The shiny material that makes up the outer coating of an astronaut suit could have very practical implications for those of us on Earth.
Brian Benicewicz, professor of chemistry and director of the New York State Center for Polymer Synthesis at Rensselaer, is employing the materiala polymer called polybenzimidazole (PBI)in research that could energize the fuel-cell industry.
Fuel cells produce electric power without combustion by taking hydrogen, derived from a fuel such as natural gas, and drawing in oxygen from the air. Polymer membranes play a central role in PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells, such as the ones Plug Power, in Latham, N.Y., plans to market.
Although fuel cells have been used for space shuttles and even schools, the challenge comes in finding cheaper materials and production methods to make them more affordable and efficient for the average consumer.
The polymer membranes now used in PEM fuel cells must remain constantly hydrated in water. Maintaining a constant amount of water in these membranes causes instability, rendering them not 100 percent reliable. Building complex water-control systems to fix the problem would be too cumbersome and costly, says Benicewicz.
To avoid complications of current fuel cells, Benicewicz turned his research toward PBI. Used for high-performance protective apparel such as firemens turnout coats and astronaut space suits, PBI has fiber characteristics important to building a successful and inexpensive fuel cell. It has no melting point. It is mildew-, age-, and abrasion-resistant. Whats more important, Benicewicz adds, PBI requires no water for conductivity.
Benicewicz is joining efforts with Plug Power and Celanese Ventures, a German chemical company, to market PBI for fuel-cell use. In addition, New York state has provided a half-million dollars to establish a joint research program at Rensselaer with the companies and the university. Celanese has poured $1.5 million into the R&D program for fuel-cell membrane research. After a worldwide search for experts who specialize in polymer research, the company chose Rensselaer as a site for a joint research program in fuel-cell technology.
|Materials Science and Engineering|
Researchers at Rensselaer have discovered a clever new use for ultra-thin molecular structures that could make computers and other microelectronic devices faster and more efficient.
Ganapathiraman Ramanath, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and his graduate students have, for the first time, successfully used self-assembled molecular layers (SAMs) as barriers to keep copper from diffusing into adjacent insulating layers in microelectronics devices.
This advance, reported in the April 23 issue of Applied Physics Letters, could extend copper technology by allowing cheaper fabrication of smaller and more reliable structures with more than twice the interconnect speed otherwise possible.
Copper, the preferred material for interconnecting devices in a chip, easily diffuses into insulation layers that separate multilevel metal wiring. To prevent diffusion, barrier layers separate the copper from the insulation. While conventional barriers such as tantalum nitride, which can range from 10 to 30 nanometers thick, are adequate for 180 nanometer structures, smaller device structures cannot have that much space devoted to the barrier, says Ramanath.
A SAM layer, a class of materials whose molecules stand up straight and form a dense continuous layer, can be as thin as 1.5 nanometers to inhibit copper diffusion into silica.
The advantage of SAMs is that, because of their size, they can be used with current copper technology as well as with future technologies such as carbon nanotube-based molecular electronics, Ramanath says.
The research is supported by funding from Ramanaths recent National Science Foundation CAREER (Faculty Early Career Development) award, IBM, and New York State.
Mixing Motion and Sound
For Japanese-American dancer Tomie Hahn, dance and music are not separate entitiesthanks to a new wireless interactive dance system created by her husband, Curtis Bahn, assistant professor of arts at Rensselaer.
Bahns SSpeaPer (the Sensor-Speaker-Performer) system allows Hahn to create and blend various sounds by using her body motion. As she dances, the actions of her body drive an interactive music algorithm.
My body initiates and controls all the elements of the available sounds. I can also manipulate the sounds in various ways. I can decide which sounds I want by basically pressing a button, says Hahn, assistant professor of music at Tufts University, where she teaches ethnomusicology. In this way, there is no difference between music and dance. It is one thingbecause my body has become the instrument. That kind of physical immersion in the music is revolutionary. Im sort of a walking sound machine, she says.
As Hahn dances, gestural information is sent by radio to the interactive computer music system. Electronic sounds are then broadcast back to small speakers mounted on her body. Hahn controls the sounds through sensors in each of her palms that measure finger pressure and the amount of tilt in her arms.
Artists from as far away as Australia and Turkey learned more about SSPeaPer and other artistic technologies during a two-week, international workshop, Dance and Interactive Technology, held at Ohio State University in late June.
through New York City
In a landmark book on the architecture of New York City, Alan Balfour, dean of architecture, takes us on a journey through the built environment of New York City and then documents the citys most significant new buildingsand those yet to be completed.
In World Cities: New York (Wiley & Sons), Balfour describes New York as the quintessential city of the 20th century.
