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Brookhaven National Laboratory

Sam Aronson. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Sam Aronson, the retired head of Brookhaven National Laboratory, has set his sights on a new project far from Long Island.

Teaming up with Acacia Leakey, the project management and engineering consultant of a company called SOSAED and a member of the famed family that has made seminal discoveries about human evolution in Kenya, Aronson would like to stimulate the growth of businesses through the use of solar power that provides products and services.

“This [part of Africa] is an area where there’s really little infrastructure,” Aronson said. “We’re looking to help people get up on the economic pyramid.”

The people Aronson and Leakey would like to help are representative of the one billion people without access to electric power. Two-thirds of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Through SOSAED — which stands for Sustainable Off-grid Solutions for African Economic Development — Aronson and Leakey are working with the Turkana Basin Institute of northern Kenya, Stony Brook University, Strathmore University in Nairobi and other Kenyan educational institutions and businesses to integrate business creation in off-grid areas into the larger Kenyan economic ecosystem.

The group would like to create a business model, using local workers and managers, for a range of companies, Leakey explained.

SOSAED plans to start with a small-scale solar-powered clothing production business, which would create affordable clothing for the heat, including skirts, shirts and shorts. SOSAED expects to build this plant adjacent to the TBI research facility.

Ideally, the manufacturer will make the clothing from local material. The clothing business is a pilot project to see whether the model can work for other types of projects in other areas. The Turkana Basin Institute will provide some of the infrastructure, while SOSAED will acquire the equipment and the raw materials and training to do the work.

SOSAED hopes the project will become “self-sustaining when it’s up and running,” Aronson said. “To be sustainable, it has to be the work of local people.” He hopes what will differentiate this effort from other groups’ attempts to build economic development is the commitment to maintenance by people living and working in the area.

“To an extent, the suitability of technology is rarely rigorously considered when humanitarian or generic development projects are implemented,” Leakey explained in an email. “Not only are the skills required for maintenance an important consideration, the availability of spare parts and the motivation and ability to pay for these are also important.”

Developing a system that includes upkeep by people living and working in the area could “make a project move ahead on its own steam,” Aronson said. The area has limited infrastructure, although some of that is changing as new roads and government-funded water projects begin.

Leakey suggested that a long-term project would need extensive participation of the users in every step of the development and implementation. “The project will likely look very different once complete to how we envisage it now, and part of our success (if it comes) will lie in working in a way which allows a great degree of flexibility as it is unlikely we’ll design the ‘right’ system the first time around,” she explained in an email.

In areas with mature systems, Leakey suggested that some organizations had difficulty changing direction, retrofitting existing systems or adapting new technology. New York, she explained, is struggling to adopt sustainable technologies to the extent that it could. “Legislative and physical infrastructure imposes unfortunate roadblocks in the way of clean technologies,” she wrote in an email. “We’re fortunate that with electricity provision we have a fairly blank slate” in Kenya and that the “Kenya government also recognizes the value of off-grid initiatives.”

Leakey appreciates the support TBI played in helping to create SOSAED and is grateful for the ongoing assistance. Through Stony Brook University, SOSAED is beginning to engage business students on economic questions. In the future, the group may also work with engineering students on technological challenges.

“Research may include developing new productive uses of solar power, optimizing the existing system and using the site to rigorously test technologies developed at Stony Brook,” she explained.

Aronson’s initial interest in this project came from his technological connection to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he retired as the director in 2015. He has been eager to bring new technology to a population he is confident they can help in a “way that makes sense to them and addresses their needs.”

With the support of the Turkana Basin Institute and Stony Brook, Aronson hopes to have a functioning solar hub and factory near TBI that serves a few surrounding villages within the next 18 months. “That’s a very ambitious goal,” he acknowledged. “We’re working in an environment that, because of the history and development, people you’re trying to serve are somewhat skeptical that you’re serious and that you have the staying power to make something that looks like what you’re talking about work.” 

While Aronson and Leakey are continuing to make connections in Kenya with government officials and residents interested in starting businesses, they are searching for ways to make this effort financially viable.

SOSAED is raising money through philanthropic grants and foundations to get the project going. Eventually, they hope to approach venture capital firms who are patient and prepared to invest for the longer term in a number of projects.

After they have an initial example, they will approach other financial backers with more than just a good idea, but with a model they hope will work in other locations.

Aronson lauded the effort and knowledge of Leakey. “We wouldn’t be making much progress right now for a variety of reasons in Kenya if [Leakey] hadn’t come on board,” Aronson said. “I value in the extreme her ability to get the work done.”

SOSAID would like to submit proposals to funding sources that can drive this concept forward.

If this effort takes root, Aronson believes there is a “tremendous market out there.” That would mean this would “become a much bigger organization.”

Francis Alexander. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Now what? It’s a question that affects everyone from the quarterback who wins the Super Bowl — who often says something about visiting a Disney facility — to the student who earns a college degree, to the researcher who has published a paper sharing results with the scientific community.

For some, the path forward is akin to following footsteps in the snow, moving ever closer to a destination for which a path is clear. For others, particularly those developing new technology, looking to unlock mysteries, the path is more like trudging through unfamiliar terrain.

The technology at facilities like Brookhaven National Laboratory, which includes the powerful National Synchrotron Light Source II and the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, among others, enables scientists to see processes at incredibly fine scales.

While these sites offer the promise of providing a greater ability to address questions such as what causes some batteries to die sooner than others, they also cost considerable money to use, putting pressure on researchers to ask the most fruitful question or pursue research that has the greatest chance for success.

Francis Alexander. Photo from BNL

That’s where people like Francis Alexander, the deputy director of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Computational Science Initiative, and his team at BNL can add considerable value. Alexander takes what researchers have discovered, couples it with other knowledge, and helps guide his fellow laboratory scientists to the next steps in their work — even if he, himself, isn’t conducting these experiments.

