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Mighty Mites

RIT researchers see a huge future in tiny materials

Heading RIT’s NanoPower Research
Laboratories are (from left) Co-director
Ryne Raffaelle, Associate Director William Grande, and Co-director Thomas Gennett.

In a lab on the third floor of RIT’s Gosnell Building, a laser beam strikes a graphite target creating a material that, viewed through an electron microscope, resembles a tangled mass of black spaghetti.

These are carbon nanotubes, miniscule structures that play a central role in the emerging field dubbed “nano-technology” – a brave new universe of devices measured in billionths of a meter. Identified as a national scientific priority in the 1990s, nanotechnology is expected to revolutionize the world’s technologies to an even greater extent than silicon-based microelectronics molded the previous half-century.

RIT is making a major thrust into this small world through new academic programs and expanded research. The university, a leader in microelectronics engineering for more than two decades, has launched a multi-disciplinary effort that involves several of its colleges and centers. RIT’s new Ph.D. program in microsystems engineering (see accompanying story, page 13) is the nation’s first.

At the forefront of this effort are the NanoPower Research Laboratories (NPRL). Opened in December 2001, this facility is focused on one of the critical challenges of nanotechnology: providing power for applications that sometimes can seem more fiction than science.

“Energy in small systems is a big problem right now,” notes Co-director Ryne Raffaelle. “Microsystems need power supplies, and conventional materials and miniaturization aren’t good enough. Nanomaterials offer the possibility of greater efficiencies as well as size advantages in a variety of power devices.”

Raffaelle and Co-director Thomas Gennett have outstanding credentials in this arena: Gennett was senior scientist at the Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado where he was part of the nanostructures materials group from 1998-2001. The NPRL maintains a strong collaborative research effort with the NREL group in both nanotube synthesis and application. As a visiting scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland since 1997, Raffaelle has been involved in research in the areas of solar power and lithium-ion batteries for use in spacecraft. Besides their work with NPRL, both teach: Gennett is a chemistry professor; Raffaelle is a member of the physics faculty.

“We identified the NanoPower Research Laboratories as a First in Class program because of the vision, experience and tremendous enthusiasm coming from Tom and Ryne when they began their collaboration in early 2001,” says Donald Boyd, associate provost of outreach programs and director of First in Class, RIT’s premier research initiative. “Now, less than two years later, the results coming from this effort are fast becoming major differentiators for our new Ph.D. program in microsystems research.”

Work at the NPRL targets such exotic-sounding technologies as nanotube-doped polymer films for microelectronic fuel cells and microactuators, semiconductor quantum dots for high-efficiency thin film solar cells, nanoporous graphite for ultra or supercapacitors, polymeric photovoltaic devices, high efficiency thermionics, and lithium-ion batteries.

“The Nanopower Research Laboratories at RIT are uniquely positioned to address not only fundamental questions about nanostructures but also to address the evolution of these structures into useful functioning devices,” says Sheila Bailey, senior physicist and leader of the Quantum Dot Solar Cell Technology Program at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. “Dr. Raffaelle and Dr. Gennett capture both the theoretical understanding of such devices as well as excellent experimental capabilities that will one day realize the potential application of these nanostructures into working devices.”

Much of the activity at the NPRL to date centers on the application of carbon nanotubes. In the first 300 days of NPRL’s operation, Gennett, always with the aim of synthesizing improved material, conducted at least 200 separate syntheses. The synthesis and purification work involves a patented procedure that produces extremely high-quality results.

First observed in 1991 at NEC in Japan, carbon nanotubes hold fantastic potential for several key industries. Among their many intriguing properties, carbon nanotubes can behave either as a metal or a semiconductor, making them of great interest to the computer industry (IBM, for instance, has created nanotube transistors a hundred times smaller than components now found on computer chips). Their field-emitting characteristics have attracted attention of the display industry (Samsung has produced a prototype flat-panel color TV screen using carbon nanotubes). The Department of Energy has focused research on using carbon nanotubes as storage mechanisms for hydrogen, a clean energy source that someday could fuel automobiles.

The list of possible applications goes on: gas separation membranes, electrically conducting plastic and ceramic materials, nanoscale wires and interconnects, toxic gas absorbents, energy-absorbing armor (although 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, carbon nanotubes rank among the strongest materials known).

Among the researchers at RIT’s NanoPower Research Laboratories are (above) Brian Landi, a doctoral student in RIT’s new microsystems engineering Ph.D. program, and (below) undergraduate students Cara Horbacewicz and Adam Feuer.

“As we learn more about them, they get even more interesting,” says Gennett.

To date, RIT has invested nearly $1 million in the NPRL and the lab has attracted an additional $2 million in grants from government agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and NASA.

NPRL also has forged relationships with industry partners including Eastman Kodak Co., Viatronix Inc., Phoenix Innovation Inc. and others.

OhmCraft Inc., based in nearby Honeoye Falls, N.Y., recently joined the effort. The company provided the labs with a precision instrument called the MicroPen, designed to dispense fluid materials in extremely uniform paths.

“We’re very interested in this type of collaboration because it advances the technology and it has the potential of producing new applications,” says Walter Mathias, vice president and chief operating officer of OhmCraft and an RIT alumnus (B.S. in electrical engineering 1976, MBA 2001). Besides building the MicroPen instrument, OhmCraft uses it to manufacture specialized electrical components for solar cells, fuel cells, heaters and medical devices.

“As a technology business,” Mathias adds, “we’re keenly interested in developing new applications that use our products.”

Among the possibilities under investigation: development of nanomaterials for space solar power, micropower fuel cells, and devices for waste-heat recovery from jet engines.

“A considerable reason for our success is Ryne’s ability to envision applications,” notes Gennett.

“But Tom’s ability to produce high-quality materials makes what we’re doing possible,” adds Raffaelle.

The synergy spurs them on, both say, and is very much a part of successful research programs. Brainstorming, trading ideas, trying different approaches – “That’s how you move ahead,” says Gennett.

In addition to the two directors, staff at NPRL now includes undergraduate students majoring in physics, chemistry, microelectronics engineering and biology, several graduate students and postdoctoral research associates. Late last year, William Grande, assistant professor in microelectronics engineering, joined the team as associate director.

Especially for the undergraduates, working at the NPRL is an amazing experience, says second-year biochemistry major Cara Horbacewicz of Meridien, Conn. “I’ve learned so much here,” says Horbacewicz, who works on purification and classification of the nanotubes. “This goes way beyond a regular school lab. You’re working on projects that have real-world relevance.”

Her experience has lead to additional opportunities for co-op jobs or internships this coming summer.

“It’s really exciting,” says Horbacewicz, who notes that she was considering transferring to another college before she started this work. Now, she feels committed to RIT – and to a career in science.

Indeed, the lab offers a glimpse of an exciting future for all of us. Imagine, for instance, solar panels in space, built on flexible blankets the size of football fields, beaming energy down to a power-hungry earth. The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year, $200,000 grant to Raffaelle and Gennett to develop materials that could make such a dream possible.

“Today’s technology isn’t good enough,” says Raffaelle, “but with the theoretical possibilities offered by nanomaterials it could become a reality.”

Gennett gives his friend a look that implies he may be spinning this a bit far.

“OK,” says Raffaelle, “We’re not going to see this in the immediate future. But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Kathy Lindsley

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