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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Research

 

Researchers value the promptings of curiosity. They cherish great questions that suggest new vistas. While speculation, intuition, and hypotheses provide powerful starting points, researchers insist upon logic, careful experimentation, and evidence as they pursue their work.

This may take them out of their comfort zones. They may get lost at times and need to pause, reconsider, and reframe their views on what is possible and what is real. Often, the best way to make sense of unexpected observations and anomalies comes from another discipline. In Smarter Faster Better, author Charles Duhigg cites the power of innovation brokers. These are people who bring the models, processes, and knowledge from one discipline into a different one. The result: Something new and valuable.

Nature, famously, has inspired both new technologies and new understandings. There also have been surprising cases where ideas of artists have been imported into science and technology research at Rensselaer encouraging open minds, willing to pay attention to insights wherever they may originate and to discover if an idea in one discipline suggests a new approach, a new perspective. Thus, an immersive environment may reveal how a biological molecule works. Data analysis may expose new patterns in communication between terrorists. Psychological theories may make sense of economic trends that counter expectations of rational actors.

The emergence of ways inspired by other disciplines to tease valuable information out of MRI images or aggregated studies of agricultural pests or user experiences of augmented reality should not be surprising. Throughout history, Rensselaer has approached exploration, including efforts in research and development, with who we are as individuals and who we are in community. Both tool-making and the pursuit of knowledge are fully human endeavors.

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Energy

RENSSELAER RECEIVES $1.8 MILLION DOE AWARD FOR SOLAR POWER SYSTEMS RESEARCH

Fundamental research will aid in the selection of heat storage materials for high-temperature thermal systems.

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office has awarded $1.8 million to Rensselaer to study high-temperature molten-salt properties and corrosion mechanisms. This award is part of a $72 million funding program to advance concentrating solar power (CSP) research, a power plant technology that could reduce the cost of solar energy. The research is led by Li (Emily) Lui, associate professor of nuclear engineering and engineering physics.

CSP systems supply solar power on-demand through the use of thermal storage. CSP technologies use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat. Thermal energy can then be used to produce electricity via a turbine or heat engine driving a generator. Types of CSP technologies include power towers, mirrored dishes, and linear mirrors.

The Generation 3 Concentrating Solar Power Systems (Gen3 CSP) funding program will build on prior research for high-temperature concentrating solar thermal power technologies. Projects will focus on developing components and integrated assembly designs with thermal energy storage that can reach high operating temperatures, with  a target of at least 700 degrees C, which would boost the efficiency and lower the cost of the electricity.

Molten salt is used both as a heat transfer fluid and as a thermal energy storage medium in a power tower CSP system, according to Liu. “The molten salt mixture is both non-toxic and inert, and it can deploy inexpensive and  scalable thermal storage, thereby enabling cost-effective 24-hour electricity generation using only solar energy,” she said.

However, molten salts, which contain impurities such as oxygen and moisture, can be very corrosive at high temperatures (550 to 700 degrees C), and can eat away the common alloys used to produce the heat exchangers, piping, and storage vessels in CSP systems.

Liu’s research aims to fill the knowledge gaps in salt properties and gain a fundamental understanding of corrosion mechanisms, which will help guide the selection of salts and containment materials for CSP systems.

“The salt chemistry, as well as its corrosion, must be understood before the system and component design because the material choice may differ with the salt  properties identified,” said Liu.

Working with project collaborators Robert Hull, the Henry Burlage Jr. Professor of Engineering at Rensselaer, and Professor Jinsuo Zhang from Virginia Tech, Liu will use state-of-the-art and new technologies to develop in-situ corrosion kinetics and salt property measurements.

The researchers are developing four innovative and in many cases first-of-their-kind approaches in their study of molten salts, including in-situ transmission electron microscopy, neutron reflectometry of molten salt and alloy cells, macroscopic electrochemical studies, and vibrational spectroscopy analysis and modeling.

The results of this research will lead to new and innovative approaches in the associated technologies, and insights into the molten salt and containment material aspect of solar energy, said Liu.

“Sustainable capture, storage, and distribution of energy is one of the grand challenges of our time,” said Shekhar Garde, dean of engineering at Rensselaer. “Emily’s collaborative work with Professors Hull and Zhang will make advances in the development of inexpensive materials for safe storage of high-temperature thermal energy. I congratulate the team on this grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.”

