In the Hi-Light solar thermal chemical reactor, waveguides glow as they transfer light into the reactor’s shell.

Engineers turn research into prototypes with Scale Up Awards

Products for turning pollution into fuel, sanitizing food, enhancing virtual reality and helping to reduce pain from arthritis are among the working prototypes emerging from the Scale Up and Prototyping Awards, launched in June by Cornell Engineering.

Four teams of engineering faculty and students each received up to $20,000 from the college to advance their laboratory research toward functioning prototypes.

“The goal of these awards is to identify and support research teams that recognize their technology is not quite ready for commercialization, but shows commercial promise and would benefit from incremental efforts to move along their development path,” said Robert Scharf ’77, award advisory board member and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Cornell Engineering.

The projects and teams:

Hi-Light solar thermal chemical reactor

Team includes doctoral students Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao and Jessica Akemi Cimada da Silva; David Erickson, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Tobias Hanrath, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

The group used its funding to build and test a .3-liter reactor capable of converting carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons – a major component of petroleum and natural gas. The reactor is a metal pipe with internal light-guiding rods that enable radiation captured from a light source, such as the sun, into the reactor. The optical energy interacts with a catalyst to convert the incoming carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons.

“CO2 emissions are one of the most important problems we have to deal with in our generation,” said Cimada da Silva, who envisions the reactor being used to capture and convert carbon dioxide from industries and power plant facilities. “So one way we can deal with it is to close the carbon cycle by using the CO2 as a resource, as a feedstock for making something more valuable, such as fuels.”

High-efficiency, deep ultra-violet light-emitting diodes

Team includes postdoctoral associate S.M. (Moudud) Islam; doctoral students Kevin Lee and Shyam Bharadwaj; Vladimir Protasenko, senior research associate; Huili Grace Xing, professor of electrical and computer engineering and of materials science and engineering; and Debdeep Jena, professor of electrical and computer engineering and of materials science and engineering.

After recording the shortest known ultra-violet-light wavelength using a gallium-nitride-based light-emitting diode (LED), the group is using the award funding to manufacture and package the LEDs for commercial use.

“There are a lot of different applications,” said Islam. “The specific wavelength we are talking about, 260 to 290 nanometers, can be used for water purification, cellphone disinfection and food preservation. The reason is this range of wavelengths has the right energy to destroy harmful organisms like bacteria and viruses.”

Islam said LEDs are more efficient and better for the environment than traditional mercury-based, ultra-violet lamps used in various industries for the same purpose. The group is collaborating with researchers in China to package the LEDs.

OmniPulse controller for virtual reality

Team includes doctoral students Ben Mac Murray and Bryan Peele; Robert Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

A virtual reality controller fitted with the OmniPulse haptic feedback device on the handle.

The group has created a haptic feedback device, dubbed OmniPulse, that turns a video game controller into a pulsating object that can change its shape and feel synchronous action happening in the game. The group focused on virtual reality gaming, creating a rubber sleeve that can fit over the handle of a controller. The sleeve contains pockets that quickly fill with compressed air, changing the shape and feel of the controller based on what the user is experiencing in the virtual world.

Peele views the OmniPulse as the next generation of video game controllers, which have traditionally only offered vibration as an immersion feature. “It lets you go beyond this cutaneous sensation on the skin to a full kinesthetic reaction, so it can actually provide enough pressure that you feel it in the musculature of your hands. When you clink swords together in the game, the controller feels like it’s twisting in your hand,” said Peele.

The group is using a portion of the award funding to develop a variable-stiffness controller that compresses air into a complex system of internal lattices instead of pockets. The goal is to create a shape-shifting device that can replicate any object held by the user in the virtual world.

Synthetic lubricant for osteoarthritis treatment

Team includes David Putnam, associate professor of biomedical engineering and of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Lawrence Bonassar, professor of biomedical engineering; and Zhexun Sun, postdoctoral student.

The group has developed a polymer that mimics lubricin, a natural lubricant that acts as a cushion between joints. Diminished lubricin in the joint can lead to osteoarthritis, and while lubricin can be manufactured at the lab scale, it is very expensive to manufacture in the amount necessary for clinical use, making it economically unviable as an osteoarthritis treatment.

The group’s polymer is a synthetic alternative that reduces friction between bones in the knees, shoulders, hips and spine, but is affordable to manufacture at scale. The award funding is being used to manufacture a 1-kilogram batch of the polymer so that its effectiveness in dogs with osteoarthritis can be studied, in collaboration with Ursula Krotscheck and Kei Hayashi, orthopedic surgeons in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Erin Berthelsen, the college’s clinical research coordinator.

“We have the go-ahead from the National Institutes of Health to do a pilot study on osteoarthritic canine patients. We plan to help old, obese dogs in need of treatment at the College of Veterinary Medicine,” said Putnam, who said future plans include marketing the material for veterinary use, then capturing that revenue to fund human clinical trials.

An early test of the polymer has already yielded its first patient – a pit bull named Diamond with severe arthritis in her upper right shoulder. Three weeks after receiving an injection, her limp is largely gone, with a 40 percent improvement in function.

Applications for the next round of funding have been collected and Scharf expects awardees to be announced in late November.

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.

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