Ryan Wicker imagines a future where electronics, everything from cell phones to miniature research satellites, can be made by a printer.

The University of Texas at El Paso engineering professor has worked for more than decade on technology to make it possible to print electronic circuits on flat surfaces using conductive inks.

But as 3D printing has become mainstream, engineers like Wicker have been enticed by the prospect of developing new technologies capable of printing entire electronic components in three dimensions.

So far Wicker’s research has resulted in eight patents, as well as six that are pending, and he is not alone.

The number of UTEP faculty members filing invention disclosures and patents has crept up over the past few years as the university has encouraged researchers to consider patenting and commercializing their ideas.

“It was really a culture change on campus,” said Roberto Osegueda, vice president for research at UTEP.

Back in 2001, there were no patents issued at UTEP and that trend continued until 2005 when the U.S. patent office issued one patent, according to data provided by UTEP.

But there were six patents issued in 2012, and invention disclosures have also crept up as research expenditures have increased.

There were 18 invention disclosures in 2010, 20 in 2011, and 26 in 2012, according to the most recent data available.

The patents include everything from technology that prints living tissue and novel methods of purifying water to advances in treatments for colon cancer and development of vaccines.

By comparison, there were 66 invention disclosures and 10 patents issued at the University of Texas at Dallas, another emerging “tier-one” national research university, in 2012, according to data provided by UT Dallas.

UT schools in Austin and San Antonio as well as the UT System did not respond to requests for patent information by press time.

Patenting remains a small part of the research activity at UTEP and Osegueda estimates that Wicker is one of only 25 faculty members who are engaged in patenting and commercialization.

“I do believe strongly we are not creating enough tech companies in our area to support the quality of students we are graduating,” Wicker said.

He is the director of UTEP’s W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, and many of UTEP’s patents are the result of the work of engineers and graduate students at the center. The work there has also resulted in a spin-off company called Printed Device Concepts.

Up in space

In November, electronics made using 3D printers at the Keck Center traveled to space inside a miniature CubeSat satellite owned by the University of New Mexico.

The do-it-yourself satellite movement has been under way for a decade or so now with the technology and cost of sending tiny satellites into space for research now orbiting within reach of graduate students.

But engineers at the center, which was founded at UTEP in 2000, hope to develop 3D-printing technology that could build simple miniaturized satellites in as little as 24 hours, the center’s manager David Espalin said.

Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printers work by layering thin sheets of melted material, often plastic, on top of each other to create an object.

Right now, 3D printers use a limited number of materials and there are significant challenges to incorporating electronics.

While incorporating conductive ink into the 3D printing process would seem straightforward, one major problem that has flummoxed engineers, Wicker said, is the ink has to be cured at a very high temperature. That makes it incompatible with most materials used by 3D printers, like plastics.

Most recently, the Keck Center was recently awarded a $2.2-million federal grant to develop new 3D printers for aerospace systems, according to Espalin.

Osegueda is reorganizing UTEP’s technology transfer office, which manages and protects the university’s intellectual property. He said the volume of work has increased and the patenting process become more sophisticated.

“The university is truly committed to putting serious technology transfer operations on the campus,” Osegueda said.

When a faculty member decides to patent an idea, their first step is to disclose the idea at UTEP’s tech transfer office. UTEP then completes market research and a patent search to make sure somebody else hasn’t already patented the invention.

Eventually lawyers file a patent application, and then there is often a back and forth between the lawyers and the U.S. Patent Office.

The entire process, Osegueda said, has taken as long as seven years from the first disclosure to a patent being issued. In the end, the patent is owned by the UT System, but the inventor receives as much as 50 percent of the royalties.

“We are always spending a lot more on this activity than we get in revenues, so it is very easy for universities to say we are not going to have technology transfer operations,” Osegueda said.

Overall, UTEP now has about 520 tenured and tenure track faculty, according to Osegueda. Of those, 300 are engaged in grant writing and, of those, about 280 have grants. Altogether, they submit about 600 grant proposals per year.

On average, each faculty member brings in $120,000 per year in external research expenditures.

So what happens to 3D parts that have been to space?

Some of them go to England. The printed electronics that UTEP engineers made for a miniature CubeSat satellite that was launched in November are now on display at the Science Museum of London. The exhibit is called “3D: Printing the Future.”

Original article by Robert Gray El Paso Inc. staff writer