RIT researchers see
a huge future in tiny materials
RITs NanoPower Research
Laboratories are (from left) Co-director
Ryne Raffaelle, Associate Director William Grande, and Co-director
In a lab on the third
floor of RITs 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 worlds technologies to an even greater
extent than silicon-based microelectronics molded the previous
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. RITs
new Ph.D. program in microsystems engineering (see accompanying
story, page 13) is the nations 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 arent 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 NASAs 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.
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, RITs
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.
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 NASAs
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
Much of the activity
at the NPRL to date centers on the application of carbon nanotubes.
In the first 300 days of NPRLs 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).
the researchers at RITs NanoPower Research Laboratories
are (above) Brian Landi, a doctoral student in RITs
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
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, were 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.
reason for our success is Rynes ability to envision applications,
ability to produce high-quality materials makes what were
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
Thats 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. Ive learned so much here, says Horbacewicz,
who works on purification and classification of the nanotubes.
This goes way beyond a regular school lab. Youre working
on projects that have real-world relevance.
Her experience has
lead to additional opportunities for co-op jobs or internships
this coming summer.
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.
technology isnt 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.
Raffaelle, Were not going to see this in the immediate
future. But youve got to start somewhere.