Engineering has been at the heart of Cornell since its founding in 1865, when Ezra Cornell — a self-taught engineer — founded the university. This period coincided with widespread availability of electricity and advances in manufacturing, transportation, and communication technologies that drove disruptive changes in the ways people lived, worked, and communicated.

Cornell Engineering began as a narrow discipline focused on large mechanical systems and has grown into a diverse field centered on understanding systems that scale from the small sub-atomic units responsible for the self-assembly of matter in biomolecular circuits in living systems, to the large-scale complex motions of plasmas in interstellar space.

Cornell engineers are also innovating the future of systems that selectively remove harmful greenhouse gases from the environment and that harness big data for advanced decision-making and machine intelligence.

Research at the College of Engineering is organized around four Strategic Areas: Advanced Materials; Complex Systems, Network Science, and Computation; Bioengineering; and Energy and the Environment.

Advanced Materials

Research focuses on synthesizing and applying advanced materials to create new materials that are not found in the natural world. Areas of innovation include computationally designed materials; enhanced functionality through convergence and integration of biological, organic, electronic, and structural materials; self-assembly creation of new materials; and tailoring of interfaces to produce nanocomposites. Cornell is home to four national centers with a focus on advanced materials.

The use of semiconductor devices and circuits will continue to play a major role in modern life. Therefore, electronics and photonics are considered to be premier growth areas. As feature sizes decrease, incremental research based on current methods and materials is unlikely to enable Moore’s Law to continue. New materials and processing techniques are needed. Cornell targeted the following areas: oxide semiconductors, 3D integration, materials beyond silicon, high K and low K dielectrics, plasmonics, spintronics, and multiferroics.

Scientists and engineers are increasingly turning to nature for inspiration. The solutions arrived at by natural selection are often a good starting point in the search for answers to scientific and technical problems. The following areas are particularly aligned with the current materials research at Cornell: bioinspired composites; engineered protein films for adhesion, lubrication, and sensing applications; molecular tools for in-vitro and in-vivo imaging; and biomaterials for tissue engineering and drug delivery.

Strategies for clean and sustainable communities need to be established now. Creativity and innovation in green technology are bringing the promise of a healthier planet. Cornell has targeted green composites and new systems for CO2 capture and conversion as areas of future growth.

Cornell researchers used a 3D printer to manufacture bone-inspired material made from a urethane methacrylate polymer and then tested its durability. They increased the material’s fatigue life by up to 100 times by strengthening internal rod-like struts.

Complex Systems, Network Science, and Computation

Complex systems — whether integrated circuits, information relays, transportation routing, social systems, or biochemical reactions in a living cell — all behave in ways that cannot be fully explained by understanding their component parts. This research area includes sensors and actuators, rapid prototyping, satellite systems, and computational theory.


Bioengineering focuses on discovering new methods of mimicking and manipulating biological systems, both for medical and non-medical purposes. In biotechnology, researchers are working to manipulate living organisms and their mechanisms to produce useful products or as aids in environmental management. Research in biomedical engineering highlights its role as a bridge connecting engineering and physical sciences with biology and medicine. Researchers in molecular biotechnology use their knowledge of RNA, DNA, and proteins to develop useful products or processes.

Energy and the Environment

Researchers are developing new energy sources and technologies that benefit the environment and economy and are helping to implement those technologies.

Energy and sustainability (E&S) are areas of critical importance today. The ongoing climate crisis and the need for sustainable development strategies require transformative engineering solutions.

E&S are extremely broad topics connected to two grand challenges: 1) Protection of the environment and people, encompassing areas such as food and water access, agriculture technologies, sensing devices, aquaculture, etc.; and 2) clean and sustainable energy, encompassing subjects such as water-energy nexus, clean energy technologies, energy storage, efficiencies of buildings, and vehicles and propulsion systems.

Cornell is committed to being a leader in the field of sustainable development. In addition to the Cornell Energy Systems Institute, several Cornell centers coordinate energy research in these areas:

  • Chemical engineering processing for renewable and cleaner conventional energy extraction, upgrading, and conversion.

  • Fabrication of next-generation solar cells and photochemical converters, batteries, and other storage devices from nanoscale building blocks.

  • Production of energetic materials, fuels, and bioproducts from a wide range of biomass feedstocks ranging from energy crops and algae to agricultural and food wastes, as well as energy production from Earth energy systems including engineered geothermal systems.

Cornell Technologies

Robotics — Cornell researchers have created Shadow-Sense technology, a low-cost method for soft, deformable robots to detect a range of physical interactions — from pats to punches to hugs — without relying on touch. Instead, a USB camera located inside the robot captures the shadow movements of hand gestures on the robot’s skin and classifies them with machine-learning software. The robot can be programmed to respond to certain touches and gestures such as rolling away or issuing a message through a loudspeaker. And the robot’s skin has the potential to be turned into an interactive screen.

