January 23, 2009

Saudi Arabian University Funds Cornell Energy Research

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Last May, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Rabigh City, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia awarded Cornell a grant to fund the KAUST-Cornell Center for Energy and Sustainability. Through the grant, Cornell receives $5 million dollars every year for five years from KAUST for sustainability research.
According to Prof. Lynden Archer, chemical and biomolecular engineering and a co-Principal Investigator of the of the center, KAUST is a university that the Saudi Arabian King Abdullah commissioned and is now in its early stages of construction. The university felt that it was important to develop research partnerships with leading schools around the world, using the Singapore-MIT alliance as a model.
“KAUST recognized that they needed to have partnerships with established universities. As a result, they created a global research partnership in which they invited around 60 universities to propose research centers that could be funded by KAUST to do research and also interact with the university,” said Prof. Emmanuel Giannelis, materials science and engineering. “We were one of the four that were eventually funded to have a research center.”
There are other partner universities that interact with the center including Columbia, Princeton, the University of Cambridge, Yale, the University of California Los Angeles and ETH Lausanne.
“Out of the $5 million that the grant awards per excellent faculty who are year, only 20 percent is leaving the university and going to subcontracted universities elsewhere,” said Celia Szczepura, administrative manager of the center.
Archer said that the money goes towards funding work on a new material discovered at Cornell called Nanoparticle Ionic Materials. Archer likened NIMS to pom-poms; that is, a squishy core made out of inorganic nanoparticles, and a hairy exterior called a corona that is made out of an organic polymer. This exterior can capture things such as carbon dioxide in a coal power plant, and the core can then be the catalyst to fix the carbon dioxide and convert it into something else, thereby preventing the building of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
According to Archer, other ways in which the center’s research with NIMS could be used to further green energy technologies is through the work they are doing with solar energy capture. NIMS can be used to capture solar energy and convert it to electricity or heat. Moreover, the center is also doing research on using NIMS in water desalination membranes. Giannelis said that KAUST was able to fund the center due to the sizable endowment that it had received from King Abdullah.
“We have additional funding from the National Science Foundation but the KAUST funding easily dwarfs the funding from the federal government; however there’s a logical reason for that,” Archer said. “The funding that you get from the NSF or most federal agencies tends to focus more on understanding some fundamental aspect of a new material, it never quite reaches as broadly as the KAUST grant. My guess is that a vast majority of Cornell’s funding comes from the U.S. government.”
Giannelis stated that he would hesitate to put a date on when practical applications on the research would appear since the Center is set up to do the fundamental scientific work more than putting products in the market. However, it is part of the plan for some start-ups to come out of the Center that will take the research done at the center and produce products.
Archer added that part of the purpose of the grant was to bring together international scientific cooperation. KAUST has installed an array of materials at their facilities that are comparable to those at Cornell in the hopes that people will come to the university to use the facilities there and in doing so will interact with KAUST faculty and give experiential input. Because the campus is still being constructed, some faculty members already hired by KAUST will come to Cornell so that they can begin their research programs here and then take them back to KAUST when the infrastructure of the school comes to be.
Giannelis added that there is also some talk that the new administration will increase the money that is going into renewable energy research. However, the source of this money for the center is not important compared to the work that comes out of the center.
“The problems that we’re tackling around solar cells and water purification and carbon dioxide capture and so on are not Saudi problems, are not American problems, are global problems. Everyone is interested in a solution to the new sources of energy,” said Giannelis.