“Nano Assembly” Looks to Change the Future … And the Costs of Quantum Dot Manufacturing

2x2-logo-sm.jpg*** “Great Things from Small Things” has written and re-published many articles over the past several years on the “wee tiny” nano-materials called Quantum Dots. Their enabling applications across a broad spectrum of Markets & Industries from Electronics, Textiles, Drug Therapies, Bio-Medicines to Solar Energy Generation/ Storage and Display Screens, has been well documented. It would seem these new “wonder nano-materials” are poised to change the entire landscape of how we innovate and manufacture almost everything.

So what’s the catch? What has delayed a broader acceptance and integration of quantum dots into the marketplace? It would seem the answer lies not in the efficacy & validity of the new ‘nano-materials’ but more in the age old and time tested axiom of: “Low Cost + High Consistency + Ability to Mass Scale = Commercial Success.

A new company Nano Assembly has plans to change all that. Business Investigative writer Osama Natto highlights the High Profile Team and award winning company’s collaboration with KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) to integrate these disruptive game changing materials in the broader marketplace for commercial success.

Article by Osama Natto

The Problem

Quantum dots are expensive enough to limit their otherwise broad applicability.

The standard way to make these semiconductor particles is to heat a solution to a high temperature in a small flask and inject a special agent. However, the solution will cool down naturally, and manual operation cannot maintain the high temperature needed for efficient production.

One can scale production of quantum dots up by using a larger flask, but this does not produce quality results. One can also use a continuous-flow reactor to benefit from higher consistency and automatic operation, as well as production of quantum dots in different sizes, but this still does not produce high-quality quantum dots.

The Solution

The Nano Assembly team has found a new method for producing quantum dots consistently and at a significantly lower price than competitors.

How the Product Works

The optical and electrical properties of quantum dots depend on their size and type. Different sizes emit different colors and exhibit a different absorption spectrum. Quantum dots must be produced according to careful standards.

The Technology Nano Assembly’s dual-stage servo control method allows the production of quantum dots without the broad peaks and troughs that come from other methods. The lower the absorption peak, the higher the quality of the quantum dots.

Where It Fits into the Market The quantum dots produced by Nano Assembly can be used anywhere that more expensively-produced quantum dots are utilized, allowing competing offerings to be replaced.

Patent Status The team has already filed for a patent and published their work in a high-impact journal.

Benefits to Saudi Economy These “low-cost and high quality quantum dots” could allow tech products already popular in Saudi Arabia, such as mobile phones, to include more efficient displays while remaining inexpensive. The team’s affordable quantum dots could also allow more people access to high-quality medical imaging, and improve solar cell technology to allow effective harvest of one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest natural resources: sunlight.


In part due to their ability to produce a rainbow of bright colors efficiently, quantum dots are used in display technologies. Since quantum dots are so tiny, they can also move anywhere in the human body, making them useful in the field of medical imaging as replacements for fluorescence-based biosensors that use organic dyes. Quantum dots can also be used as the absorbing photovoltaic material in solar cells.

Features and Benefits of the Product

  • High quality relative to competitors’ quantum dots
  • Low cost relative to competitors’ quantum dots


Since quantum dots are used to make other products, Nano Assembly would be operating in the business-to-business market, although applications in fields like solar power also leave the door open for business-to-government sales.

Competitive Landscape

Current methods for producing quantum dots include high-temperature dual injection synthesis, molecular seeding, and a variation of the high-temperature dual injection method that incorporates a continuous flow system.


(Image courtesy of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology)


Names and Profiles of Team Members

Credentials Dr. Pan has earned both a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from Anhui Polytechnic University, along with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Science and Technology of China. He is now participating in a post-doctoral fellowship at KAUST. Within the Nano Assembly team, Dr. Pan is in charge of production.

El-Ballouli holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Master of Science in Organic Chemistry from the American University of Beirut. She is currently a Ph.D. student at KAUST. Her primary area of interest is continuous-flow synthesis and size separation of quantum dots for assembly in solar cells. El-Ballouli is in charge of product testing for the team.

Dr. Bakr has earned a Bachelor of Science in Materials Science and Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as well as both a Master of Science and Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Harvard University. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Principal Investigator at KAUST. Dr. Bakr acts as scientific adviser to the Nano Assembly team.

Dr. Sargent holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Physics from Queen’s University, along with a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering (Photonics) from the University of Toronto. He is the Vice Dean of Research for the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, a Professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE), and a KAUST Investigator. Dr. Sargent is the technique and business adviser for the team.


Nano Assembly has already begun the process of incorporating their company. Their immediate task is to set up the production line that they have prepared, test it, and scale it up. They are expecting significant annual growth through 2017.

