Funding awards inspire bold directions in new industrial collaborations

Tuesday, Mar 4, 2014
by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

A new initiative to encourage bold and creative research at Princeton University is poised to bear fruit: The first annual Dean for Research Innovation Funds have been awarded to a group of projects that push the boundaries of research and encourage research partnerships with industry.

Created in fall 2013 to encourage promising and original research, the program supports projects that may be too risky for conventional funding sources, or involve uncommon collaborations, according to Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering.

"Through these new funds, Princeton University is enabling its researchers to pursue promising ideas that are at the early stages as well as collaborations that lead to new discoveries," Debenedetti said.

New Industrial Collaborations

Improving the production of biofuels

Richard Register, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, will collaborate with an industrial partner, Promerus LLC, on a technology that can help boost the production efficiency of a biofuel known as butanol.  Image courtesy of Osvaldo Gago, fotografar.net, via Wikimedia Commons.Biofuels are an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but they are not yet able to replace fossil fuels. Richard Register, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has been awarded up to $250,000 over three years to collaborate with an industrial partner on a technology that can help boost the production efficiency of a biofuel known as butanol.

Butanol has advantages over the more commonly used ethanol, which is so corrosive that it can constitute no more than 15 percent of each gallon of regular gasoline. By contrast, butanol can be used at 100 percent strength.

Yet butanol production — carried out in large vats via a process known as fermentation by organisms such as yeast or bacteria — is restricted by the fact that the butanol kills off the very organisms that produce it. To maximize the efficiency of production, the butanol must be regularly removed from the water in a bioreactor.

Register aims to develop a specialized filter for separating out butanol. He has teamed with Promerus LLC, an Ohio-based subsidiary of Sumitomo Bakelite Co., Ltd. specializing in manufacturing specialty polymers. Princeton will match Promerus' contribution to the research in years two and three of the project up to $75,000 per year, and has allocated $100,000 for research in year one.

Register will work with Promerus to develop new kinds of "block copolymers," which are specialized structures capable of separating gaseous butanol from water on a continuous basis without having to stop fermentation periodically to collect the butanol. This process would translate to significant energy and cost savings.

The project is challenging because water and butanol molecules are similar in size and solubility. "These funds will enable us to advance the fundamental knowledge of block copolymers while helping to create a product that is needed for the expanded use of biofuels," Register said. "This is a project we would not have been able to take on without the Dean for Research Innovation Fund."

Faster wireless networks

New technologies that could improve wireless networks by combining light-based (photonic) and electronic components on a single microchip are under development in the laboratory of Paul Prucnal, professor of electrical engineering in collaboration with L-3 Communications Telemetry-East. This model shows a silicon-on-insulator wafer that traps optical signals in its top layer. Then waveguides and mirrors are etched into the silicon to guide and confine light. Finally, a different semiconductor material is bonded to the waveguide layer to create the electronic components. Image courtesy of Alexander Tait.As smartphones and other wireless devices grow in popularity, the amount of data communication resources — or bandwidth — will not be able to support consumer demand for wireless access.

One way of alleviating the bandwidth barrier is through improvements in signal processing. For example, it is possible to 'cancel' the channel on which one is sending a signal, allowing two communicating devices to send and receive along the same channel, potentially doubling the number of available channels. However, traditional electronics-based approaches to the problem tend to be slow and are vulnerable to noise and interference.

Professor of Electrical Engineering Paul Prucnal and his team have been awarded funding to work with an industrial collaborator, L-3 Communications Telemetry-East, to develop a low power, portable microchip that combines the unique physics of light together with electronics. Princeton will match L-3 Communications Telemetry-East's contribution to the research in years two and three of the project up to $75,000 per year, and has allocated $100,000 to the project in year one.

Photonic systems primarily use light to encode information and allow a large amount of data to be sent very quickly with little loss of signal and low signal-to-noise ratios. Electronic systems can operate using low power and are highly portable. An optical interference cancellation system that uses photonics and electronics could improve the efficiency of communications and expand the bandwidth availability of cellphones.

"We are building optical circuits which can process information at much higher speeds than are possible with electronic circuits," Prucnal said. "The goal is to create a low-cost, portable and widely deployable technology that could greatly enhance the efficiency of wireless networks."

Electrical engineering graduate students Matthew Chang, Alexander Tait, John Chang, Mitchell Nahmias and postdoctoral research associate Bhavin Shastri are part of the research team.