An incontrovertible fact of Alaska life means black ice can spin cars out of control and winter snow dumps take up precious asphalt space meant for cars.
At least, that’s the accepted normal.
A new invention market-tested by University of Alaska Anchorage professor Joey Yang shows promise for help. Called Tundra Tape, it’s a technology buried in concrete that melts ice before it has a chance to form on sidewalks, parking lot pads and highway corners known as the most egregious culprits of black ice.
Tundra Tape, now with a $75,000 private investment infusion from the Alaska Accelerator Fund, is being marketed under the newly formed Arctic Heat Technologies Inc., formerly called CFT (Carbon Fiber Tape) Solutions.
Yang formed CFT in 2013 as a startup, but found as a fulltime engineering professor he couldn’t also serve as a fulltime CEO. His invention had turned into a business idea and in order to have a go at market success, it would need a new corporate structure.
The new investment allows just that: a business infrastructure to respond to market demands. Now construction contractors and others will be able to order Tundra Tape kits for specific projects.
“People were calling me left and right,” Yang said.
Even with a graduate student’s assistance, he wasn’t able to respond to the market inquiries that flooded in over the past two years.
Under the new corporate structure, Tim Allen will be president of Arctic Heat Technologies. He brings worldwide industrial product and marketing experience.
The initial board of directors will include Yang and UAA Vice Provost Helena Wisniewski along with Forrest Nabors, UAA assistant professor and Alaska Accelerator Fund member, and Carl Swanson, accelerator fund investor, who recently retired from Davis Constructors.
Yang’s invention, the Tundra Tape, is a carbon fiber based tape that can be placed beneath concrete to heat surfaces via a power grid. The tape is installed in two UAA campus walkways: the main entrance to the new Engineering and Industry Building, and the north entrance at University Lake Annex.
The carbon fiber’s unassuming black gunny-sack like appearance belies its endurance.
“This is what strengthens columns in a seismic event. It’s used in airplane construction that needs to be lightweight and strong. It’s used in bike frames,” Yang said. “It has a high strength-to-weight ratio. It can conduct electricity when connected to a power grid.”
The power source hooks to alternative sources, wind and solar, or traditional gas and electric, and with time-temperature devices, can automatically turn-on.
Because it’s made of carbon, it doesn’t corrode or age. Yang sheathed it in an insulating sleeve to isolate the tape from the environment. He uses multiple parallel lay-down patterns: narrow for a sidewalk, broader distribution across a giant pad meant for melting a snow dump, or rounded for highway curves prone to black ice.
“They would then be reconfiguring the assembly, which has flexibility,” Yang said.
Cook Inlet Housing Authority used the tape for a melting pad at its senior housing complex on Peck Avenue.
“Snow takes up a lot of space when it’s stored. You see it all over town in the winter. The Municipality (of Anchorage) is considering it for snow management,” he said.
The Alaska Department of Transportation is excited about the possibilities on heavily-trafficked winter highway corridors.
“DOT is also looking at cross walks, ramps, bridges — anywhere black ice is a problem. It can save lives and all the time and money society has to absorb when the highways shut down,” Yang said.
Other sidewalk heating technology is dependent on expensive energy systems and hardware such as piping that runs underground pumping glycol and water. Some public buildings throughout Alaska have used that type of system. The lifespan is typically shorter because frost can disturb piping.
“One problem is bursting pipes. When glycol seeps into the ground, it’s toxic. Glycol is expensive. That system has a lot of moving parts and piping; you can’t afford to lose glycol into the ground,” Yang said. “Carbon fiber is more stable. It’s not as expensive and it should last many years with no maintenance.”
Yang’s expertise is in geotechnical and earthquake engineering. He has maintained an active research program with particular interests in cold regions. But it was a family visit that turned his attention to finding a solution for slick sidewalks.