“Given our theoretical understanding of what’s going on, as imperfect as that may be, we take that understanding — the theory plus the experimental data — and determine what experiments we should do next,” Alexander said. “That will get us to our goal more quickly with limited resources.”

This approach offers a mutually reinforcing feedback loop between discoveries and interpretations of those discoveries, helping researchers appreciate what their results might show, while directing them toward the next best experiment.

The experiments, in turn, can either reinforce the theory or can challenge previous ideas or results, forcing theoreticians like Alexander to use that data to reconstruct models that take a wide range of information into account.

Alexander is hoping to begin a project in which he works on developing products with specific properties. He plans to apply his knowledge of theoretical physics to polymers that will separate or grow into different structures. “We want to grow a structure with a [particular] function” that has specific properties, he said.

This work is in the early stages in which the first goal is to find the linkage between what is known about some materials and what scientists can extrapolate based on the available experiments and data.

Alexander said the aerospace industry has “models of everything they do.” They run “complex computer simulations [because] they want to know how they’d design something and which design to carry out.”

Alexander is currently the head of a co-design center, ExaLearn, that focuses on exascale, machine-learning technologies. The center is the sixth through the Exascale Computing Project. Growth in the amount of data and computational power is rapidly changing the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The applications for this type of technology range from computational and experimental science to engineering and the complex systems that support them.

Ultimately, the exascale project hopes to create a scalable and sustainable software framework for machine learning that links applied math and computer science communities to create designs for learning.

Alexander “brings to machine learning a strong background in science that is often lacking in the field,” Edward Dougherty, a distinguished professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M, wrote in an email. He is an “excellent choice to lead the exascale machine learning effort at Brookhaven.”

Alexander is eager to lead an attempt he suggested would advance scientific and national security work at the Department of Energy. “There are eight national laboratories involved and all the labs are on an equal level,” he said. 

One of the goals of the exascale computing project is to build machines capable of 10 to the 18th operations per second. “There’s this enormous investment of DOE” in this project, Alexander said.

Once the project is completely operational, Alexander expects that this work will take about 30 percent of his time. About 20 percent of the time, he’ll spend on other projects, which leaves him with about half of his workweek dedicated to management.

The deputy director recognizes that he will be coordinating an effort that involves numerous scientists accustomed to setting their own agenda.

Dougherty suggested that Alexander’s connections would help ensure his success, adding that he has “established a strong network of contacts in important application areas such as health care and materials.

The national laboratories are akin to players in a professional sporting league. They compete against each other regularly, bidding for projects and working to be the first to make a new discovery. Extending the sports metaphor, members of these labs often collaborate on broad projects, like players on an all-star team competing against similar teams from other nations or continents.

Alexander grew up in Ohio and wound up working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico  for over 20 years. He came to BNL in 2017 because he felt he “had the opportunity to build something almost from the ground up.” The program he had been leading at Los Alamos was large and well developed, even as it was still growing. 

The experimental scientists at BNL have been receptive to working with Alexander, which has helped him achieve some of his early goals.

Ultimately, Alexander hopes his work increases the efficiency of numerous basic and applied science efforts. He hopes to help experimental scientists understand “what technologies we should develop that will be feasible” and “what technologies would be most useful to carry experiments out.”

J. Anibal Boscoboinik. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

It was discovered in Sweden in 1756 and its name means “boiling stone,” which suggests something that might be a part of a magic show.

All these years later, zeolites, as this class of crystalline porous aluminosilicates are known, have become a key part of many products, such as in water and air purifiers, in detergents and in petroleum refining and hydrocarbon synthesis. They are even a part of deodorizers for people’s homes.

While these rocks, which are produced naturally and synthetically, act as sieves because their contained pores are the size of small molecules, the surface science plays a role in their interactions involves some mysteries.

For researchers like associate materials scientist J. Anibal Boscoboinik, who works at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, the unknowns stem from the way the reactions occur inside three-dimensional pores, which is inaccessible to the typical tools of surface science.

Scientists Anibal Boscoboinik (right) with Bill Kaden from the University of Central Florida and Fernando Stavale from the Brazilian Center for Research in Physics at a Humboldt Foundation dinner in Berlin. Photo from Anibal Boscoboinik

Boscoboinik, who is also an adjunct professor of materials science and engineering at Stony Brook University, has addressed this problem by creating synthetic two-dimensional models of this versatile substance. The models, which he designed when he was at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, have the same active sites and behave chemically like zeolites.

Using the high-tech tools at BNL, including the National Synchrotron Light Source, which is the predecessor to the current NSLS II, Boscoboinik derived an unexpected result. “We found, by accident, that when we exposed [zeolites] to noble gases, they got trapped in the little cages the structure has” at room temperature, he said.

Noble gases — including argon, krypton, xenon and radon — can become enmeshed in zeolite. The only noble gases that pass directly through or enter and exit easily are helium and neon, which are too small to bind to the surface.

When a noble gas with a positive charge enters zeolite, it gains an electron immediately upon entering, so it becomes neutral. The noble gases can also get trapped even when silicates don’t have a negative charge. These gases’ ions are produced when researchers use X-rays. The ions are smaller than the neutral atom, which allows them to enter the cage.

“The energy required to get them out of the cage is high,” Boscoboinik explained. “Once they are in, it’s hard to get them out.”

This finding, which Boscoboinik and his colleagues made last year, was named one of the top 10 discoveries and scientific achievements at BNL. These zeolite cages have the potential to trap radioactive gases generated by nuclear power plants or filter carbon monoxide or other smaller molecules.

The science behind understanding zeolites is akin to the understanding of the inner workings of a battery. Zeolites and batteries are both commonly used in industry and commercial applications, even though researchers don’t have a precise understanding of the reactions that enable them to function as they do.

