Kimball Hall now contains more than just classrooms for engineering courses and administrative offices. In October, a new nanomaterials research laboratory called Cornell’s Center for Nanomaterials Engineering and Technology (CNET) opened its doors. The site features a user-centered configuration and an abundance of instruments for soft materials synthesis, physical characterization and scale-up of materials.
The development of the lab began about eight years ago when Lynden Archer, director of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Prof. Emmanuel Giannelis, materials science and engineering, wrote a grant proposal to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). They obtained funding of $25 million over the course of six years to create and develop the KAUST-CU Center for Energy and Sustainability, which opened in the spring of 2008.
“As a research facility, the center was not open to all individuals at Cornell,”Giannelis said. “Only members of the center or graduate students working under professors who were members could take advantage of KAUST-CU’s unique infrastructure for soft materials research,”
Once the grant expired, the opportunity arose for the lab to be expanded into an open user facility. The 4,000-square-foot lab was converted into CNET and is now accessible to all members of the Cornell community and will continue to function as a world-class hub house for soft material research on campus, according to Archer.
Archer and Prof. Bruce van Dover, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, are the co-directors of CNET.
CNET’s focus on instrumentation for studying soft materials also fills an unmet need among current Cornell facilities that concentrate on characterizing hard materials (ceramics, metals, and fibers etc), according to Archer.
“The lab is unique with respect to scaling up materials,” Archer said. “Researchers can make large quantities of materials for more applications. CNET was built to do both fundamental things and also provide the opportunities for applying materials to specific products.”
Archer explained that the lab will allow for interdisciplinary collaboration across the university as undergraduate and graduate students develop ideas for projects, demonstrate the performance of materials, and then partner up with professional students in other entities, including the Johnson School, to incubate start-up companies that are interested in bringing products to the market. To this end, CNET complements its diverse instrumentation for materials research with meeting, office and teleconferencing facilities that a new Cornell start-up business might use in its earliest days.
“There is increasing entrepreneurial interest on campus where researchers do not just want to study materials, but also to perform initial studies aimed at resolving the science and technology related to scaling up promising materials to process them into tangible products,” Archer said.
Archer further described the reasons for confidence in CNET.
“The infrastructure contained in the lab has already proven crucial in translation materials from concepts into prototypes in three different areas that have societal impacts,” Archer said.
The first domain involves materials that are used for electrolytes and batteries. The second deals with advancing carbon capture from power plants, as plants burn coal when they emit carbon dioxide gas. The third area is the creation of nanoparticle-reinforced hydrocarbon materials that show exceptional promise as lubricants for heavy machinery, including windmills. With respect to all three, researchers can take advantage of the lab’s opportunities for material characterization and scale-up to show that materials with favorable characteristics can be turned into materials for further investigation by industries.
Several ongoing research projects at CNET are focused on energy and storage, water purification and carbon capture. According to Giannelis, water and energy are two of the most important and urgent societal challenges. Giannelis’s research group is performing three different research projects.
“One project deals with demonstrating materials to absorb carbon dioxide for carbon capture and conversion; a second is focused on developing new membranes for water purification; the third is about synthesizing and characterizing nanoparticle traces that once injected in oil wells can locate the oil and remove the oil from the well,” Giannelis said.
As an example, a graduate student in Archer’s lab, Akanshka Agrawal, is working with undergraduate student, Emily Jeng ’16, to examine the structure and dynamics of self-suspended polymer tethered nanoparticles and how the interaction of the polymer chains affects the properties of nanomaterials. They have developed high conducting and non-flammable electrolytes for lithium ion batteries using a mixture of different sized nanoparticles. Graduate student Zhengyuan Tu is working on nanoporous materials design for lithium battery application. Both graduate students explained that with the useful equipment and supportive staff and faculty of CNET, they are able to conduct all related experiments and research for their graduate work with CNET.
“It is pretty amazing that one lab holds so many instruments and offers such great facilities and interfaces that it seems self-sufficient to meet almost all the requirements of the experiments that I needed to carry out,” Agrawal said.
An institute that is collaborating with CNET is the Institute for Fundamental Research in Separation Science (IFFRISS). IFFRISS is dedicated to solving crucial problems relevant to the separations industry.
IFFRISS will be housed within CNET which will allow the institute to conduct research supported by a modest investment in students, postdocs, and minor specific instrumentation, according to Mark Hurwitz, director of IFFRISS and adjunct professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
“There is a lot of opportunity for greater understanding and I think CNET and IFFRISS are better set to accomplish this than any other group anywhere,” Hurwitz said.
The intention is to have open public discussion of fundamental questions that need to be answered to advance separation science and to provide the scientific basis for the future expansion of the filtration, according to Hurwitz.
“CNET is beautiful infrastructure that was based on a research grant that has become a user facility that students can use for research, entrepreneurs can use for translating research into products, and institutions can use to focus on different aspects of research,” Archer said.
The future of CNET is bright and is headed in the right direction as CNET has been vastly recognized by individuals of Cornell as well as outside institutions.