January 25, 2002

Cornell Applies For $50 Million Institute Grant

Print More

Competing with approximately 20 universities from across the country, Cornell has applied to host the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), a university affiliated research center sponsored by the United States Army. The recipient of the state-of-the-art center will receive $50 million in federal research grants over five years to develop advanced materials for use in outfitting soldiers.

The Army is expected to make a decision by the spring, and research funding is slated to begin June 1, 2002.

The proposal, which was submitted to the Army Research Office on Dec. 28, involves the use of facilities currently occupied by the Ward Center for Nuclear Studies on the Engineering Quad.

Last summer, the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to shut down the Center’s TRIGA nuclear fission reactor. Although the controversial decision was rejected in full by the Faculty Senate, the process of decommissioning the reactor is scheduled to commence on June 30, 2002.

“[The site of the Ward reactor] has been designated to house the Institute,” said John Silcox, vice provost for the physical sciences and engineering. “The plot is also located in the right place since a lot of activity that would go on in the Institute would involve interaction with nearby locations,” Silcox continued.

Although information about the applicants for the ISN facility has not been made public, Silcox estimates that Cornell is among the 20 universities competing for the prestigious research center, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Northwestern University and the California Institute of Technology.

OnPTIOne university will be chosen by the Department of Defense to host the Institute.

Cornell’s application was strengthened last month when Gov. George Pataki agreed to seek $2.5 million in state matching funds per year should the University be chosen. Comparable gubernatorial support was also extended to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and the State University of New York’s University at Albany.

“Our strength involves the fact that we’ve had a tradition for handling interdisciplinary work well,” said Silcox. “Our components of material science, chemistry, textiles, chemical engineering and electrical engineering have historically been able to work together,” he added.

According to the Army Research Office, the Institute will emphasize, “revolutionary material research toward development of advanced soldier protection concepts,” designed to enhance the, “survivability,” of future soldiers. The development of the ISN is a component of the Department of Defense’s plan to increase the flexibility of the individual soldier, in contrast to the Cold War’s “heavy guardian force.”

Utilizing the latest developments in nanofabrication, which involves the production of devices as tiny as a few billionths of a meter, researchers at the ISN will develop materials designed to protect soldiers against ballistics, sensory attacks, and chemical and biological attacks, while also facilitating climate control and biomedical monitoring.

Cornell’s current nanofabrication facility, located in Knight Laboratory, is the nation’s oldest federally sponsored nanotechnology center. Duffield Hall, which is currently under construction on the Engineering Quad, is slated to house, “one of the country’s most sophisticated research and teaching facilities for nanotechnology,” according to the project website.

“It is a great opportunity for our faculty members looking to tackle these new problems,” Silcox said.

In addition to the $50 million in federal research grants to be awarded to the chosen university, the ISN plan includes a provision that would provide up to $20 million in the form of subsequent contracts with industrial partners.

Although the initial contract offered by the Army spans five years, it is possible that for a, “highly successful organization,” the contract could be extended for an indefinite period.

Despite plans to convert the current site of the Ward Center (if Cornell is chosen to host the ISN), administrators admit that the weakest piece of the University’s application is the issue of adequate space on campus.

“We don’t have a building we can put it into at this time,” Silcox said. “There are people currently occupying the site at the moment, and it will take time to create an appropriate facility. We can’t allow folks to go in there right away and start doing research.”

The site’s current tenants have also begun to question the University’s ability to modify the facility, which includes a 40-year old nuclear reactor.

Mark Deinert ’97, a current graduate student in nuclear science and engineering who conducts research using the reactor, noted that a similar decommissioning process at Georgia Tech has taken seven years and cost billions.

“If they’re intending to put [the ISN] in this building, I’m not sure they how they will get this done in the 5-year lifetime of the proposal,” Deinert said.

Deinert attributes the length of the process to the stringent requirements of Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy for de-activating any nuclear reactor site. The process would involve dissembling the reactor, removing its fuel and cutting through high-density concrete.

“The research center would have a neighbor, namely the reactor bay, that they would be unable to do anything with for at least five years,” said David Hammer, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “It would be better to leave the reactor in operation, and use it as a diagnostic tool for the center.”

Rather than shutting down the reactor, which is one of only 26 operating university reactors in the United States, Kenan