Rowan physics profs, students tackling multiple research projects this summer

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Sam Lofland is trying to use noise to shrink your energy bill.

Sam Lofland is trying to use noise to shrink your energy bill.

Lofland — that’s Dr. Samuel Lofland, professor of physics at Rowan University — and a team of students have spent part of the summer harvesting energy.

“There’s always magnetic noise from motors or whatever. All motors have magnets in them. They’re going to produce a little bit of energy. There are also vibrations. There are all kinds of forms of energy,” Lofland explained one day in a lab filled with high-tech equipment.

Pounding a table, he said, “There’s energy right here.”

Converting energy

The physics team has been trying to “scavenge” that energy, looking for promising ways in which to convert it into electrical energy to power small devices.

To that end, they have developed what are called “meta materials,” melding electrical and magnetic properties to form something new that is in effect a sandwich of both. It’s complicated work that operates in a complex manner that simply put is this: The magnetic element of the meta materials can pick up the magnetic energy, causing it to move. When it does, because they are joined together, the electrical material produces an electrical pulse.

“We could use this for a device that doesn’t take much power, such as a motion sensor or magnetic sensor or temperature sensor,” Lofland said. “You wouldn’t need to have batteries. You wouldn’t need to replace it.”

Lofland and his students have been working on the project under a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Navy since 2010.

Storing energy

Additionally, teams that Lofland and fellow physics colleague Dr. Jeffrey Hettinger oversee have been developing inorganic carbon films to store electrical energy in conjunction with Drexel University and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The Rowan team is “sputtering,” bombarding carbon and titanium with ionized gas at high speed so that the atoms come off at about 10,000 degrees and then land onto silicon or graphite substrates. They then send those films to Drexel, where their Philadelphia-based partners treat them with chlorine, which removes the titanium and leaves the carbon in a sponge-like form. The pores in the carbon create large surface areas to help store electrical energy.

“We have no large-scale way of storing energy,” Lofland said. “If you make surplus energy, you won’t have to waste it if you can develop capacity to store it. Instead of having brownouts, you can make energy the night before and have it ready for the next day.”

At Rowan, physics is about more than energy, however.

Tackling cancer

Elsewhere in Science Hall, home to the department, Dr. Tabbetha Dobbins is overseeing students and working in conjunction with Dr. Cristina Iftode, Biological Sciences, to determine whether laser radiation can kill cancer cells. They are in the early stages of the project, and they expect to irradiate actual cancer cells in the fall. They plan to focus on near-surface cancer cells, those that can be relatively easily reached with laser, such as skin, throat and larynx cancers.

“We are hoping with this project to diagnose and provide treatment options,” Dobbins said.

Additionally, they will research whether gold nanoparticles – small particles not much bigger than an atom — can be used as tracers to pinpoint an area with cancer. Gold, Dobbins explained, absorbs laser energy and gives off heat; the nanoparticles of gold can transfer that heat to the cells. Ultimately, she hopes to determine whether the nanoparticles of gold could be treated with some cancer drugs and proteins, which may target and kill the cancer cells.

“We can always use more treatment options,” she said. “I hope this project at least gives another treatment option.”

“Rowan’s Physics Department has 20 students and eight faculty working this summer on these projects and more. This is a normal level of activity during the summer here,” said Dr. Eddie Guerra, acting chairperson of the Physics Department. “In some ways this is the tip of the iceberg. Our faculty and students spend the summer – as well as the academic year — conducting research that trains students in scientific methods and rivals research that we see at any other institution. These basically are internships for science students, and we get to have them do them on their home turf. This is a great advantage they have here that they may not have at institutions of a similar size elsewhere.”

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