“In the winter of 2009-2010, my mother and father-in-law were visiting from China,” Yang said. “My father-in-law went outside to take our daughter to school and it was right after a freeze-thaw-freeze cycle of weather. He fell down on the ice and broke his thumb.”
Fortunately, it wasn’t worse.
“I thought there has got to be a solution for this, and the many winter accidents. That’s when I started looking at carbon fiber,” Yang said.
The fabric is composed mostly of carbon atoms. To produce it, the atoms are bonded together in crystals that are more or less aligned parallel to the long axis of the fiber. Several thousand carbon fibers are bundled together to form a “tow,” a textile industry term for pre-woven fiber, which may be used by itself or woven into a fabric.
Business of startups
That UAA has startup companies of its own may come as a surprise.
Business ownership is a new development at the university. UAA launched Seawolf Holdings in 2012, establishing a pathway toward commercialization of UAA research. To date, UAA has 50 invention disclosures, with 52 patents filed and 11 patents issued.
Arctic Heat Technologies is one of four startups formed in Alaska based on the research of UAA faculty.
The move is thanks to the efforts of Dr. Helen Wisniewski, the UAA vice provost for research and graduate studies. She now serves as president of UAA’s Seawolf Holdings LLC, and arranged and negotiated the deal for Tundra Heat Technologies with Ky Holland, one of the Alaska Accelerator Fund’s managers.
Wisniewski was hired in 2012 from Stevens Institute of Technology, a private university in Hoboken, N.J., established in 1870 that focuses on inventions and technology.
There, she served as vice president for university research, responsible for $22 million that went into the university’s budget from the sale of startups she helped get off the ground.
Stevens alumni invented IMAP, a modern form of email, and bubble wrap. Another, Frederick Reines, received the Nobel prize after discovering the neutrino, which validated the “Big Bang” theory of the universe’s creation.
Wisniewski, whose PhD is in mathematics, also served in the CIA as well as for the Lockheed Corp., and Titan Corp.
When Wisniewski came to UAA, it had no startups.
“We now have four,” she said. “There were two patents pending; now there are 52. A lot of talent was here, professors and students were involved in a lot of research projects, but no one was taking the time to commercialize, to package the products.”
Holland, one of the managers of the Alaska Accelerator Fund and an Alaska Pacific University assistant professor of business administration management, helped connect Wisniewski to the invesment for Arctic Heat Technologies Inc. The company recently received $75,000 investment by the Alaska Accelerator Fund, with another $225,000 under consideration.
Wisniewski calculates the fund’s management team will enable the startup to grow more rapidly. Profits from the startups then feed into funding more university research, she said.
“Now (the tape) is in the production stage in California, but manufacturing is planned to be done here in Anchorage,” Yang said.
“When you see something coming out of your lab and going to the community and new markets, it’s very satisfying. In this case, it has potential to save lives.”
Yang’s research projects moved on, however. Working with Phillippe Amstislavsk, he has created insulation for housing and other construction made of fungus and wood chips.
Under another UAA startup, Rhizoform LLC, Yang and Amstislavsk fully developed and engineered a system to manufacture ASTM-rated insulation board and other bio-insulation products locally. They are now licensed for manufacture and marketing. That meant yet another startup was created: Rhizoform LLC.
Yang and Amstislavsk recently won Best in University System Startups Award for Rhizoform, awarded by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer, and up against projects from John Hopkins University and Princeton.
At a time when the University of Alaska system struggles to fund programs after absorbing $25 million in budget cuts over the past three years, such innovations have the potential to do a couple of things.
Since 2013, UAA has experienced growth in research and commercialization. Its fiscal year 2016 total grant awards increased to $40.2 million, up from $38 million in 2015.
“And we can use innovations as a recruitment tool to reach potential students who want to come to here and join us in experiential learning. They can take part in innovation projects that eventually go to market,” Yang said.
The university receives a portion of profits from startups it forms, and it shares profits with the inventors. Even graduate students share in the financial benefits of projects they patent.