Indeed, scientists at BNL and elsewhere hope to gain a better understanding of the way these processes work, which offers the hope of creating more efficient, less expensive products that could be technologically superior to the current designs.

Boscoboinik, who has been at BNL for almost five years, is especially     appreciative of the opportunities to collaborate with scientists at the Department of Energy-sponsored facility and worked closely with Deyu Lu on the noble gas experiments.

He would not have learned as much only from experiments, Boscoboinik said. The theory helped explain the trapping of radon, which he didn’t work on for safety reasons because of its radioactivity.

Trapping radon gas could have significant health benefits, as the gas is often found in the ground or in basements. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

Lu, who is a physicist and theorist at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, said in a recent email he was “impressed by the novelty of [Boscoboinik’s] research on two-dimensional zeolite.” 

The two researchers received funding starting in 2014 on a four-year collaboration. Lu said that he wanted his computational modeling to “confirm the hypothesis from the experiment that noble gas atoms prefer to enter the nano-sized pore [rather] than the interfacial area of the zeolite bi-layer.”

The two-dimensional zeolite model system “gives us a wonderful playground to learn physical insights from both theory and experiments,” he continued. Boscoboinik is “one of the few experts who can synthesize the two-dimensional zeolite film, and he is leading the field to apply synchrotron X-ray techniques to study this remarkable new material,” Lu explained.

More broadly, Boscoboinik is interested in developing a deeper awareness of the process through which zeolite breaks down hydrocarbons. He would also like to get a specific model for the way zeolite can convert methane — a gas that is increasing in the atmosphere and has been implicated in the greenhouse gas effect — into methanol, a liquid that can be converted into gasoline.

A resident of Stony Brook, Boscoboinik, who was raised in Argentina, is married and has two young children. His family enjoys going to the beach and recently visited Orient Point State Park. When he was growing up in South America and had more discretionary time, he enjoyed reading. His favorite authors are Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar.

Boscoboinik appreciates the curiosity-driven questions he gets from his children. In his work, he “tries to think like a kid. At work, I try to ask the same question my five-year old asks,” although he thinks like an adult in matters of safety.

As for his work, Boscoboinik said he knows he has a long way to go before he answers the questions he asks. “When working in this environment, you never know what you’re going to find,” he said. 

“You have to keep your eyes open for the unexpected so you don’t miss things that are really interesting, even if they are not what you were aiming at.”

By Daniel Dunaief

Replacing batteries in a flashlight or an alarm clock requires simple effort and generally doesn’t carry any risk for the device. The same, however, can’t be said for battery-operated systems that go in human bodies and save lives, such as the implantable cardiac defibrillator, or ICD.

Earlier versions of these life-saving devices that restore a normal heart rhythm were large and clunky and required a change of battery every 12 to 18 months, which meant additional surgeries to get to the device.

Esther Takeuchi with Michaëlle Jean, the secretary general of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, and moderator Fernando Tiberini at the award ceremony in Paris on June 7. Photo courtesy of European Patent Office

That’s where Esther Takeuchi, who is now Stony Brook University’s William and Jane Knapp Endowed Chair in Energy and the Environment and the chief scientist of the Energy Sciences Directorate at Brookhaven National Laboratory, has made her mark. In the 1980s, working at a company called Greatbatch, Takeuchi designed a battery that was much smaller and that lasted as long as five years. The battery she designed was a million times higher power than a pacemaker battery.

For her breakthrough work on this battery, Takeuchi has received numerous awards. Recently, the European Patent Office honored her with the 2018 innovation prize at a ceremony in Paris. Numerous high-level scientists and public officials attended the award presentation, including former French Minister of the Economy Thierry Breton, who is currently the CEO of Atos, and the Secretary General of the International Organisation of Francophony Michaëlle Jean. 

Takeuchi was the only American to win this innovation award this year.

Takeuchi’s work is “the epitome of innovation, as demonstrated in this breakthrough translational research for which she was recognized,” Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., the president of Stony Brook and board chair of Brookhaven Science Associates, which manages Brookhaven National Laboratory. “Her star keeps getting brighter, and I’m proud that she is part of the Stony Brook University family.”

As a winner of this award, Takeuchi joins the ranks of other celebrated scientists, including Shuji Nakamura, who won the European Inventor Award in 2007 and went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics, and Stefan Hell from Germany, whose European Inventor Award predated a Nobel Prize in chemistry. 

Among the over 170 innovators who have won the award, some have worked on gluten substitutes from corn, some have developed drugs against multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, and some have developed soft close furniture hinges.

“The previous recipients have had substantial impact on the world and how we live,” Takeuchi explained in an email. “It is incredible to be considered among that group.” Nominated for the award by a patent examiner from the European Patent Office, she described the award as an “honor” for the global recognition.

The inventor award is a symbolic prize in which the recipients receive attention for their work, explained Rainer Osterwalder, the director of media relations at the European Patent Office.

Takeuchi was one of four women to receive the award this year — the largest such class of women innovators.

“It was very meaningful to see so many accomplished women be recognized for their contributions,” she explained. “I was delighted to meet them and make some additional contacts with female innovators as well.”

About half the researchers in her lab, which currently includes three postdoctoral researchers and usually has about 12 to 16 graduate students, are women. Takeuchi has said that she likes being a role model for women and that she hopes they can see how it is possible to succeed as a scientist.

Implantable cardiac defibrillators are so common in the United States that an estimated 10,000 people receive them each month.

Indeed, while she was at the reception for an awards ceremony attended by over 600 people, Takeuchi said she met someone who had an ICD.

“It is very rewarding to know that they are alive due to technology and my contributions to the technology,” she explained.

Takeuchi said that many people contributed to the battery project for the ICD over the years who were employed at Greatbach. These collaborators were involved in engineering, manufacturing, quality and customer interactions, with each aspect contributing to the final product.

