

The technology detects damage to metals and composite materials that is invisible to the eye and before surface flaws or cracks develop.

The company has received interest and funding from the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and the National Science Foundation over the past year for its research and development efforts.

“We believe we have a technology that could be of interest to NASA, and if they contact us we would be happy to discuss applications with them,” said Scott Ritchie, director of operations for Positron.

Doug Akers, inventor of the technology and a nuclear physicist at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, said the company´s previous work with shuttle contractors has brought the Idaho company to the attention of NASA.

Akers joined with Steve Bolen, one of the original founders of Boise´s Extended Systems software company, to form Positron and license the technology from INEEL for commercial use.

“At this point we don´t know if we´ll be involved (in the Columbia investigation), but we do have one project coming up that has to do with aging problems in the shuttle,” said Akers, referring to a pending proposal.

That project would look at life expectancy predictions for various materials and parts of the shuttle, he said.

Akers still works at the INEEL site east of Idaho Falls but, through a progressive leave of absence program there, these days he focuses solely on Positron´s technology advancement. Positron´s testing facility and equipment reside at the Idaho State University Accelerator Center in Pocatello and have been up and running through 2002, said Bolen.

Positron maintains its headquarters in northwest Boise.

The Idaho Accelerator Center has operated since 1994 in partnership with the INEEL and the Department of Energy. Accelerators are used to study subatomic particles.

The complicated technology can be explained in this way: First, ISU´s accelerator is used to shoot beams of charged particles at an item. Positrons — electron antimatter or positively charged electrons — become trapped in defective areas and collide with electrons, which are negatively charged. Positron´s technology detects the unique energy characteristics that are emitted in this process.

The process can detect subatomic changes and can indicate the first signs of fatigue well before anything becomes visible.

On Tuesday, Positron announced its third grant through the Department of Defense´s Small Business Innovation Research program. The most recent award came from the U.S. Navy.

That and previous grants have enabled the company to start test projects for the military and can lead to further awards and contracts.

“Their technology is very nice and I think it´ll go a long ways,” said Frank Harmon, director of ISU´s Accelerator Center, adding that the technology can be used in developing items as trivial as golf clubs and as significant as military equipment.

Bolen, who cited privacy reasons in declining to discuss specific clients, said the company´s current revenue stream comes from commercial clients seeking testing for research and development and maintenance studies. Beyond military applications, the company is targeting the energy, automotive and aircraft industries.

“There´s an incredible amount of potential here,” said Bolen. “Aircraft engines, for instance, operate under a tremendous amount of heat and pressure. Those parts have to be replaced before they fail, because failure can be catastrophic.”

Maintenance schedules that rely on mathematical probabilities determine when various industries replace parts.

The railroad industry, Bolen said, spends $300 million a year replacing tracks and wheels to guard against infrastructure failure and derailments, but replacement is done on a schedule and is not based only upon visible wear.

Bridges, nuclear reactors and pipes are other structures that can be tested with Positron´s technology.

Akers, who worked on the technology over a 10-year-period at INEEL, was primarily concerned with detecting flaws in nuclear waste container seals, still a potential application for the technology.

Seeing the broad potential for other industries, the INEEL decided to offer the technology for licensing, soliciting business plans and ultimately awarding worldwide rights to Akers and Bolen.

Positron is in the process of developing mobile devices that can be sold to companies or governmental entities and plans to have those devices ready later this year.

“We generated revenue last year, and this year we´re currently at three times that level in backlog,” said Bolen. “As a company, we´re still validating ourselves. But companies are seeing that our technology is sounding pretty good.”

To offer story ideas or comments, contact Julie Howard
[email protected] or 373-6618

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