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November 12, 2021

At the USGS, we talk about how our science is designed to help decision-makers, resource managers, and the public tackle the challenges of our day, from climate change, to natural resources, to natural hazards. In most cases, our research takes the form of peer-reviewed, published papers or data that have been reviewed and brought up to USGS standards for release. 

But sometimes, our science can take the form of technology that can be licensed and used by members of the public. To see how that process happens, let’s consider the case of the Novel Dug Well, recently patented by USGS scientist Joe Ayotte from the USGS New England Water Science Center.

Novel dug well installation
Casing and collector being lowered into well excavation.

A Problem in the Bedrock

Joe Ayotte has been studying groundwater throughout New England for much of his career. He has focused on finding out how certain contaminants, like arsenic and uranium, get into the groundwater that many New Englanders use for drinking water and other purposes. Turns out, the bedrock in much of New England has naturally occurring arsenic and uranium, both of which are elements that are linked to negative health conditions like kidney disease and cancer.

“It’s helpful that I’ve got a background in both hydrology and geology so I can look at both the water and the rock in the area to find out what’s going on,” Ayotte explained.

A large percentage of New Englanders who rely on well water use wells that have been drilled into that bedrock, because that’s where the aquifer is. Ayotte wanted to know if there were other water sources, and if so, whether they also had uranium and arsenic contamination.

He observed that, not only was there another aquifer located above the bedrock aquifer, but it had also been used as a source of water for most of New England prior to the 1960s. The shallower aquifer, which had once been tapped using a different type of well called a dug well, had much lower levels of arsenic and uranium in it.

So why had New Englanders switched from the dug wells in the shallow aquifer to drilled wells that tapped the deeper, bedrock aquifer in the first place?

“The problem was with well yield and bacteria. Traditional dug wells did not produce a lot of water and often ran dry in the summer or in drought, leaving the owner without water. Also, because the older dug wells had many joints in them, bacteria were able to get into the water, and people sometimes got sick. The new drilled wells that went deeper to the bedrock aquifer didn’t have these problems, so people switched in droves,” Ayotte observed.

Schematic of a novel dug well
Schematic of a novel dug well.

A Novel Approach

Since the problems with the shallow aquifer stemmed from the lack of water in traditional dug wells and the bacteria introduced by the older design, could a redesigned dug well solve these issues? Ayotte decided to find out.

With colleagues throughout the USGS, he worked on a design for a Novel Dug Well, as he called it, that successfully combined a large area of inflow with ample storage to provide sufficient water yield needed by well owners. It has even proven to be drought resilient. Furthermore, the casing he uses has no joints and is sealed with a sanitary cap to prevent bacteria from gaining access. This enables well owners to access shallow aquifers that avoid the arsenic and uranium problem.

Once the redesign proved successful, the USGS team received a patent for their new well design. Now this technology is available and there is an incentive for licensing to entities or persons who can manufacture and make use of the research. This enables the public, including New Englanders, to have quicker access to USGS research and its impact of, reducing exposure to potential contaminants and providing a more sustainable water supply.

“I view the patent and design like a scientific article, but for a different audience,” Ayotte said.  A patent brings awareness to companies about technologies they can potentially commercialize without competition. This creates an incentive for a company to further develop, advertise and make the technology readily available to the public.

Installed dug well at Maple Syrup farm
Dug well with instrumentation.

Partnering for Science for a Changing World

So, let’s say you want to make use of Ayotte’s patent. Or one of the dozens of other patents we have, from samplers to methods to products like the Novel Dug Well. How do you go about licensing that patent?

Step one is to reach out! Our Office of Policy and Analysis has specialists standing by to work with you on how our science can help you address your goal. We have a step-by-step process laid out here to walk you through what to expect with licensing one of our patents.

In addition to these patents, you can also partner with us on researching a particular issue or even developing a technology to address a research goal. We have various types of arrangements, where we can contribute expertise, equipment, facilities and even intellectual property. Learn more about partnership opportunities here.

The main advantage of working with the USGS is our wide breadth of expertise and our long track record of excellent science. As Ayotte noted, we combine dozens of different scientific disciplines that help us reach innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. That’s why we conduct our research, to provide science for our changing world.

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