November 20, 2003

Student Inventors Win Prize

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Two Cornell graduate students and a researcher have won a large prize for an invention that is smaller than a human hair.

Robert Reichenbach grad, Keith Aubin grad and Maxim Zalalutdinov won in the graduate category of The Collegiate Inventors Competition. The competition is sponsored annually by the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The three were presented with an award for $25,000 in New York on Oct. 23 and invited to the ringing of the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 24. Prof. Harold Craighead, C.W. Lake Jr. Professor of Productivity of Applied and Engineering Physics, who advised the team, also received a prize of $5,000.

Reichenbach describedthe invention as, “a dome-shaped micromechanical oscillator,” which can be used to make tiny devices. These types of oscillators are used for radio frequency communications devices, including cellular telephones and FM radios.

“You can only see it with a microscope,” said Rini Paiva of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “It is intended to replace oscillators like the ones currently used in cellular phones. With this technology, cells phones small enough for ants to use could be produced.”

Aubin hopes the invention will be used to create devices more useful than cellular phones for insects. “Yes, you could make tiny telecommunications devices, but cell phones are pretty small already. We’re in talks with a company that wants to use it to create a sort of ‘smart pill,'” Aubin said. Pills using the device and other microfabricated technology could be administered orally to patients and used to perform various kinds of tests and checks of the gastro-intestinal system.

“It is not a Fantastic Voyage idea,” Aubin explained, “the applications that we are looking at do not necessarily involve getting into the bloodstream.”

“What makes our device unique,” added Aubin, “is that it is dome-shaped and uses heat. The heating and cooling causes expansion and contraction in the dome-shaped silicon structure and it vibrates at a very high frequency.”

“Cornell has hired a company which specializes brokering patents to determine what will be done with the technology,” Aubin said.

The Cornell team’s project faced stiff competition, according to Paiva. “All of the projects were really top-level.”

Paiva explained that a Harvard team won the undergraduate category with a new technique for producing insulin from rat liver cells.

“Nanotechnology is something that is really up-and-coming,” Paiva said.

Zalalutdinov and Craighead could not be reached for comment.

Archived article by Chris Mitchell