The battery innovation stacks alternating layers of anodes and cathodes and uses lithium silver vanadium oxide. The silver is used for high current, while the vanadium provides long life and high voltage.

Takeuchi, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her doctorate from Ohio State University, has received over 150 patents. The daughter of Latvian emigrants, she received the presidential level National Medal of Technology and Innovation from Barack Obama and has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Takeuchi continues to push the envelope in her energy research. “We are now involved in thinking about larger scale batteries for cars and ultimately for the grid,” she wrote in an email. “Further, we have demonstrated methods that allow battery components to be regenerated to extend their use. This could potentially minimize batteries going into land fills in the future.”

Takeuchi is one of a growing field of scientists who are using the high-tech capabilities of the National Synchrotron Light Source II at BNL, which allows her to see inside batteries as they are working.

“We recently published a paper where we were able to detect the onset of parasitic reactions,” she suggested, which is “an important question for battery lifetime.”

In the big picture, the scientist said she is balancing between power and energy content in her battery research.

“Usually, when cells need to deliver high power, the energy content goes down,” she said. “The goal is to have high energy and high power simultaneously.”

Perry Gershon. Photo by Kyle Barr

As the five-headed Democratic Primary to select a challenger for 1st District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) nears, six Stony Brook University faculty members, some with ties to Brookhaven National Lab, have authored a letter endorsing their preferred winner.

The signers of the letter are throwing their public support behind Perry Gershon, a first-time candidate for political office from the private sector, who made a career as a commercial mortgage lender and small business owner, citing his belief that “facts trump opinions.” The group also supports Gershon’s broader dedication to protecting the environment.

The endorsement came with a disclaimer that the signees being affiliated with SBU are for identification purposes only and do not imply institutional support for any political candidate. Other notable endorsements in the race thus far include Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski’s (D-Cutchogue) stated support for Kate Browning, a former legislator herself; and Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) backing Vivian Viloria-Fisher, another Suffolk legislature alumna. Notably, the group of six from SBU’s STEM department did not endorse BNL scientist Elaine DiMasi, who is also among the five candidates in the race.

The full letter from the SBU professors supporting Gershon is below, lightly edited for grammar and style.

Endorsement of Perry Gershon for Congress by faculty and researchers in science, technology, engineering and math at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory

An open letter to the community:

As faculty and researchers at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory  involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teaching and research, we believe it is of vital importance that you vote for Perry Gershon as your next U.S. Representative in Congress in New York’s 1st Congressional District June 26 in the Democratic Primary.

For all of us, at both the university and the lab in Brookhaven, mid-western Suffolk has been our home for many years, just as the South Fork in eastern Suffolk has been Perry’s home for over 20 years. CD1 covers both — we share the same aquifer and the same need for clean water. What happens here locally, in our country, and in the world, matters deeply to all of us.

We need Perry in Congress because he believes that facts trump opinions. Perry grew up in an academic family. His parents are both medical researchers at Columbia University. While a student at Yale, Perry was involved in original research as co-investigator on multiple published papers with faculty. He understands at his core that investigation and evidence must win out over demagoguery.

Perry believes in the overwhelming evidence of climate change and its profound effects at every scale, from Long Island to the entire Earth. Unlike President Donald Trump (R) and Zeldin, Perry would stay in the Paris Climate Accord and work to help America meet its goals. Perry holds that expanding markets for innovative clean technologies generates jobs and economic growth. Research at SBU, BNL, and Suffolk incubators can be at the forefront of turning CD1’s economy into one that supports good-paying, middle-class jobs that offer our young people the opportunity to stay on Long Island.

Perry knows that Environmental Protection Agency regulations, based on scientific study, are made to help and protect every one of us. Yet under Trump (R), EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (R) and Zeldin, expert scientists are no longer even allowed to provide advice to the EPA, because recipients of EPA grants, who are the most knowledgeable experts, are forbidden from serving on EPA’s scientific advisory committees — the bodies that make sure regulations to protect public health and environmental values are based on sound science.

Perry knows that Department of the Interior decisions should benefit the country, not benefit any corporation that wants to exploit our natural resources for its bottom line. We do not need or want offshore oil drilling destroying our pristine coastline and threatening our tourist industry. While Zeldin feigns opposition, his support of Trump has allowed Zinke to move forward to expedite drilling permits.

Perry stands for the Democratic values that we all share: seeking truth and diversity of opinion. Unlike Trump and Zeldin, Perry actually listens. He actively seeks input and advice. His main goal is to solve problems in ways that benefit the greatest number of people.

On June 26, the Democratic Primary will choose the candidate who will oppose Zeldin in November. We firmly believe Perry Gershon has the intellect, the skills, the fortitude, and the resources to beat Zeldin — a powerful combination that is not matched by any of the other primary candidates.

We ask you to support Perry Gershon, to take back Congress by removing the man who has become Trump’s mouthpiece and enabler — Lee Zeldin. On June 26, please stand with us in returning truth to our government’s decision making.

Sincerely,

Dr. Douglas Futuyma, Distinguished Professor, Ecology and Evolution, SBU

Dr. Nancy Goroff, Chair Department of Chemistry, SBU

Dr. Stephen Baines, Associate Professor, Ecology and Evolution, SBU

Dr. Barry McCoy, Distinguished Professor, CN Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics, SBU

Dr. Lorna Role, Distinguished Professor and Chair, Neurobiology and Behavior, SBU

Dr. Gene Sprouse, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Physics and Astronomy, SBU

This post was updated June 19 to remove Dr. Jeff Keister as a signer and add Dr. Stephen Baines.

From left, Shawn Serbin, University of Maryland collaborator Feng Zhao and Ran Meng. Photo by Roger R. Stoutenburgh

By Daniel Dunaief

Not all greenery is the same. From above the Earth, forests recovering after a fire often look the same, depending on the sensing system. An area with bushes and shrubs can appear to have the same characteristics as one with a canopy.