Cornell researchers designed a mobile phone chip that is part of a class of radio devices capable of operating across a large portion of the growing wireless spectrum, while adaptively suppressing interferences. (Jason Koski/Cornell University)

A fiber-optic sensor was developed that combines low-cost LEDs and dyes, resulting in a stretchable “skin” that detects deformations such as pressure, bending, and strain. This sensor could give soft robotic systems the ability to feel the same rich, tactile sensations that mammals depend on to navigate the natural world. The researchers designed a 3D-printed glove with a sensor running along each finger. The glove transmits data to basic software that reconstructs the glove’s movements and deformations in real time.

Cornell researchers designed the first microscopic robots that incorporate semiconductor components, allowing them to be controlled — and made to walk — with standard electronic signals. These robots — roughly the size of paramecium — provide a template for building even more complex versions that utilize silicon-based intelligence, can be mass produced, and may someday travel within human tissue and blood.

Optical wireless integrated circuits (OWICs) are so tiny that 30,000 of them can fit on one side of a penny. (Alejandro Cortese/Provided)

Materials — A 3D-printed soft robot muscle can regulate its temperature through sweating. Nanopolymer materials for sweating were produced via a 3D-printing technique called multi-material stereolithography, which uses light to cure resin into predesigned shapes. The researchers fabricated fingerlike actuators composed of two hydrogel materials that can retain water and respond to temperature — in effect, “smart” sponges.

Millions of cellphones rely on barium-strontium titanate to adjust, or “tune,” their antennae circuitry and achieve clear reception. A Cornell-led team created a new material that will bring this clarity and extra bandwidth to the next generation of cellphones and other high-frequency electronics. The tunable dielectric could also be used for defense applications such as electronic spoofing in which a signal is deployed to confuse high-frequency radar systems.

Electronics — Cornell researchers who build nanoscale electronics have developed microsensors so tiny they can fit 30,000 on one side of a penny. They are equipped with an integrated circuit, solar cells, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that enable them to harness light for power and communication. And because they are mass fabricated, with up to 1 million sitting on an 8" wafer, each device costs a fraction of that same penny.

Researchers designed a new class of radio devices capable of operating across a large portion of the growing wireless spectrum,while adaptively suppressing interferences. The team developed a radio receiver architecture capable of operating across a large portion of the wireless spectrum while suppressing interferences as they arise. A new algorithm will allow the receiver to adaptively adjust its interference response as needed using digital signal processing.

Manufacturing — Ceramic structures filled with tiny macroscopic pores play an important role in industrial and biomedical products but they’re also notoriously difficult to fabricate. A new manufacturing technique uses a combination of computational modeling, porous structure design, and 3D printing to precisely customize a porous network. Digital light processing lithography is a type of 3D printing that, unlike other ceramic 3D-printing techniques that deposit material across a build platform, projects light patterns onto layers of a photocurable resin. The resin then solidifies where it has been exposed to light, retaining the pattern projected onto each layer.

A 3D-printing technique was developed at Cornell that creates cellular metallic materials by smashing together powder particles at supersonic speed. This technology, known as “cold spray,” results in mechanically robust, porous structures that are 40% stronger than similar materials made with conventional manufacturing processes. The structures’ small size and porosity make them particularly well-suited for building biomedical components like replacement joints. The method uses a nozzle of compressed gas to fire titanium alloy particles at a substrate.

Biomedical — To combat the spread of COVID-19, a transparent helmet was developed that prevents 99.6% of virus-containing droplets exhaled by patients from reaching the environment. The helmet provides practitioners access to the patient’s nose and mouth and is connected to a filtration pump that reverses the flow of air to prevent droplets from leaving, avoiding contamination of the clinical environment. Aside from the helmet’s effectiveness, its simple design and low cost make it more accessible for preventing virus transmission during open-mouth procedures.

Animals with extremely sensitive noses, such as dogs and rats, have nasal structures with two features for capturing molecules: The air passageways in dogs branch to create many smaller air ducts; those passages are also maze-like. These features create increased surface area and curvature to capture molecules and other particles on passage walls. An open-source, 3D-printable medical mask inspired by the nasal structures of animals consists of a mesh material that incorporates copper, which kills viruses on contact.

Visualization of a helmet designed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 by pumping air from the mouth to the helmet’s vacuum port. (Esmaily Lab/Provided)

Cornell researchers have made a new discovery about how seemingly minor aspects of the internal structure of bone can be strengthened to withstand repeated wear and tear, a finding that could help treat patients suffering from osteoporosis. It could also lead to the creation of more durable, lightweight materials for the aerospace industry.

The team used a 3D printer to manufacture bone-inspired material made from a urethane methacrylate polymer. They varied the thickness of the rods and were able to increase the material’s fatigue life by up to 100 times. The reinforced microstructure lattices could be incorporated into just about any device and would be particularly beneficial to the aerospace industry, where ultra-lightweight materials need to withstand tremendous and repeated strain.

Technology Transfer

Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing brings the University’s technological innovations to the marketplace. For information on licensing Cornell technologies, visit here . View available technologies here .

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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