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LI (EMILY) LIU RECENTLY RECEIVED AN ELATE AT DREXEL FELLOWSHIP, AND IN 2017 WAS AWARDED AN ARAB-AMERICAN FRONTIERS FELLOWSHIP FROM THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCES, ENGINEERING, AND MEDICINE. SHE IS ALSO THE RECIPIENT OF A FACULTY DEVELOPMENT GRANT FROM THE U.S. NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION, AND NUMEROUS TEACHING AND RESEARCH AWARDS FROM THE SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AT RENSSELAER, AS WELL AS THE COZZARELLI PRIZE IN ENGINEERING AND APPLIED SCIENCES FROM THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES.

Li (Emily) Liu
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Environment

APPLYING NETWORK ANALYSIS TO NATURAL HISTORY

marine life fossil in spiral shape

Technique popularized through social media ranks impact of extinctions

A team of researchers is using network analysis techniques—popularized through social media applications to find patterns in Earth’s natural history, as detailed in a paper published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). By using network analysis to search for communities of marine life in the fossil records of the Paleobiology Database, the team, including researchers at Rensselaer, was able to quantify the ecological impacts of major events like mass extinctions and may help us anticipate the consequences of a “sixth mass extinction.”

“Network analysis can transform into a digestible form databases that are so huge that it’s impossible to look at substantial portions of the data altogether,” said Peter Fox, a Tetherless World Constellation Chair and professor of earth and environmental sciences, computer science, and cognitive science at Rensselaer. “The power of our approach is that multidimensional data embedded in the network can inform and discover trends in the data, turning an endless grid of numbers into a picture that reveals  multiple relationships at a glance.”

The team’s approach offers new perspective on the ecological impacts of present-day species extinctions, said Drew Muscente, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University and lead author on the paper. Given the rate of species disappearances over the past few centuries, many scientists suspect that Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction.

 

 

“The fossil record contains evidence of repeated mass extinctions. Data on how ancient communities of organisms changed during these events can help us understand the potential consequences of the present-day biodiversity crisis,” said Muscente. “Our work shows that this crisis, regardless of what you call it, may irreparably alter communities of organisms and their ecosystems in some surprising ways, which can’t be predicted with other methods.”

One picture that emerges from the analysis is a ranking of the ecological impact of major events, with the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event having the largest effect on ecology, followed in descending order by the Permian-Triassic, Cretaceous-Paleogene, Devonian, and Triassic-Jurassic mass extinctions.  

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Environment

MONITORING HARMFUL ALGAE BLOOM ON SKANEATELES LAKE

The world’s most advanced environmental monitoring system—developed through The Jefferson Project at Lake George—is being used to understand and protect Skaneateles Lake, a central New York drinking water source now threatened by toxic algae. Building on a connection through the New York State Harmful Algal Bloom (HABs) Initiative launched in late 2017, the Jefferson Project installed a custom-designed robotic sensing platform on Skaneateles, and began collecting data just prior to an early August HABs event this year.

The Jefferson Project at Lake George is a partnership between IBM Research, Rensselaer, and The FUND for Lake George that combines advanced technology with science and advocacy to understand human impacts on freshwater and address the world’s looming freshwater supply challenges. The sensing platform, called a “vertical profiler,” was part of a four-month pilot project the Jefferson Project undertook in cooperation with the Skaneateles Lake Association and the Upstate Freshwater Institute.

“The ability to protect the natural resources of our planet, with freshwater vital among them, is one of the greatest challenges we face collectively across the globe,” said President Shirley Ann Jackson. “The Jefferson Project is pioneering a new approach and new tools that pinpoint the cause of threats to freshwater and empowers policymakers to enact solutions backed by the insights of science. We are pleased to offer the advanced technology of the Jefferson Project to local researchers working to protect Skaneateles Lake.”

Knowledge gained during the pilot project will aid Skaneateles Lake, while informing local and regional groups on Lake George and other Adirondack lakes seeking to prevent or react to harmful algal blooms. The Jefferson Project will collaborate with Skaneateles area academic and government researchers, supported by the unparalleled data collection and modeling capabilities the Jefferson Project has developed.

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Human Health

ADVANCING PERSONALIZED ANTI-CANCER DRUGS

close-up of gloved hand with needle

Researchers at Rensselaer and Albany Medical Center are working together to develop 3D bioprinting and imaging techniques that will generate and analyze tumor models in the laboratory, with the goal of  accelerating the development and optimization of personalized anti-cancer drugs.

The joint research, supported by a $3.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, will help address fundamental issues in cancer research and treatment.

“If successful, our study will help researchers to develop personalized anti-cancer treatments,” said David Corr, one of the study’s principal investigators and a Rensselaer associate professor of biomedical engineering associated with the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. “Ultimately, this research could help clinicians identify whether a particular drug, or drug combination, is effectively reaching the cancer cells in that type of tumor, in that specific person to inform a patient-specific treatment strategy prior to undergoing chemotherapy.”