From left, Shawn Serbin, University of Maryland collaborator Feng Zhao and Ran Meng. Photo by Roger R. Stoutenburgh

Working in associate ecologist Shawn Serbin’s laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Ran Meng, a postdoctoral researcher, recently figured out a way to improve the level of information gained from these remote images, enabling them to distinguish among the different types of growth after a forest fire.

Examining the growth in a pine forest on Long Island after a fire near BNL in 2012, Meng used various spectral properties to get a more accurate idea of how the forest was recovering. Meng and Serbin recently published their results in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

“Using our remote sensing analysis, we were able to link detailed ground measurements from [BNL’s Kathy Schwager and Tim Green] and others to better understand how different burn severities can change the recovery patterns of oak and pine species,” Serbin explained in an email. The information Meng and Serbin collected and analyzed can map canopy moisture content and health as well as fuels below the canopy to identify wildfire risk.

The imagery can be used to map the water content or moisture stored in the leaves and vegetation canopies, Serbin explained. LiDAR data can see through the canopy and measure the downed trees and other fuels on the forest floor. This type of analysis can help differentiate the type of growth after a fire without requiring extensive surveys from the ground.  “One of the issues on the ground is that it’s time consuming and expensive,” Serbin said. Remote sensing can “cover a much larger area.”

Assisted by Meng’s background in machine learning, these researchers were able to see a higher resolution signal that provides a more detailed and accurate picture of the vegetation down below. One of the purposes of this work is to help inform forest managers’ decision-making, Serbin added. A forest with a canopy will likely capture and retain more water than one dominated by bushes and shrubs. A canopied forest acts “more like a sponge” in response to precipitation.

A canopied forest can “hold water,” Meng said. If the canopy disappears and changes to shrubs or grass, the forest’s capacity to store water will be damaged. Altering the trees in a forest after a fire can start a “reaction chain.” Without a nearby canopied forest, the water cycle can change, causing more erosion, which could add more sediment to streams.

Serbin recently met with the Central Pine Barrens Commission, the Department of Environmental Conservation and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which is based in Syracuse.

Serbin had planned to meet with these groups several years ago to try to build a better relationship between the information the lab was collecting and the pine barrens and ESF to “use the lab as a field research site.”

They discussed ways to use the science to inform management to keep the pine barrens healthy. The timing of the meeting, so soon after the publication of the recent results related to fire damage surveys, was fortuitous.

“It just happens that this work with [Meng] comes out and is highly relevant,” Serbin said. “This is a happy coincidence.” He said he hopes these groups can use this information to feed into a larger model of research collaboration. This work not only provides a clearer picture of how a forest recovers, but also might suggest areas where a controlled burn might benefit the area, minimizing the effect of a more intense fire later on.

“These forests used to burn more often but with less intensity due to the lower fuel loads from more frequent fire,” Serbin explained. Fire suppression efforts, however, have meant that when fires do burn, they occur with higher intensities. “It could be harder to maintain the pine barrens because the fires burn more strongly, which can reduce or destroy the soil seed stock or alter the recovery trajectory in other ways,” he said.

The remote sensing analysis of trees uses shapes, sizes, leaf color and chemistry to explore the fingerprints of specific trees. This could offer researchers and conservationists an opportunity to monitor endangered species or protected habitats.

“We can do even better using platforms like NASA G-LiHT because we can use both the spectral fingerprint as well as unique structural characteristics of different plants” to keep track of protected areas, Serbin explained.

As for what’s next, Serbin said he would like to scale this study up to study larger areas in other fire-prone systems, such as boreal forests in Alaska and Canada. He plans to apply these approaches to develop new forest recovery products that can be used in conjunction with other remote sensing data and field studies to understand forest disturbances, recovery and carbon cycling.

Meng plans to move on in August to work directly with the NASA G-LiHT team. He said he believes this kind of work can also track infestations from beetles or other pests that attack trees or damage forests, adding, “There are some slight changes in spectral patterns following beetle outbreaks.”

A final goal of this project, which admittedly requires considerably more work according to Meng, is to monitor those changes early to enable forest managers to intervene, potentially creating the equivalent of an insect break if they can act soon enough.

Serbin appreciated the work his postdoc contributed to this project, describing Meng as a “dedicated researcher” who had to “sort out what approaches and computational techniques to use in order to effectively characterize” the images.

“[He] persevered and was able to figure out how to analyze these very detailed remote sensing data sets to come up with a new and novel pattern that hadn’t really been seen before,” said Serbin.

From left, Libo Wu, Zhangjie Chen (both are doctoral students on the ARPA-E project), Ya Wang, Xing Zhang (graduated), Muzhaozi Yuan and Jingfan Chen (both are doctoral students on the NSF project). Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Picture a chalkboard filled with information. It could include everything from the basics — our names and phone numbers, to memories of a hike along the Appalachian Trail, to what we thought the first time we saw our spouse.

Diseases like Alzheimer’s act like erasers, slowly moving around the chalkboard, sometimes leaving traces of the original memories, while other times removing them almost completely. What if the images, lines and words from the chalk could somehow be restored?

Ya Wang with former student Wei Deng at Stony Brook’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center. Photo courtesy of SBU

Ya Wang, a mechanical engineering assistant professor at Stony Brook University, is working on a process that can regenerate neurons, which could help with a range of degenerative diseases. She is hoping to develop therapies that might restore neurons by using incredibly small magnetic nanoparticles.

Wang recently received the National Science Foundation Career Award, which is a prestigious prize given to faculty in the early stages of their careers. The award lasts for five years and includes a $500,000 grant.

