System for analysis at the liquid vacuum interface (SALVI)

Important scientific studies often require precise knowledge of the unique properties at the liquid-solid interface or at the liquid surface itself. Analyzing these interfacial or surface properties has proven difficult, if not impossible, because many key analytical instruments are vacuum-based. In such instruments, liquids normally evaporate before they can be analyzed. To overcome this problem, scientists have used sample holders to position liquids for analysis, but such holders are expensive and designed to fit a single instrument; and they also require specially designed cells. Scientists also tried freezing or drying samples for analysis in a static state, but always with concern about changing the liquid compared to its natural state.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) developed the System for Analysis at the Liquid Vacuum Interface (SALVI), a unique, self-contained, portable analytical tool that, for the first time, enables vacuum-based scientific instruments such as time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) to analyze liquid surfaces in their natural state at the molecular level. Using as few as two drops of liquid and requiring minimal sample preparation and no modifications to scientific instruments, SALVI allows scientists to understand complex liquids and develop advanced solutions to challenging problems, such as extending the life of batteries and eliminating biofilms that form resistance to antibiotics. R&D magazine named SALVI among the top 100 technology innovations for 2014, granting it a prestigious R&D 100 Award.

Knowing the potential SALVI could have on the advancement of science if it could be developed into a product by a commercial partner, PNNL initiated the process of finding that partner before the patent application on the technology was even filed. PNNL partnered with SPI Supplies, a division of Structure Probe, Inc. (SPI), to commercialize SALVI in March 2011. By 2014 a license was issued to SPI, which is currently taking orders for its commercial embodiment of the device, called Wet Cell II, on its website and through direct contact with its customers.

PNNL continues to apply SALVI to new research projects, expanding its applicability and use to SPI's potential customers in the scientific community. For example, SALVI is being used in nuclear magnetic resonance, an application not previously envisioned, and has proven the tool can be used to support important biological applications such as cancer research.

If SALVI had not been commercialized, a few scientists might have attempted to build and use their own versions based on information provided in PNNL's scientific publications. Instead, by transferring what was originally a new tool invented for PNNL's use into the broader scientific community via a commercial partner, PNNL and SPI dramatically expanded SALVI's potential impacts to science, enabling new research never before possible. SPI's new product line also contributes to the company's profitability and U.S. economic competitiveness.

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