Imagine clothes that can regulate body temperature. Or sensors that can check sugar levels without drawing blood. Binghamton University researchers Howard Wang and C.J. Zhong are breaking new ground with their discoveries and well on the way to building real commercial success for their ideas.
Wang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has worked to perfect electronic inks, infused with nanomaterials, that could find their way into wallpaper computer screens or clothes that regulate body temperature. Zhong, an associate professor of chemistry, has developed nanoparticle-based sensor arrays that could someday monitor air for noxious chemicals, or check diabetics' sugar levels without drawing blood. Both recently started firms to bring their discoveries to market, and both new companies are getting a boost in Binghamton University's new Start-Up Suite.
Wang, vice president and chief scientific officer of NanoMas, founded the company in January with fellow researchers ZhihaoYang, president and chief technology officer, and Tom Xu, vice president and chief operating officer. The NanoMas team has developed efficient, cost-effective processes for manufacturing electronic inks made of silver and zinc oxide nanoparticles suspended in liquid.
The inks serve as conductors and semiconductors. Printing them onto thin, flexible substrate, manufacturers can mass-produce circuitry much as a printing press cranks out newspaper sheets. Along with paper-thin video screens and clothing that heats and cools as needed, these light, flexible electronics could form the basis for environmental sensors. They could also enable a new, less-expensive generation of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which manufacturers will embed in product packaging to help retailers manage inventory.
Today, though, manufacturers that are developing machines to print electronic circuitry in high volume are getting ready to bring their products to market, probably by 2008. Once they do, demand for electronic inks will surge. Although many researchers are working on electronic inks, NanoMas's nanoparticles are ideally suited to that application, Wang said.
"For performance, smaller is definitely better, but smaller also means more unstable-difficult to make as well as difficult to use." NanoMas has struck a balance between small and stable.
The researchers have also figured out how to control manufacturing costs so they can price their products attractively. "We invented an approach that is similar to making fertilizer or plastics, a large-scale wet chemistry approach, which can be scaled up," Wang said.
In C.J. Zhong's case, a $100,000 Phase I Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) feasibility study grant from the U.S Air Force to develop air quality sensors for aircraft cockpits plus an invitation to apply for a $750,000 Phase II SBIR grant to turn the prototype sensors into products, provided the spark for his company, NSC Technology.
Zhong and post-doctoral senior research associate Jin Luo, who serves as the company's CEO, founded NSC Technology in late 2005. NSC Technology takes advantage of the fact that nanomaterials react more sensitively to the presence of chemicals than the same materials at larger scale. Zhong's lab has created chips containing nanoparticles of different metals and metal oxides, each of which emits an electronic signal when it comes in contact with a specific chemical.
Most sensors on the market today are designed to detect only one chemical at a time, Zhong said. But since people may need to monitor numerous substances in the air, these sensors aren't as useful as they might be. "We believe we can design sensors that simultaneously target multiple chemicals," he said.
Zhong is collaborating with colleague Susan Lu, assistant professor of systems science and industrial engineering, to package the chips in handheld devices with software to interpret the electronic signals, alerting the user to the presence of the target chemicals. A similar approach could produce a sensor that checks the breath of a diabetic person for acetone, a biomarker that indicates the level of glucose in the blood, Zhong said.
NSC Technology is also working with metals and alloys on the nanoscale to develop more durable, less expensive catalysts for use in fuel cells. The market potential for both the sensors and the catalysts is strong, Zhong said. "People are concerned about the air they breathe. People worry about their future energy sources. I think we're in the right business."