UT professor makes more efficient light bulbs with isotope mixtures

Jonathan Vineyard

Atom Mines, a new startup headed by a UT professor, has developed technology that makes fluorescent light bulbs burn brighter, longer and with less energy. 

The company won the Texas Energy Pitch hosted during UT Energy Week for their new mixture of mercury isotopes. Isotopes, which are elements with different numbers of neutrally charged particles compared to the normal form, sometimes have different or enhanced properties. 

“Every fluorescent light bulb has a few milligrams of mercury in it, and the light produced is by a discharge, which excites the mercury atoms,” said Mark Raizen, UT physics professor and Atom Mines’ chief technology officer. 

He found that the team did not have to change anything else about fluorescent bulbs to implement their isotope mix.

“That’s a drop-in replacement,” Raizen said. “What it means is that it doesn’t require any engineering changes at all.”

Scientists who want to research how different isotope mixtures act are at the mercy of the current industrial production of isotopes. For now, they use dated, energy-intensive machines called calutrons, which were invented 85 years ago.

The only calutrons left are in Russia and are around 65 years old. They’re prone to shut-downs, and these conditions limit use of and research on isotopic materials. 

“This creates a real problem because medical researchers are very reluctant to develop a new therapy only to find out the key component is not available,” Raizen said.

Raizen, however, has invented a method that will change this. He normally researches how atoms behave at ultra-cooled states. About seven years ago, he found that he could use ultra-cooling technologies to efficiently separate isotopes. He called this technology Magnetically Activated and Guided Isotope Separation (MAGIS). MAGIS and similar technologies will make isotopic materials much more widely available.

Many industrial uses of the isotope technology are quickly scalable, but medical applications of isotopes generally require much smaller amounts and are more highly regulated. Raizen and Kirk Dorius, an intellectual property attorney and the CEO of Atom Mines, decided a nonprofit approach would work best for medical uses. Raizen and Dorius created the Pointsman Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated for medical uses of MAGIS technology. 

“The need for two entities was kind of in the nature of the markets,” Dorius said.

The foundation plans to create and maintain a steady supply of medically useful isotopes in order to promote research and the use of potentially beneficial medical procedures.

“A lot of researchers won’t invest in developing pharmaceuticals and radio-pharmaceuticals unless the upstream supply chain is reliable,” Dorius said. “And that’s something we can do, is give researchers the confidence in a domestic reliable quality supply of the precursor isotopes, to support their research, clinical trials and ultimate commercialization.”

Since Atom Mines is newly incorporated, it has a long way to go before getting its technology to the market, but the team’s recent win at the Texas Energy Pitch has reminded them that people are paying attention.

“I was a little bit surprised because there were companies that were better established, that had revenue, that had larger management teams, more operations,” Dorius said. “It was exciting and validating of the importance of the work we’re doing.”