Wang would like to understand the way small particles can stimulate the brain to rebuild neurons. The award is based on “years of effort,” she said. “I’m happy but not surprised” with the investment in work she believes can help people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

“All neuron degeneration diseases will benefit from this study,” Wang said. “We have a large population in New York alone with patients with neuron degeneration diseases.” She hopes the grant will help trigger advancements in medicine and tissue engineering.

Wang’s “work on modeling the dynamic behavior of magnetic nanoparticles within the brain microenvironment would lay the foundation for quantifying the neuron regeneration process,” Jeff Ge, the chairman and professor of mechanical engineering, said in a statement.

Wang said she understands the way neurodegenerative diseases affect people. She has watched her father, who lives in China, manage through Parkinson’s disease for 15 years.

Ge suggested that this approach has real therapeutic potential. “This opens up the exciting new possibility for the development of a new microchip for brain research,” he said.

At this point, Wang has been able to demonstrate the feasibility of neuron regeneration with individual nerve cells. The next step after that would be to work on animal models and, eventually, in a human clinical trial.

That last step is a “long way” off, Wang suggested, as she and others will need to make significant advancements to take this potential therapeutic breakthrough from the cell stage to the clinic. 

She is working with a form of coated iron oxide that is small enough to pass through the incredibly fine protective area of the blood/brain barrier. Without a coating, the iron oxide can be toxic, but with that protective surface, it is “more biofriendly,” she said.

The size of the particles are about 20 nanometers. By contrast, a human hair is 80,000 nanometers thick. These particles use mechanical forces that act on neurons to promote the growth or elongation of axons.

Ya Wang. Photo from SBU

As a part of the NSF award, Wang will have the opportunity to apply some of the funds toward education. She has enjoyed being a mentor to high school students, some of whom have been Siemens Foundation semifinalists. Indeed, her former students have gone on to attend college at Stanford, Harvard and Cal Tech. “I was very happy advising them,” she said. “High school kids are extremely interested in the topic.”

A few months before she scored her NSF award, Wang also won an Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy award for $1 million from the Department of Energy. In this area, Wang also plans to build on earlier work, developing a smart heating and cooling system that enables a system to direct climate control efforts directly at the occupant or occupants in the room.

Extending on that work, Wang, who will collaborate in this effort with Jon Longtin in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at SBU and Tom Butcher and Rebecca Trojanowski at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is addressing the problem in which the system no longer registers the presence of a person in the room.

Wang has “developed an innovation modification to a simple, inexpensive time-honored position sensor, but that suffers from requiring that something be moving in order to detect motion,” Longtin explained in an email. The sensors can’t detect a person that is not moving. The challenge, Longtin continued, is in fooling the sensor into thinking something is there in motion to keep it active.

Wang described a situation in which a hotel had connected an occupant-detecting system to its HVAC system. When a person fell asleep in the room, however, the air conditioning turned off automatically. On a hot summer night, the person was frustrated. She put colored paper and a fan in front of the sensor, which kept the cool air from turning off.

Instead of using a fan and colored paper, the new system Wang is developing cuts the flow of heat to the sensor, which enhances its ability to recognize stationary or moving people.

Wang and her colleagues will use low-power liquid crystal technology with no moving parts. “The sensor detects you because you are a human with heat,” she said. “Even though you are not moving, the amount of heat is changing.”

The sensor will be different in various locations. People in Houston will have different temperature conditions than those in Wisconsin. Using a machine-learning algorithm, Wang said she can pre-train the system to respond to different people and different conditions.

She has developed a smart phone app so that the house can react to the different temperature preferences of a husband and wife. People can also choose night or day modes.

Wang also plans to work on a system that is akin to the way cars have different temperature zones, allowing one side of the car to be hotter than the other. She intends to develop a similar design for each room.

From left, Jon Longtin, Sotirios Mamalis and Benjamin Lawler. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly Coke and Pepsi designing a better soda. It’s not Nike and Reebok creating a more efficient sneaker. And, it’s not McDonald’s and Burger King uniting the crown and the golden arches. At Stony Brook University, it is, however, a combination of energy systems that haven’t historically worked together.

“Fuel cells and engines have been seen as competing technologies,” said Sotirios Mamalis, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at SBU. “The truth of the matter is that these two technologies are very complementary because of their operating principals.”

Indeed, Mamalis is the principal investigator on a multi-year project to create a hybrid fuel cell-engine system that recently won a $2.3 million award from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

Working with Benjamin Lawler and Jon Longtin at Stony Brook and Tom Butcher, leader of the Energy Conversion Group at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Mamalis plans to build a system that uses solid oxide fuel cells partnered with a split-cylinder, internal combustion engine. The engine system will use the tail gas from the fuel cell to provide additional power, turning the inefficiency of the fuel cell into a source of additional energy.

“These ARPA-E awards are extremely competitive,” said Longtin, adding “If you land one of these, especially a decent-sized one like this, it can move the needle in a lot of ways in a department and at the university level.” The group expects that this design could create a system that generates 70 percent fuel to electricity efficiency. That is well above the 34 percent nationwide average.

Reaching that level of energy efficiency would be a milestone, said Longtin, a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stony Brook. The core of the idea, he suggested, is to take the exhaust from fuel cells, which has residual energy, and run that through a highly tuned, efficient internal combustion engine to extract more power. The second part of the innovation is to repurpose the cylinders in the engine to become air compressors. The fuel cell efficiency increases with higher pressure.

A fuel cell is a “highly efficient device at taking fuel and reacting it to produce DC electricity,” Lawler said. One of its down sides, aside from cost, is that it can’t respond to immediate needs. An engine is the opposite and is generally good at handling what Lawler described as transient needs, in which the demand for energy spikes.

The idea itself is ambitious, the scientists suggested. “These projects are high-risk, high-reward,” said Mamalis. The risks come from the cost and the technical side of things.

