National Academy of Inventors Fellow

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Professor Richard Kaner is elected as a 2021 NAI Fellow by the National Academy of Inventors, the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors.

According to the NAI announcement, this professional distinction is bestowed upon academic inventors who have “demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and welfare of society.”

Professor Richard Kaner, who is the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Professor of Materials Innovation, is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering. He is one of our most prolific inventors with 62 U.S. patents issued so far and an equal number pending. His world-changing research and inventions include seminal advances on water separation membranes, coatings to prevent hospital acquired infections, developing the world’s hardest metal, and discovering graphene and advancing its use in energy storage devices.

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Professor Richard Kaner with his invention PolyCera®, a filter using a membrane capable of cleaning the dirtiest waters, whether for industrial reuse or household drinking.

Kaner has developed a brilliant solution to one of the world’s most pressing problems: how do we protect and improve fresh water sources and produce sufficient clean water for a rapidly growing population? To meet this challenge, in a collaboration with Professor Eric Hoek from the UCLA Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Kaner developed a novel membrane that resists fouling and is capable of cleaning the dirtiest waters, whether for industrial water reuse or household drinking water filtration. Their new hydrophilic membrane is called PolyCera® since it has the separation properties of an expensive ceramic membrane and the low-cost and scalability of a polymer membrane. Kaner and Hoek co-founded a successful company called Polycera, which they sold to Water Planet, Inc. PolyCera® membranes are now used in installations all over the world, from oilfields in California and Texas to household water filters in India and automotive manufacturing operations in China. The membranes clean wastewater for safe environmental discharge, direct recycling, beneficial reuse, and clean drinking water. Unlike all other commercial membranes, PolyCera® contains a conjugated polymer developed by Kaner that is hydrophilic and resists fouling. PolyCera® membranes can work wherever oil and water meet, such as in wastewater generated from oil fracking or in a carwash. This technology was developed based on Kaner’s discovery of an inexpensive, scalable method to produce the conducting polymer polyaniline in a nanostructured form and it’s use for separation membranes. In an effort to solve the problem of hospital-acquired infections, Kaner and his collaborators created an inexpensive, scalable hydrophilic coating that prevents bacteria and fungus from sticking to surfaces. The coating prevents biofilm formation that leads to the rapid growth of bacteria. This in turn reduces infections and the development of superbugs created by the overuse of antibacterial agents. Based on his discoveries, Kaner started a company called Hydrophilix (now SILQ – pronounced silk), which coats medical devices using Kaner’s patented technology to prevent infections. The FDA has recently given clearance for using the coating on urinary catheters, one of the leading causes of infections. These devices, which are expected to save money by preventing sickness and death, are the first of many planned by SILQ.

Kaner has also developed the world’s hardest metal. This was accomplished in collaboration with Professor Sarah Tolbert, who holds faculty appointments at UCLA in Chemistry & Biochemistry and Materials Science and Engineering, by introducing short covalent bonds into incompressible transition metals. They first demonstrated that osmium diboride could scratch sapphire and then that rhenium diboride could scratch diamond. After developing a lower cost material that was even harder based on tungsten tetraboride doped with a small amount of two other transition metals, Kaner founded a company called SuperMetalix to commercialize these materials. SuperMetalix has gone on to scale up the synthesis and create cutting tools, grinding wheels, protective coatings and hard-facing products from Kaner’s discoveries.

In 2002, Kaner developed and patented a synthetic method to produce graphene two years before its “discovery” by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov that led to their 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Kaner then developed a scalable process for making large quantities of high surface area graphene and demonstrated that these make excellent charge storage devices. Kaner founded a company called Nanotech Energy, which is now developing graphene-based supercapacitors and batteries that can be charged in seconds. A video produced for the Sundance Film Festival explaining his work went viral a few years ago with >2 million views (see

Kaner’s discoveries have been recognized with the top awards for materials research from the American Chemical Society (the ACS Award in the Chemistry of Materials), the American Institute of Chemists (the Chemical Pioneer Award), the Materials Research Society (the MRS Medal), and the Royal Society of Chemistry (the Centenary Prize). Kaner has been recognized as one of the world’s most highly cited authors according to the most recent lists produced by both Thomson-Reuters/Clarivate Analytics and Elsevier Scopus.

In addition to Kaner, three other UCLA faculty members with appointments in the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering have been elected 2021 fellows. They are Professors Xiaochun Li, Behzad Razavi, and Majid Sarrafzadeh. 

Kaner is the second Chemistry & Biochemistry faculty member to be elected to the NAI. Professor Michael Jung was elected a NAI fellow in 2014.

According to the NAI, its fellows hold more than 48,000 issued U.S. patents to date, which have generated more than 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than one million jobs. In addition, $3 trillion in revenue has been generated based on discoveries by the fellows.

The 2021 class of 164 new fellows from 116 research universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutes worldwide will be inducted in June at the 11th annual meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,