NISKAYUNA, N.Y.--When you're listening to someone explain a new scientific method and just about the only thing that goes through your head is "This is going to win a Nobel Prize," you know you're in good company.
That was my experience recently while I was listening to Fiona Ginty, a project leader in computational biology in General Electric Global Research's biosciences group, explain her work. Ginty's project is all about finding new and better ways to spot cancer in a patient's body, ideally as early as possible. And as a member of GE's Advanced Technologies team, she is being given the chance to work on science and medicine that may well not bear fruit for years.
As part of Road Trip 2010, I've come to this upstate New York town that's adjacent to Schenectady for a daylong tour of GE's Global Research headquarters.
Across the globe, GE Research currently has four major facilities: Niskayuna; Bangalore, India; Shanghai; and Munich. And it will soon open another in Brazil. The company's research arm works on just about any issue you can imagine, but focuses largely on energy, health care, water and gas, and aviation.
GE Research alone has about 2,600 employees, and as a company, GE has about 37,000 total researchers. The idea with these thousands of highly skilled workers is not necessarily to focus on specific products but rather to search for new technologies that can make existing products better.
And sometimes that may be a very long-term play. Groups within the company are often given timelines of 10 to 15 years to make their work pay off. But at the same time, General Electric is looking to GE Research to push the company forward. If work coming from GE Research is seen as being likely to help an existing GE business, then that unit will likely fund the research. Overall, GE Research has an annual budget of about $600 million, while GE itself spent about $4 billion in 2009 on technology.
A single day, of course, is not nearly long enough to hear about--let alone understand--everything going on in an R&D hotbed like this, but I've been promised a sampling of some of the most interesting work being done here, and Ginty's project is at the heart of it.
For Ginty and her colleagues, one of the starting points for their project was a desire to upend an approach to identifying cancer that hasn't changed for years. Their challenge was to develop a new, fast-scanning platform capable of finding cancer and disease markers in patients' cells in ways never done before.
Today, doctors and biologists can search for the proteins that are the hallmarks of these markers but only by working with cells on slides under a microscope, and they are able to search for just one marker at a time, she said. But there are many proteins that are relevant to signaling the pathways to cancer, she said, and it doesn't make sense to limit a search to just one at a time.
That's why, five years ago, her group began a project with a very ambitious goal: to be able to find these markers without destroying the cells.
To do that, they've developed a way to label antibodies with dyes and a system for activating a solution that can turn off those dyes. By imaging a patient's body using a special florescent lighting system, it should be possible, Ginty said, to collect a stack of images of up to 30 layers, meaning that scientists and doctors could look for more than two dozen markers at once, all without destroying a patient's cells.
And because this is part of a larger GE Research project, the idea is to figure out how both to get the information from a patient's tissue, while keeping it intact, and how to build hardware around these techniques that are designed to analyze the images.
Ginty's work is in the same lab as that of another project leader, Tina Tan Hehir, who is working on optical imaging systems for GE Research.
Like Ginty, Tan Hehir is working on ways to examine the human body and look for information about disease, all without damaging the body itself. Her group is looking at ways to use specialized optical imaging hardware to scan the body using infrared light in a bid to find areas with the leaky vasculature--or blood vessels--that is common to cancerous tumors.
If a doctor uses this type of imaging equipment and sees leaky blood vessels, it can offer a hugely important head start on treating the disease. Similarly, with this technology, doctors should also be able to pinpoint the exact location of tumors while also seeing where nerves are and work to cut out the disease without damaging the nerves, or anything else nearby. That's crucial, Tan Hehir said, given that 70 percent of prostate cancer surgery patients end up with some kind of nerve damage from the surgery.
And that's why Tan Hehir and her colleagues have recently gotten a $4 million grant from the National Institute of Health to continue searching for the best agents they can use to label patients' nerves.
My day at GE Research covered a lot of ground and a lot of disciplines. But one that really stood out was a visit with Seyed Saddoughi, the principal engineer in the Energy and Propulsion Technologies group. Talking at very high speed, Saddoughi spent some time explaining to me what he and his group are doing in the area of advanced active flow and combustion control--technology that has the goal of significantly improving aerodynamics and efficiency in aviation.
Saddoughi and his team are turning to what are called synthetic jets--small systems that are capable of producing a significant amount of propulsion with no motors--as a way of drastically achieving those goals.
