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By Teri Carnicelli
NSWC Port Hueneme Division
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) successfully patented the process of applying a “smart” fiberoptic system between a metal surface and its protective coating in order to detect the beginnings of corrosion at the microscopic level, opening the door for wider applications through a licensing agreement with a commercial company.
The patent was awarded in November to Armen Kvryan, NSWC PHD’s materials subject matter expert, as the primary contributor, and the late Lt. Cmdr. Todd Coursey as the secondary contributor.
“Todd did a lot of early work on this project and I felt it was important that his name be on the patent,” Kvryan said.
The patented corrosion detection process makes use of NASA’s Fiber Optic Sensing Systems, or FOSS. FOSS is a technology that utilizes specialized, commercially available optical fiber combined with a data collection device to gather real-time information related to pressure, temperature, weight, deformation and strain on complex systems and equipment.
In 2019, NSWC PHD partnered with NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, to build and test a type of micro-sized FOSS, called microFOSS.
“NASA developed FOSS; what I did is create a spinoff of that technology specifically for corrosion detection,” which later became known as CorrFOSS, Kvryan explained.
Tiny sensors live inside FOSS, an optical fiber cable the width of a human hair, which can be affixed to the surfaces of ships beneath the paint layer and connected to any commercial-off-the-shelf data collection system. CorrFOSS can be used to measure slight changes in surfaces, such as when metal starts to oxidize, which makes them able to watch for and track corrosion.
“This smart fiberoptic system can detect even the smallest of changes,” Kvryan said. “The sensitivity of that fiber is extremely high since it is based on shifts in wavelength, and not physical appearance.”
According to Kvryan, the biggest challenge with corrosion is by the time you see it, the affected material has already corroded significantly. FOSS, however, can nondestructively evaluate corrosion growth.
“Metallic coatings and paints shields material corrosion beneath,” Kvryan said. “You can’t see the area between the coating and the material, which is where a lot of corrosion initiates.”
In mid-2019, Kvryan built a CorrFOSS prototype, a network of ultra-sensitive sensors, with parts he printed using a 3D printer. He recruited some U.S. Navy reservists to help set up and run some experiments in January 2020 to test the CorrFOSS as an early corrosion detector. Those tests took place at the Armstrong center; prototype development and testing later moved to a NSWC PHD laboratory.
“You have to mimic the corrosion process in a lab environment — there are cost-effective methods to replicate that behavior, and if you can detect it with the CorrFOSS, you have shown it’s effective in doing what you intend,” Kvryan said. “That saves (potentially) the functionality and operational capability of any metallic structure.”
Now that the CorrFOSS corrosion detection process has received its patent, the next step is to find funding to develop it — in this case, outside of the Department of the Navy.
“The Navy hires scientists and engineers to come up with solutions to some of its problems, but once a solution is determined, someone actually has to create the technology to implement it,” Kvryan said. “So, who is going to actually develop and produce that technology? That’s where our partnerships with industry really come into play.”
At the beginning of this year, the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Startup Studio (HSSS) worked with Kvryan to connect him with industry partners who could take the CorrFOSS process to the next level.
HSSS is a program that brings together entrepreneurs, mentors and inventors to deliver technology solutions for homeland security. Conducted in partnership with the venture-building company FedTech, HSSS pairs the next generation of entrepreneurs with federally funded, cutting-edge technologies to help move them from the lab to the market.
Kvryan was introduced to three entrepreneurs who had some technology background, making them better able to understand the CorrFOSS process. These entrepreneurs ultimately formed a limited liability corporation, FibrX LLC, and developed a business plan to pitch the process to venture capitalists and other funding sources by noting the different potential applications to both the Department of Defense (DOD) as well as specific industries, including the energy sector.
The FibrX team spent several months gauging interest amongst potential funding sources while it waited for NSWC PHD’s patent to be approved. Now the command is taking the final step by signing a Patent License Agreement (PLA) with FibrX.
A PLA assigns the right to make, use or sell government intellectual property to any eligible entity.
“Essentially the government owns the patent, and we will be selling to FibrX the right to use the process,” Kvryan explained. “Once that PLA is signed, they have full rights to the technology.”
Beyond the DOD, another potential user of the fiberoptic corrosion detection system would be manufacturers of wind turbines, whose massively tall towers make regular maintenance checks both challenging and dangerous, Kvryan said.
He added that these alternative energy producers are looking to expand into ocean-based turbines, with the posts either affixed to underwater bases or sunk into the seabed — again, a challenging proposition for corrosion detection.
“If you embed the FOSS cables to the metal first before painting, you will have a much more reliable and cost-effective method to detect the first indications of corrosion,” Kvryan said.
“These fiberoptics are so good, I have several ideas on how to make use of them,” with the needs of the Navy and the fleet first and foremost in mind, he added.