The goal is to create a system that has a disruptive role in the power generation market. To succeed, Mamalis said, they need to bring something to market quickly. Their work involves engineering, analysis and design prior to building a system. The project could involve more tasks to reduce technical risk but “we’re skipping a couple of steps so we can demonstrate a prototype system sooner than usual,” Mamalis said.

They will start by modeling and simulating conditions, using mathematical tools they have developed over the years. Once they have modeling results, they will use those to guide specific experimental testing. They will take data from the engine simulation and will subject the engine to conditions to test it in a lab. 

“The biggest challenges will be in changing the operation of each of these two technologies to be perhaps less than optimal for each by itself and then to achieve an integrated system that ends up far better,” Butcher explained in an email. “The target fuel-to-electricity efficiency will break barriers and be far greater than is achieved by conventional power plants today.”

Butcher, whose role will be to provide support on system integration concepts and testing, suggested that this could be a part of distribution power generation, where power is produced locally in addition to central power plants. People have looked into hybrid fuel cell-gas turbine systems in the past and a few have been installed and operational, Mamalis explained. The problem is with the cost and reliability.

Mamalis and his colleagues decided they can tap into the inefficiency of fuel cells, which leaves energy behind that a conventional engine can use. The reason this works is that the fuel cell is just inefficient enough, at about 55 percent, to provide the raw materials that a conventional engine could use. A fuel cell that was more efficient, at 75 or 80 percent, would produce less unused fuel in its exhaust, limiting the ability of the system to generate more energy.

The team needs to hit a number of milestones along the way, which are associated with fuel cell development and engine and hybrid system development.

The first phase of the work, for which the team received $2.3 million, will take two years. After the group completes Phase I, it will submit an application to ARPA-E for phase II, which would be for an additional $5 million.

Lawler suggested that fundamental research made this kind of applied project with such commercial potential possible. “The people who did fundamental work and [were involved in] the incremental steps led us to this point,” he said. “Incremental work leads to ground-breaking ideas. You can’t predict when groundbreaking work will happen.”

The other researchers involved in this project credit Mamalis for taking the lead on an effort that requires considerable reporting and updating with the funding agency.

Every three months, Mamalis has to submit a detailed report. He also participates in person and on conference calls to provide an update. He expects to spend about 90 percent of his time on a project for which the team has high hopes.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of this,” Longtin said. “These folks are pivotal and we have developed into a very capable team, and we have been setting our sights on larger, more significant opportunities.”

Eli Stavitski. Photo by Alena Stavitski

By Daniel Dunaief

Humans learned to fly by studying birds and have learned to edit genes by understanding the molecular battle between bacteria and viruses. Now, we may also learn to take carbon dioxide, a necessary ingredient in photosynthesis, and use it to produce energy.

Eli Stavitski, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is working with a new form of electrocatalyst to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which can become part of an energy process.

Researchers have used noble metal electrocatalysts, such as gold and platinum, to promote this reaction. The problem with this method, however, is that these metals are rare and expensive.

In most of the reactions with other potential electrocatalysts, however, a competing reaction, called water splitting, reduces the amount of carbon monoxide produced.

Single atoms of nickel, however, woven into a lattice of graphene, which is a monolayer of carbon, produces a much higher amount of carbon monoxide, while minimizing the unwanted water splitting side reaction.

Indeed, these single atoms of nickel converted carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with a maximum selectivity of 97 percent.

“The critical aspect of the work is that they show a change in chemical selectivity” resulting in the production of the desired products, Dario Stacchiola, a group leader in interface science and catalysis at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at BNL, explained in an email. An important part of this study is the “ability to detect single atoms (atomic needles in a carbon-based graphene haystack) which is possible in [Stavitski’s] instrument.”

Stacchiola and Stavitski are collaborating on projects related to heterogeneous catalysis. They synthesize and test materials and then measure them in a state-of-the-art beamline. Carbon monoxide can be used to produce useful chemicals such as hydrogen, which can power fuel cell vehicles. The process can contribute to something called carbon sequestration, in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.

While carbon monoxide is a deadly gas when it’s breathed in, Stavitski said manufacturing facilities deal with toxic substances regularly and have policies and procedures in place to minimize, monitor and contain any potential dangers. On the scale of toxicity, carbon monoxide isn’t the worst thing by far, he explained.

Indeed, in refining crude oil to fuels and chemicals, refining companies regularly produce highly toxic intermediates that they control during the manufacturing process.

The way researchers create the nickel catalysts is by taking a sheet of graphene and creating defects in it that they then fill with nickel. The defects define whether the atoms are in plane or stick out, which determines the rate of reaction.

Getting the defects at just the right size requires balancing between making them small enough so that it doesn’t disrupt the graphene, but large enough to accommodate the metal atoms.“There is an opportunity to lower the costs by designing conventional supports for single atom nickel,” Stavitski said.

At $6 a pound, nickel is considerably cheaper than platinum, which cost $150 a pound. Still, it is among the more expensive base metals.

“The single atom field is exploding,” he said. “Everyone is trying to develop this unique combination of support and metal that allows for the stabilization of single atoms. It’s very likely that we’re paving the way to a much larger adoption of this material in industry.”

Stavitski suggested that the field of electrocatalysts using nanomaterials has the potential to revolutionize industrial and commercial processes. The work he and his colleagues did with nickel, while compelling in its own right, is more of an evolutionary step, benefiting from some of the work that came before and finding a specific application that may become a part of a process that converts carbon dioxide into the energy-efficient carbon monoxide, while minimizing the production of an unwanted competing reaction.

The next set of experiments is to verify the same concept of graphene as a support for single atom catalyst, which can lead to a whole family of active and selective materials. Stavitski plans to explore combinations of metals, where he could link one metal to another to fine tune its electronic properties to develop metals that can target a wide spectrum of chemical reactions.