Today, he said, airplanes often have small pieces of metal on their wings called vortex generators that are designed to bring a high-speed flow close to the surface of the wing. But while these are useful at takeoff, they produce a significant amount of drag during flight, and Saddoughi is setting out to find a way to generate the vortices without the drag. Using just a piezo electric actuator to generate the propulsion, these synthetic jets can be integrated smoothly into airplane wings without creating drag and produce air that moves at Mach 0.7, or 200 meters a second.
Similarly, the jets can be placed on the underside fins of fighter planes like the F/16 and can dramatically improve active airflow control, Saddoughi said
As well, these same synthetic jets can also be implemented on large wind turbines, Saddoughi said, and can increase their efficiency by 30 percent without no drag penalty--since they don't protrude from the blades.
And, oddly, aviation and wind generation isn't the only place that GE Research is studying how to use these synthetic jets. They are also being used to cool cutting edge LED lighting systems that could one day supplant compact florescent, let alone incandescent, as the dominant lighting technology.
According to Mehmet Arik, a senior engineer in GE Research's Thermal Systems Laboratory, these small jets are being used to cool the electronics chips of the latest generation of LED lamps that GE thinks will be the future of lighting. The company has produced 1,500-lumen LEDs that are designed to last more than 50,000 hours, and which produce a bright, strong light.
But the electronics behind these systems can get very hot. By integrating the jets, the heat can be modulated carefully, without requiring expensive cooling technology. According to Arik, these jets, which work much like a small bellow, sucking in and blowing out air at high speed, are "the world's smallest air conditioner."
Indeed, it is because of the cooling ability of the synthetic jets that GE believes that these LED systems will be as efficient or better than the best florescent system in less than five years.
Another GE Research area that looks to have wide-ranging utility is known as power electronics. This is technology designed to provide the same kind of energy that is used today by automobiles, wind turbines, airplane engines, and health care devices like MRIs, but much more efficiently.
Today, explained Ljubisa Stevanovic, a chief engineer in the GE Research Advanced Technology Office, silicon is at the core of most power technology. But GE is betting on a different compound, silicon carbide, which it believes can produce similar power with far less energy required to produce it.
That's because, Stevanovic explained, silicon carbide-based power electronics will be smaller in size and more powerful than anything that can be done with silicon alone.
One example in health care is the MRI, he explained. These devices produce a 1 megawatt magnetic field but could be brought significantly down in size and cost and could produce higher quality imagery by using silicon carbide power electronics.
Stevanovic said that the first generation of products with silicon carbide power electronics will come out in 2012, and that the most likely first adopters will be the military, which may well find that the technology offers the kind of high efficiency, low (imaging) noise that can enable better utility from its next-generation fighter jets, unmanned aerial vehicles and radars.
Pilot development, nanotech and more
As I mentioned above, my day at GE Research was packed tight with meetings, and during the course of the day, we covered an extremely diverse range of topics and disciplines.
There's no way to spell out everything I saw in one story, let alone everything that GE Research is working on. Suffice it to say that several of the technologies and research projects I saw were very interesting and worthy of being called out here but didn't quite make sense to try to fit in a single article.
Among them were my introduction to materials science at the nanotechnology scale (see video below), courtesy of Margaret Blohm, the leader of the GE Research nanotech advanced technologies program.
Blohm talked to me about how GE is using nanotechnology in everything from figuring out how to create water-repellent surfaces to how to use nano-scale iron oxide shavings to investigate the health of tumors to how to use nanotechnology in the de-icing of airplane wings.
I also spent some time touring the GE Research Pilot Development Center, where the company works on rapid technology development by building prototype manufacturing systems for new technologies. Currently, the center is being used to research how to best produce roll-to-roll OLEDs using what amounts to the same printing process as a newspaper plant.
And I also got a look at some of the thin-film solar work that GE Research is doing, work that could one day produce solar cells that are much more efficient than anything on the market today, and which could help large-scale users of solar power save significant amounts of money and use of fossil fuels.
All in all, a day at GE Research is a whirlwind of ideas, new technologies, and a glimpse at where one of the world's largest technology companies plans to take us in the next few years. Not all of what the institution is working on there will see the light of the market, of course, but it's clear that as a company, General Electric sees its research arm as a powerful front end to staying ahead of its competitors.
As GE founder Thomas Edison put it--in a saying prominently displayed at the GE Global Research headquarters here, "I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent it."
After a day here, seeing some of the most promising technologies I've seen, including health care research that I feel could one day earn the Nobel Prize, it's nice to know that there are a group of people who agree that R&D is truly valuable and that solving the world's problems can only be done with a strong and true commitment to science.
For the rest of this week, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. You can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.