He offers the belief that architecture is the most permanent residue of the profound culture of a city.
Balfours story of New York begins with its structured grid system, a conscious effort by planners to create order out of the areas expanding population. The grid formed the personality of the city, making it the most ideological of cities created by the Enlightenmentcreated to form a ruthless rational order whose reality would forever be in a state of becoming, Balfour says.
This state of becoming is in evidence today as buildings, most notably in Times Square, are covered with skinlike technology that transforms them into giant television screens. Balfour believes this technology, which can alter a buildings appearance or significance in the blink of an eye, will change the rules of architecture in ways not yet imagined.
Ambitious building projects taking shape
The ink on Rensselaers history never dries. Whats more, one of the most exciting periods in the schools life story has just begun: The Institute is significantly increasing the faculty. It is creating six constellations in biotechnology and information technology. It will greatly expand funded research. It will double the graduate program.To advance these and other aspects of President Jacksons Rensselaer Plan, the Institute is about to begin major construction: Two new academic buildings will be erected at a cost of more than $110 million a center for biotechnology research and a spectacular venue for the electronic and performing arts. A parking garage will be built. Additional energy plants will be provided. There will be a new campus entrance.
Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary StudiesTo serve the demanding need for advanced research in biotechnology, Rensselaer will erect a $60 million facility along Fifteenth Street, between Academy Hall and the George M. Low 48 Center for Industrial Innovation.
Here Rensselaer researchers will pursue pioneering investigations to advance human health, protect the environment, and improve the quality of life.
On the inside, state-of-the-art laboratories, offices, and meeting rooms will serve some 60 faculty members, 330 researchers, and 35 administrative and technical staff.
Research will encompass such fields as functional tissue engineering, integrative systems biology, biocatalysis and metabolic engineering, computational biology, and bioinformatics.
The design is a joint venture of two architectural firms well experienced in biotechnology designBurt Hill Kosar Rittelmann of Butler, Pa., and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Pittsburgh. The architects include several Rensselaer alumni: Dick Rittelmann 60, Peter Bohlin 58, Jon Jackson 73, Harry Gordon 73, and Michael Maiese 90.
Center for Electronic Media and Performing Arts
In a few years, as you approach Troy from the west, you will marvel at what will soon become a landmark on the Rensselaer hilltop.Designed by Londons internationally acclaimed firm of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, this architectural masterpiece will provide a worthy center for electronic media and performing arts at Rensselaer.
The building will appear to be a floating wafer that extends the campus westward beyond the edge of the steep bluff above Eighth Street.
This remarkable facility will celebrate, support, and extend Rensselaers distinctive position in electronic media and communications. It will elevate the quality of intellectual and creative life on campus. It will be a focal point of community pride. And it will serve the world as an incubator for unimagined discoveries and vital contributions to technology and the arts.
The south side of campus will be transformed in grand style. A new campus entrance will be created on College Avenue. A 500-car garage will be erected to serve faculty and staff during the workday, and provide parking for Rensselaer and her guests during evening events.
A pedestrian pathway will be created from Fifteenth Street, south of the new biotechnology building. The walk will lead past the Science Center, Cogswell, and the Materials Research Center to the new center for electronic media and performing arts.
To meet increased demands on energy systems, Rensselaer will build an electrical substation and a chiller facility alongside the parking garage. A second boiler plant will be set into the hillside at the northern edge of campus near the J Building.
These plans for a growing Rensselaer are benefiting from review by faculty, staff, students, neighbors, elected officials, and the general public. The proposals had to undergo an extensive New York State Environmental Quality Review. The entire process includes public meetings, neighborhood meetings, campus meetings, a formal public hearing, and a 30-day period for citizen comment.
Such extensive new construction projects will create temporary inconveniences. Some campus roadways will be blocked. Some deliveries may be more difficult. To ease the loss of parking, Rensselaer will provide regular shuttle bus service to and from Houston Field House. Familiar walkways may be re-routed. Plywood will be prominent. A spirit of Chin up, but watch your step, will be essential.
Ever building, never done
There have been many inspiring advances at Rensselaer in recent years: the building of Barton Hall, the completion of the Mueller Center, the renovation of the Union, the creation of the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Lab, the gift of the Rickey Sculpture, the restoration of the Approach, the design of studio classrooms and new athletic fields, the modernization of Troy, Walker, and Pittsburgh Buildings the list is awesome.
Rensselaer seems always to be under construction. Especially now, as it vigorously embarks upon a path to global reach and global impact as a top-tier research university that challenges its people to change the world. Bruce Adams
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), 110 8th St., Troy, NY 12180. (518) 276-6000