In addition to Corr, the researchers leading the project are Xavier Intes, professor of biomedical engineering and co-director of the BioImaging Center at Rensselaer, and Margarida Barroso, professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Albany Medical College.

Current drug treatments can target drugs to cancer cells, but it is difficult to determine whether the drug has actually reached and is able to act on those cancer cells. The imaging assays developed by Barroso and Intes allow researchers to examine the ability of drugs to bind to cancer cells.

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Environment

IMPROVING NATURE’S TOOLS FOR DIGESTING PLASTICS

Enzymes found in nature can break down certain plastics, but not well enough to support industrial recycling and stem the scourge of plastic waste. Building on what nature has provided, researchers at Rensselaer have improved the efficiency of a leaf and branch compost cutinase that breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used in clear and colored plastic water bottles and many other products. Researchers believe the enzyme can be further refined, offering a promising candidate to fuel limitless recycling of PET and possibly other plastics such as cellulose acetate. In work published in the journal Biochemistry, the researchers used yeast cells to express the leaf and branch compost cutinase (LCC) modified by the addition of sugar molecules—or glycans—in two locations. The “glycosylated” modified enzyme retained at least half of its activity after 48 hours at 75 degrees Celsius, versus a previously reported half-life of 40 minutes for the unmodified enzyme at 70 degrees Celsius.

“We need plastics and other materials that retain good performance and, after use, can then be broken down by safe and mild processes to their original building blocks for reuse,” said Richard Gross, Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering and lead author of the research. “The goal should be zero waste and to do that, we have to build reuse into the design of a wide range of polymers and materials. This is an encouraging step toward that goal.”

 

 

With existing technologies, a plastic bottle isn’t so much recycled as downcycled. After a single use, a high percentage of PET bottles go directly to landfills or are reused as other plastics such as PET fibers and fleece for clothes, carpets, bags, furniture, and packing materials. Eventually, down-cycled PET makes its way to landfills or other undesirable environments such as oceans and lakes, a fate many consumers are unaware of as they toss their water bottles in a recycling bin.  

“This cutinase is an excellent candidate for commercialization, but this work will also help us redesign other cutinases to break down other polymers, and that’s a much larger end game,” said Gross.

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MICHAEL “MIKI” AMITAY, THE JAMES L. DECKER ’45 ENDOWED CHAIR IN AEROSPACE ENGINEERING, HAS RECEIVED A GRANT FROM THE AIR FORCE OFFICE OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH TO STUDY THE PHENOMENON OF FLOW SEPARATION ON AIRCRAFT WINGS, WHICH COULD LEAD TO IMPROVED AERODYNAMIC PERFORMANCE IN FUTURE-GENERATION AIR VEHICLES. AS LEAD INVESTI-GATOR ON THE PROJECT, AMITAY WILL USE THE THREE-YEAR, $894,000 GRANT TO STUDY “FLOW PHYSICS AND CONTROL OF 3D SEPARATION ON 3D SWEPT WINGS.”

Michael "Miki" Amitay
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Energy

$64 MILLION INVESTMENT IN ADVANCED NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced nearly $64 million in awards for advanced nuclear energy technology to DOE national laboratories, industry, and 39 U.S. universities in 29 states. Rensselaer has been awarded $800,000 for analysis of nuclear power plants’ accident propagation and mitigation processes.

“Because nuclear energy is such a vital part of our nation’s energy portfolio, these investments are necessary to ensuring that future generations of Americans will continue to benefit from safe, clean, reliable, and resilient nuclear energy,” said Ed McGinnis, DOE’s principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy. “Our commitment to providing researchers with access to the fundamental infrastructure and capabilities needed to develop advanced nuclear technologies is critical.”

As a result of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, new safety upgrades for existing Light Water Reactors (LWRs) are being developed, which include Accident Tolerant Fuel (ATF) and diverse and flexible coping strategies (FLEX). These safety features are expected to extend a plant’s coping time and mitigation capability in an accident.

The Rensselaer project is aimed at the systematic operation strategy development based on dynamic response analysis in consideration of FLEX and ATF upgrades of nuclear power plants. This framework can extend to be used with any additional safety enhancement in the future.

Hyun Gook Kang, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer, is the principal investigator. Collaborators include Ohio State University, University of New Mexico, and Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.

According to Kang, in order to capture the variation of realistic accident propagation and mitigation processes, the timeline dynamics of plant and critical components need to be analyzed. “This accident analysis will result in a very large number of plant response types which must be managed with the systematic uncertainty treatment. Dynamic risk assessment, human error database, ATF failure criteria assessment, and big data response surface models will be utilized,” he said.

