123456       To eliminate the control-system delay, Isik worked with doctoral student Mete Cakmakci G'93, G'98, and an Alcan team headed by engineer Joseph Zagrobelny '88, to devise a more efficient system, an adaptive one based on estimations. The result was a patented process that controls output without delay using a neural network system. "Think of a neural network as a whole bunch of interconnected artificial neurons," Isik explains. "Each one does something simple, but when they're put together, they exhibit very complicated behavior."
      The system incorporates about 20 measured groups, or modules, of such variables as pressures, voltages, and speeds throughout the process. "We estimated the thickness as the aluminum was rolled and based our control action on that estimate rather than an actual measurement. This is an adaptive process that initially knows nothing, and then it tweaks internal constants based on delay measurements and learns how the rolling process occurs," Isik explains. "Once the estimates are close enough, control is switched from the measured quantity to the estimated quantity while we still keep adapting it to possible changes in the process."
      By grouping different elements in the system into modules, problems can be isolated and prevented from spreading through the entire system, Cakmakci says. "When an error occurs, you don't want it to go to different modules and push them away from the proper outcome."
      For Cakmakci, the project was a blessing. "I felt very fortunate to be involved in a project like this. Dr. Isik took me to meetings and on-site visits and I had great interactions with Joe Zagrobelny and the other engineers," says the electrical engineering major. "Dr. Isik encouraged me to share my ideas. I love factories, so this was a very good experience for me."
      Zagrobelny is now attempting to commercialize similar neural network technology through Modspec, a start-up company based at the CASE Center. "We're looking at other areas where this kind of technology might be applicable. As engineers we can think it's a great idea, but you have to look at it from a business perspective," he says.
      Among areas he's exploring are the aerospace and military industries. "There's a frustration when you know something can save a company money, but it has to take the first step," he says. "Even as engineers we have to be good salespeople."

As chemical engineering professor Lawrence Tavlarides points out: "One never knows when patents will be useful to industry unless you're out there trying to exploit them."
      Tavlarides believes any potentially valuable technology should be patented, and his experiences support this belief. He received his first patent nearly two decades ago—and a company is just now signing on to use it. Tavlarides, who has nine patents with three pending, has also seen what can happen when patents aren't sought. After publishing a paper on a process employed to make more gasoline through the use of an improved catalyst, he found himself testifying as an expert witness in an oil company feud over a patent—a patent, it turns out, that was based on discoveries revealed in Tavlarides' paper. "At the time, we didn't realize the value of our discovery," he says.
      In 1997 Tavlarides and research associate Nandu Deorkar secured five patents dealing with the synthesis of chemically active inorganic particles that can be used to remove various heavy metals and complexes of these metals from aqueous streams. The materials, which selectively separate one metal from another, have manufacturing and environmental applications. In hydrometallurgical processing, for example, a mining company could remove cadmium from a zinc-cadmium concentrate, resulting in a high-purity zinc solution. On the environmental front, the materials could be used to treat highly acidic waste solutions that accumulate in mining pits filled with water. In fact, Tavlarides has proposed a process involving the materials in a series of sequential beds to clean up a gigantic pit in Butte, Montana. "Each material would take out a different metal based on its selectivity," he says. "The stream would trickle from one bed to the next, selectively removing such metals as iron, copper, and zinc. This process would also adjust the pH of the stream to near neutral."
      When Tavlarides and Deorkar initially embarked on this research, they were interested in what he calls the "classic liquid-liquid solvent extraction methodology" in which chelation acids—organic molecules with acid properties—are mixed in a solution that ultimately leads to removing a targeted metal ion. "The problem with that is you're processing large volumes of liquids and it's very complex," he says. "We followed the lead of other people, thinking that if we could take that chelation molecule, attach it to a glass particle, and have it fixed on a solid support, then all you have to do is pass the aqueous stream over this bed of particles. This way, you only have to worry about capturing the metal ion on the inorganic particle. After the particles are saturated with the metal, you switch the stream to another bed and strip the metal from the loaded bed. The process is then repeated."

