Princeton researchers awarded funds to develop promising technologies

Five Princeton faculty teams are the new recipients of support from a University fund designed to help propel promising discoveries out of the laboratory into products and technologies that can benefit society.

The funding will support the following projects: a cheaper and more efficient solar cell for converting sunlight to electricity; a novel water-treatment technology; a microscope that uses sound waves to focus the lens; a graphene-based boost for battery-like devices; and a new class of antiviral drugs.

The awards come from the University's Intellectual Property (IP) Development Fund, which supports early-stage projects that have the potential to transform lives and improve the world. The fund enables faculty researchers to do proof-of-concept work and prototyping aimed at demonstrating the commercial potential of a discovery.

"This fund provides support that is crucial for transferring Princeton innovations into the hands of people," said Dean for Research A.J. Stewart Smith, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics.

Smith remarked that corporate partners are essential in this process because they have the necessary expertise and financial resources to develop research projects into products. Yet without working prototypes and additional data, companies and venture capitalists are hesitant to invest in laboratory-stage research, he said. "Without funds such as these," Smith said, "promising research findings might never make it to the marketplace where they can benefit the public, because few federal research dollars are available for translational research and prototyping."

The fund makes it easier to attract investors or find commercial partners, said John Ritter, director of Princeton's Office of Technology Licensing. "The fund helps cross the gap between a promising research-stage discovery and a commercially attractive technology," Ritter said.

Providing $500,000 shared over the five projects, the fund can be used to hire research staff to conduct development-oriented research. "This frees up faculty members to focus their creativity on new research and helps the University achieve its goals of exceptional scholarship, dedication to teaching and public service," Smith said.

The five winning projects were selected from about 30 submissions by a committee chaired by Smith and composed of faculty members from across academic disciplines, plus two venture capitalists.

The faculty and their projects are:

James Sturm
, the William and Edna Macaleer Professor of Engineering and Applied Science
Silicon-Organic Heterojunctions for Low-Cost Highly-Efficient Photovoltaics

As concerns mount over energy independence and climate change, demand is increasing for photovoltaic devices that convert sunlight to electricity. However, today's photovoltaics are costly to manufacture. The team at Princeton has developed a new photovoltaic technology based on silicon-organic heterojunctions, tiny electronic structures fabricated using inexpensive high-throughput manufacturing techniques. Whereas conventional photovoltaic cells are made at high temperatures under vacuum conditions, silicon-organic heterojunctions are made using room-temperature application of a liquid-based organic semiconductor layer.

The team, which includes graduate student Sushobhan Avasthi, plans to use the IP Development Fund award to conduct additional work aimed at increasing the energy conversion efficiency and reliability of the devices. A startup company, SuryaTech LLC, was founded in May 2011 to commercially develop this technology.

John Groves, the Hugh Stott Taylor Chair of Chemistry
Manganese-Catalyzed Production of Chlorine Dioxide

For decades, chlorination has been the treatment of choice for water disinfection, wood pulp bleaching and antimicrobial treatments. However, chlorine has undesirable effects including the production of potentially toxic disinfection byproducts. Another form of chlorine, known as chlorine dioxide, is rapidly becoming favored for many applications. But because chlorine dioxide breaks down quickly, it must be produced on site using strong acids and oxidants that have their own health and environmental drawbacks.

The Princeton team has discovered a family of chemical catalysts that can produce chlorine dioxide quickly and efficiently from inexpensive starting materials without the need for additional oxidants or acids. The manganese-based catalysts convert chlorite ions into chlorine dioxide in seconds. To make this discovery practical for water treatment, however, the researchers need to show that the process can be scaled for industrial use. They plan to assemble a working prototype with support from the IP Development Fund.

Craig Arnold, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
Tunable Acoustic Gradient (TAG) Scanning and 3-D Microscope System

Traditional optical microscopes for industrial or biological applications are limited by slow manual focusing or electronic focusing that requires moving parts. A new type of lens could change that by providing an ultrafast electronically controlled focus, which increases the ease of use and adds functionality to a standard microscope — such as the ability for 3-D imaging and other novel imaging options — that cannot be achieved with current technologies. The Tunable Acoustic Gradient (TAG) lens uses sound waves to bend light, giving it the ability to change focus with computer control in less than a microsecond — making it 1,000 times faster than any other focusing lens currently on the market. The researchers are demonstrating the feasibility of TAG-enabled microscopy by adding this device to a standard off-the-shelf microscope and color camera system to provide images of multiple locations in a sample simultaneously without moving parts.

The team plans to use the IP Development Fund for the construction of a 3-D microscope prototype that would open up new markets and encourage investment in this technology. 

Ilhan Aksay, professor of chemical and biological engineering
Functionalized Graphene-Based High-Energy Ultracapacitors

Like batteries, ultracapacitors are devices capable of storing energy. These electronic devices can actually outperform batteries in terms of power density and longevity, but today's devices are not able to store enough energy to be used as stand-alone energy sources. Aksay's team is exploring ways to improve this energy storage using graphene, a highly purified form of carbon arranged in sheets just one atom thick.

The team is using graphene to build electrodes, which are the "positive" and "negative" sides of the battery. The team will collaborate with Vorbeck Materials Corp., a company that has licensed graphene-related technologies from Princeton. The IP Development Fund will enable the purchase of testing equipment and support graduate student Michael Pope, the key inventor of the use of graphene sheets for high-performance electrodes in ultracapacitors. These ultracapacitors may someday be used in fuel cells, sensors that detect chemicals and artificial muscles.

David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry; Thomas Shenk, the James A. Elkins Jr. Professor in the Life Sciences; and Ileana Cristea, assistant professor of molecular biology
Screen for Sirtuin Modulators as Antiviral Agents

Viral diseases are a major cause of human illness and death, and new broad spectrum antiviral drugs have the potential to greatly improve human health. Princeton molecular biologists Thomas Shenk and Ileana Cristea have discovered that naturally occurring proteins called sirtuins are capable of inhibiting the growth of multiple types of viruses, including human cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, adenovirus and influenza A virus. The discovery of small-molecule drugs that can modulate sirtuin activity could lead to new therapeutics for human viral diseases.

To discover new therapeutics, Shenk and Cristea are screening a library of 8,000 compounds created by David MacMillan and colleagues in the Department of Chemistry using a technology called organocascade catalysis developed by MacMillan's team. The researchers will use the IP Development Fund to support laboratory personnel to conduct screens of the compounds and study structure-activity relationships.