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JIAN SHI, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING, HAS WON A YOUNG INVESTIGATOR RESEARCH PROGRAM (YIP) AWARD FROM THE AIR FORCE OFFICE OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH (AFOSR). SHI WILL USE THE THREE-YEAR, $450,000 GRANT TO PURSUE FUNDAMENTAL RESEARCH ON NANOSCALE COMPLEX MATERIALS THAT COULD LEAD TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEXT-GENERATION RESILIENT AND HIGH-PERFORMANCE ENERGY CONVERSION AND SENSING TECHNOLOGIES. THE AFOSR YIP AWARD IS ONE OF THE MOST COMPETITIVE AWARDS FOR YOUNG ASSISTANT PROFESSORS AND RESEARCHERS IN THE UNITED STATES.

Jian Shi
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Environment

TWO DEGREES DECIMATED PUERTO RICO’S INSECT POPULATIONS

While temperatures in the tropical forests of northeastern Puerto Rico have climbed two degrees Celsius since the mid-1970s, the biomass of arthropods—invertebrate animals such as insects, millipedes, and sowbugs—has declined by as much as 60-fold, according to new findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The finding supports the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warnings of severe environmental threats given a 2.0 degree Celsius elevation in global temperature. Like some other tropical locations, the study area in the Luquillo rainforest has already reached or exceeded a 2.0 degree Celsius rise in average temperature, and the study finds that the consequences are potentially catastrophic.  

“Our results suggest that the effects of climate warming in tropical forests may be even greater than anticipated,” said Brad Lister, lead author of the study and a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rensselaer. “The insect populations in the Luquillo forest are crashing, and once that begins, the animals that eat the insects have insufficient food, which results in decreased reproduction and survivorship and consequent declines in abundance.”

“Climate Driven Declines in Arthropod Abundance Restructure a Rainforest Food Web” is based on data collected between 1976 and 2013 by the authors and the Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research program at three mid-elevation habitats in Puerto Rico’s protected Luquillo rainforest. During this time, mean maximum temperatures have risen by 2.0 degrees Celsius.

Cold-blooded animals living in tropical climates are particularly vulnerable to climate warming since they are adapted to relatively stable year-round temperatures. Given their analyses of the data, which included new techniques to assess causality, the authors conclude that climate warming is the major driver of reductions in arthropod abundance in the Luquillo forest. These reductions have precipitated a major bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of the forest food web. 

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Human Health

PREDICTING AUTISM RISK FOR PREGNANT MOTHERS

close-up of gloved hand with needle

Researchers at Rensselaer—led by Juergen Hahn, professor and head of biomedical engineering—are continuing to make remarkable progress with their research focused on autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A recent paper authored by Hahn and Jill James from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders discusses their work on predicting with approximately 90 percent accuracy whether a pregnant mother has a 1.7 percent or a tenfold increased risk of having a child diagnosed with ASD.

Currently there is no test for pregnant mothers that can predict the probability of having a child that will be diagnosed with ASD. Recent estimates indicate that if a mother has previously had a child with ASD, the risk of having a second child with ASD is approximately 18.7 percent, whereas the risk of ASD in the general population is approximately 1.7 percent.

“However,” said Hahn, a member of the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, “it would be highly desirable if a prediction based upon physiological measurements could be made to determine which risk group a prospective mother falls into.”

Hahn’s work in developing a physiological test to predict autism risk is part of a larger emphasis on Alzheimer’s and neurodegenerative diseases at the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and an example of how the interdisciplinary life science and engineering interface at Rensselaer offers new perspectives and solutions for improving human health.

The researchers concluded that while it is not possible to determine during a pregnancy if a child will be diagnosed with ASD by age 3, they did find that differences in the plasma metabolites are indicative of the relative risk (18.7 percent vs 1.7 percent) for having a child with ASD.

“These are exciting results as they hint at differences in some metabolic processes that potentially play a role in increasing the risk of having a child with ASD,” said Hahn.

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MENG WANG, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ELECTRICAL, COMPUTER, AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING, HAS WON A YOUNG INVESTIGATOR PROGRAM (YIP) AWARD FROM THE ARMY RESEARCH OFFICE (ARO). WANG WILL USE THE THREE-YEAR, $360,000 GRANT TO DEVELOP METHODS TO EXTRACT USEFUL INFORMATION FROM COMPLEX DATA THAT COULD LEAD TO IMPROVED IMAGE CLASSIFICATION AND OBJECT IDENTIFICATION IN MODERN SURVEILLANCE SYSTEMS. THE ARO YIP AWARD IS ONE OF THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS HONORS BESTOWED BY THE ARMY ON SCIENTISTS BEGINNING THEIR INDEPENDENT CAREERS.

Meng Wang
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