      This solid-liquid processing, Tavlarides says, provides the desired separation, especially when synthesized permutations of chelation molecules are used. These synthesized molecules further enhance the selectivity for the particular metal. "New methods of molecular modeling and dynamics can help us judge which would be the best molecular structure of the chelation acid," Tavlarides says. "We have to be assured that the chemistry being applied doesn't destroy the functionality of the chelation acid."
      Tavlarides and Deorkar are currently exploring ways to embed chelation molecules within a glass matrix to create a denser packing of the molecules, rather than tacking them onto an already developed glass surface. For Tavlarides, who operates Mostav Technologies to commercialize any potential opportunities from his research, there's great excitement in finding a way to solve processing dilemmas and environmental problems. "Things like this generate enthusiasm that you can spin off to students and colleagues," he says. "There's an excitement about it; you're searching for the holy grail of some new way to improve the capability of industry and treat contaminated streams, making life better for all of us."
      If anyone has experience playing the patent game, it's Professor James A. Schwarz, a colleague of Tavlarides in the chemical engineering and materials science department. Schwarz has received 14 patents, ranging from the invention and testing of different conductors to devising molecularly engineered carbons for fuel gas storage. Like many of his fellow inventors, Schwarz shifts focus depending on where research funding flows. He also attributes much of his success to the creative efforts produced by working with teams of undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, many of whom are credited as co-inventors of the patents. "If good ideas come on," he says, "I can't turn my mind off."
      During the past several years, Schwarz worked closely with a group of postdoctoral researchers from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Ghana. It was a highly productive time that led to a variety of patents and dozens of publications. "The teamwork allowed it to happen. I rarely tell somebody to do something—I let them be creative," he says. "I act as a sounding board; I encourage them and point them to people they should talk to. Once you get to know people, you learn what their fortes are. I'm like a traffic cop who steers everybody so they're all going the same way on the road."
      Aside from teamwork, Schwarz touts cross-disciplinary experience as a major factor. "It is extremely valuable in developing novel materials, processes, and inventions. Chemistry is chemistry and physics is physics," he says. "The names might change, but the rules don't. As a professor at a university where you're teaching courses that run across disciplines, you have an advantage over someone in industry who tends to be myopic."
      In 1997 Schwarz and his team of researchers patented a method of creating a microporous carbon material to store such fuel gases as methane and hydrogen. It's one of a series of patents Schwarz received connected to carbons and alternative fuel storage. "Think of carbon in terms of a sponge. These materials are highly porous and access to the inside of the materials is via very fine pores that are nanodimensional in size," he says. "This contributes to a tremendous amount of internal surface."
      A benefit to creating molecularly engineered carbons is they don't have the variability of natural materials. Traditionally, Schwarz says, activated carbons are made by burning wood, peat, or coal at high temperatures. "One problem with using a natural material is that its history in many ways controls properties of the resulting carbon—so you get variability," he says. "If you start with pure materials and have the appropriate synthesis strategies, then you can create a material that is reproducible. From a commercial point of view, that's desirable."
      No matter the field, there's certainly a thrill to advancing technology. For one thing, as OSP's Anthony points out, "You're seeing the future." And the future would be rather staid if scientists didn't challenge each other and closed their minds to creative thoughts that bend established boundaries. "It's critical for all scientists to have that ability to shift and as you get older it gets more and more difficult," says chemist Birge. In fields like chemistry, he says, a process of integration is involved. When this melded experience fuses with a shot of creativity, technology can move forward. Of course, whether such an advance becomes a patented commercial success depends on a boatload of factors that are far from predictable. "It's a puzzle," Schwarz says. "A lot of science is like a giant crossword puzzle."


Continued on page 7
Back to page 1
Back to page 2
Back to page 3
Back to page 4
Back to page 5

Main Home Page Winter 1998-99 Issue Contents
Chancellor's Message Opening Remarks In Basket
Pan Am 103 Architecture at 125 Inventive Minds
Multi-Majors Quad Angles Campaign News
Student Center Faculty Focus Research Report
Alumni News/Notes View From The Hill University Place

E-mail the magazine
E-mail the web guy
820 Comstock Ave., Rm. 308
Syracuse, NY 13244-5040