The work Stavitski is conducting with electrocatalysts is one of several areas he is exploring in his lab. He is also looking at developing types of batteries that are not based on lithium. 

With increased demand, primarily from electric vehicle manufacturing, lithium prices have “skyrocketed,” he explained in an email. “It’s important to develop batteries that employ sodium, which is cheap and abundant. Technologically, sodium batteries are much more difficult to deal with.”

Stavitski collaborates with a group at BNL led by Xiao-Qing Yang, who is the group leader for electrochemical energy storage.

Stacchiola has known Stavitski since 2010. He described him as “active and innovative” and suggested that this new capability of detecting single atoms in complex materials is “critical and is giving [Stavitski] significant growing exposure in the scientific community.”

Stacchiola appreciates how his colleague gets “fully immersed in every project he associates with.”

Stavitski grew up in the Soviet Union. After college, he moved to Israel and then the Netherlands. He arrived at BNL in 2010.

Currently a resident of South Setauket, Stavitski is married to Alena Stavitski, who works at BNL in the quality management office. The BNL couple have two sons who are 3 and 6 years old.

Stavitski, who speaks Russian, Hebrew and English, enjoys traveling.

As for his work, he is excited by the possibility of using the expanding field of nanomaterials to enhance the efficiency of commercial and energy-related processes.

Sherif Abdelaziz. Photo by Juliana Thomas, SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

When the temperature drops dramatically, people put on extra layers of clothing or rush inside. At the other extreme, when the mercury climbs toward the top of thermometers, they turn on sprinklers, head to the beach or find cold drinks.

That, however, is not the case for the clay that is often underneath buildings, cliffs or the sides of hills on which people build picturesque homes. Clay shrinks after heating-cooking cycles in summer and also after freezing-thawing cycles in winter. “We want to understand why and how this behavior happens,” said Sherif Abdelaziz, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University.

Sherif Abdelaziz. Photo by Juliana Thomas, SBU

Abdalaziz recently received a prestigious Young Investigator Program award from the U.S. Army Research Office, which will provide $356,000 in funding over three years to study these properties. While the work will explore the basic science behind these clay materials, his findings could have a broad range of applications, from providing potential early-warning systems for future landslides or mudslides to monitoring coastal bluffs to keeping track of the soil around high-temperature nuclear waste buried in the ground.

Miriam Rafailovich, a distinguished professor in the Department of Materials Science at SBU who is beginning a collaboration with Abdelaziz, suggested that Abdelaziz’s work is relevant in multiple areas. “It applies to shoring infrastructure,” she wrote in an email. “The collapse of roadbeds under heavy traffic is a very common problem.”

Additionally, the clay around nuclear waste is subjected to very high temperatures during the period the waste is active. These temperatures recover to initial temperature with time, which will mainly subject the clay to a heating-cooling cycle that is part of this study, Abdelaziz explained. He is pleased to have the opportunity to explore these kinds of questions.

The Young Investigator Program award is “one of the most prestigious honors bestowed by the Army on outstanding scientists beginning their independent careers,” explained Julia Barzyk, a program manager in earth materials and processes at the U.S. Army Research Office, in an email. Abdelaziz’s research “is expected to contribute to improved approaches to mobility and siting and maintenance of infrastructure, especially in cold regions such as the Arctic.”

The field in which Abdelaziz works is called the thermomechanical behavior of soil. The challenge in this area, he said, is that the scientists are often divided into two groups. Some researchers focus on the heating effect on soil, while others explore cooling. In the real world, however, soil is exposed to both types of conditions, which could affect its ability to support structures above or around it.

In general, Abdelaziz has focused on clay. So far, scientists have looked at a piece or chunk of clay to see how it behaves. They haven’t done enough exploration at the microscale level, he said. “Our scientific approach crosses between the scales,” he said. In conducting experiments at SBU and at Brookhaven National Laboratory, he starts at the microscale and looks at the larger macroscale.

At the National Synchrotron Light Source II at BNL, Abdelaziz and his partners at BNL, including Eric Dooryhee, the beamline director for the X-ray Powder Diffraction beamline, change the temperature of the clay and look at the microstructure.

The challenge in the experiments they conducted last year was that they could change the temperature, but they couldn’t mimic the pressure conditions in the ground. Recently, they conducted the first experiments on a sample environment that involved a change in temperature and pressure and they got “good results so far,” Abdelaziz said in an email. He is looking for more beam time in the summer to finish the development of the sample environment. He is also seeking funding for a project to develop an early-warning system for coastal bluff stability.

“We are pretty good at predicting the weather,” Abdelaziz said. “What we don’t know is how this storm will impact our slopes.” The goal of the work he’s exploring now is to use what he learns from these experiments to predict potential changes in the soil. The purpose of this work is to better engineer mitigation techniques to avoid evacuations.

Abdelaziz’s work has focused on one clay type. He has, however, built a numerical model using experimental data. Once that model is validated, it will be able to predict the behavior of other clay, and he can include the heterogeneity of earth surface material in his numerical studies.

Rafailovich appreciates Abdelaziz’s dedication to his research. “He is very passionate about his work,” she wrote in an email. “He really hopes that he can change the world, one small road at a time.”

A native of Cairo, Egypt, Abdelaziz lives in Smithtown with his wife Heba Elnoby and their children Mohamed, 10, and Malak, 7. The father of two suggested that he “owes every single piece of success” in his career to the support he received from his wife.

The idea to study coastal bluff stability came to Abdelaziz when he was grilling on the beach a few years ago. He saw a sign that indicated that a bluff was unstable and that there was excessive movement. He related that to what he was studying. Abdelaziz is pleased with the funding and with the opportunity to contribute basic knowledge about clay to civil and military efforts. The financial support from the Army suggests that his “work is meaningful to the nation in general,” he said.

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