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Materials par excellence

Sarbajit Banerjee, associate professor of chemistry at UB

Sarbajit Banerjee, associate professor of chemistry at UB, is working to develop a heat-reflective coating to produce energy-efficient windows. It’s only one of the projects that could emerge from UB’s Center for Excellence in Materials Informatics. (photo: Buffalo News)

Published February 11, 2013

The University at Buffalo is betting on an emerging field to boost private industry and economic development in Buffalo Niagara.

“This is part of our strategy, where we concentrate on the areas that improve the economy”
Satisk K. Tripathi, President
University at Buffalo

Inside an Amherst laboratory, researchers are figuring out how to build a smarter window.

They’re working on a window coating that reflects heat from the sun during the summer but lets the heat through during cold winter months.

“In a place like Las Vegas, Phoenix or even New York City, this kind of technology could save you a whole lot of money,” explained Sarbajit Banerjee, lead researcher on the University at Buffalo project. “The research my students and I are doing is bringing us closer to the day when these kinds of smart windows become a reality.”

Welcome to the world of materials science.

It’s an emerging field of study that uses science and engineering to develop new or modified materials to make better products that people use every day.

And you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it.

UB is zeroing in on this area of research as another opportunity for academia to boost private industry and economic development in the Buffalo Niagara region.

So, you may hear about research to develop cheaper, more efficient solar cells.

Or a less toxic coating to rustproof steel.

Or an implantable sensor to detect glucose levels.

Or military cloaking devices to make objects appear invisible.

Or a better way to purify water.

Or a better endoscopic lens to detect cancer.

And more.

Last year, lawmakers in Albany got the ball rolling by designating UB as home to a new State Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics and providing $200,000 in start-up money.

This year, UB is asking the state for a lot more: $50 million to build a facility for materials research, along with $1 million a year in funding.

Neither showed up in the governor’s budget proposal last week, but UB has been working with the local state delegation on the request.

UB President Satish K. Tripathi met with the delegation earlier this month to let them know there’s no bigger priority on UB’s wish list this year.

They will continue to pursue the $50 million during the budget process.

“We will certainly do everything we can to move ahead with this,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, chairman of the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee.

It might be possible to build the new materials center with money from the special $1 billion funding pot designated last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for job creation in the Buffalo region.

But to justify that, officials said, the research facility would need to include a strong industry partner that would immediately add jobs.

Location is also undetermined. Maybe the center would go downtown, Tripathi said, maybe on the North Campus in Amherst.

“We recognize that it’s UB’s top priority,” said Schimminger, chairman of the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee, “and I know among the Buffalo-area leadership, there’s a recognition that moving ahead with this new center is important.”

Why all the interest?

For one, materials science is hot.

The federal government, for example, is trying to speed up the time between the discovery and commercialization of new types of materials. The urgency is driven, in part, by concerns over the shortage of key minerals used in new technologies such as smartphones, flat screens and hybrid car batteries.

UB made a strategic decision several years ago to specialize in this branch of nanoresearch, and through a number of faculty hires, it has built up a core of more than 40 scientists with expertise in the area.

More hires are on the way.

Some of those researchers are working on creating new materials to replicate these “rare-earth elements” that are in such high demand, said Alexander N. Cartwright, vice president for research and economic development at UB.

Others, he said, are looking at how existing materials can be used in new ways.

In Banerjee’s case, that means a better, more energy-efficient window.

The work by Banerjee – a UB chemist who was named one of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review magazine – involves a synthetic material called vanadium oxide, which undergoes a transition at certain temperatures.

“As it transforms from one form to the other, the material goes from being an insulator, which lets in infrared radiation, to a metal, which blocks infrared radiation,” Banerjee explained during his recent presentation at MIT.

As a result, Banerjee and his graduate student researchers have figured out that by making vanadium oxide very, very small, they can manipulate its trigger temperature and use that to develop a compound to coat windows.

“By doing so,” Banerjee said, “we can block heat when it gets hot, let in heat when it’s cold outside and always let in light.”

While the innovation is still in the testing phase, one of Banerjee’s graduate students is considering licensing aspects of the invention to create his own startup.

It’s a good example of what UB wants to accomplish with its new Center of Excellence.

“This is part of our strategy, where we concentrate on the areas that improve the economy,” said Tripathi, who serves as co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

This is UB’s second state-funded Center of Excellence.

The centers were started in New York more than a decade ago to create high-tech jobs by tapping into the brain power at public universities.

In 2006, UB opened the Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus for the research of new therapies and drugs to treat diseases.

Both centers rely on UB’s supercomputers – the informatics part – to help speed up the research process.

But the new center, in particular, complements the region’s roots in manufacturing and would be closely tied with the regional council’s plans for more high-tech, advanced manufacturing, Tripathi said.

Ideally, this research will lead to the development of new materials and spin-off companies to produce them.

But it’s no silver bullet.

It’s likely the center and its scientists will grow the economy more indirectly by helping manufacturers advance their research and development.

For example, Cartwright said, there may be companies that rely on expensive or rare-earth materials in their manufacturing process, which raise the price of their products.

“What we can think about is, ‘What can we do to replace that material so now they can produce a product that puts them at a competitive advantage?’,” Cartwright said. “Our goal is to help companies be more efficient, become more competitive and build the economy locally.”

That has been a missing component in the region, but it’s essential – especially if the hundreds of small and mid-size companies in the area are going to thrive and grow, he said.

“It addresses a need in manufacturing, which plays such a critical part in Western New York,” Tripathi said.