Big-Picture Impact on the Saudi Economy   

The availability of high-quality quantum dots at a low price could help more tech-savvy companies and entrepreneurs enter the electronics, solar power, and medical imaging fields, among others. It could also help existing companies produce more cost-effective offerings within these fields. Either way, the end result would be a more technologically advanced and competitive Saudi Arabia.

Automated and scalable inline two-stage synthesis process for high quality colloidal quantum dots

By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

longpredicte(Nanowerk Spotlight) Colloidal quantum dot (CQDnanocrystals are attractive materials for optoelectronics, sensing devices and  third generation photovoltaics, due to their low cost, tunable bandgap – i.e.  their optical absorption can be controlled by changing the size of the CQD  nanocrystal – and solution processability. This makes them attractive candidate  materials for cheap and scalable roll-to-roll printable device fabrication  technologies.


One key impediment that currently prevents CQDs from fulfilling  their tremendous promise is that all reports of high efficiency devices were  from CQDs synthesized using manual batch synthesis methods (in classical  reaction flasks).


Researchers have known that chemically producing nanocrystals  of controlled and narrow size-distributions requires stringent control over the  reaction conditions – e.g. temperature and reactant concentration – which is  only practical for small-scale reactions.


Such a synthesis is extremely  difficult to scale up, hence very costly to mass produce without severely  compromising quality.   The reason for this is that, just like rain droplets,  nanocrystals form sequentially by ‘nucleation’ and ‘growth’. Both these  phenomena are highly sensitive to temperature and reagent concentration.  Moreover, nucleation and growth must occur at substantially different  temperatures and, in fact, to obtain nanocrystals of uniform sizes, one must be  able to rapidly cool down the reaction from the nucleation temperature to the  growth temperature.


Hence, the quality of the product is contingent upon how  well and fast one can homogenize the reactor, both chemically and thermally.   Unfortunately, the only way to scale up batch reactors is by  increasing their volume, whereupon it becomes difficult to homogenize the  reactor and impractical to rapidly cool. The end result is nanocrystals of  low-quality and broad size distributions, which are not useful for fabricating  devices.

Some researchers have sought to circumvent this limitation by  conducting the reactions in narrow fluidic channels (less than a 1 mm in  diameter) while the reactants are continuously pumped through the channels, so  called ‘continuous-flow reactors’.


Conceptually, this scheme has several advantages. Narrow-width  channels afford uniform heating and mixing of the reaction, while the reaction  is scalable by simply increasing channel length and pump rate of the reagents.  This sort of scaling does not effect the quality of the product, because the  channel width, and hence the effective reaction volume, remains the same.  Despite these advantages, most attempts to use continuous-flow reactors in the  past have resulted in nanocrystals with a much lower quality than the batch  produced ones.


“We have analyzed the nucleation and growth of CQDs in  continuous-flow reactors and realized that, in order to achieve controllable  size and narrow size-distributions, one must employ two temperature stages in  the reactor: one for nucleation, and another for growth,” Osman Bakr, an  assistant professor in the Solar & Photovoltaics Engineering Research Center at King  Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), tells Nanowerk.

“By  separating these two crucial steps in the formation of the CQDs in time,  temperature, and space, we were able to obtain very high quality nanocrystals,  as good as the best batch synthesis, by a process that is low-cost,  mass-producible, and automated.”

Schematic of a conventional batch synthesis setup and a dual-stage continuous flow reactor setup



Schematic of (a) a conventional batch synthesis setup and (b) a  dual-stage continuous flow reactor setup with precursor A (Pb-oleate,  octadecene) and precursor B (bis(trimethylsilyl) sulfide in octadecene).  (Reprinted with permission from American Chemical Society)


Reporting their findings in ACS Nano (“Automated Synthesis of Photovoltaic-Quality Colloidal Quantum  Dots Using Separate Nucleation and Growth Stages”), Bakr and his team  demonstrated the quality of the CQDs produced by their method by using them to  make CQD-based solar cells that showed very high efficiencies.


“In this paper, we developed an automated, scalable, in-line  synthesis methodology of high-quality CQDs based on a flow-reactor with two  temperature-stages of narrow channel coils,” says Professor Ted Sargent from the  University of Toronto who, together with Bakr, led this work. “The flow-reactor  methodology not only enables easy scalability and cheap production, but also  affords rapid screening of parameters, automation, and low reagent consumption  during optimization. 

Moreover, the CQDs are as good in quality and device  performance as the best CQDs that are produced in the traditional batch  methodology.”   The team also developed a general theory for how one can use the  flow-reactors to finely tune the quality and size distribution of the CQDs, and  explained why previous attempts of using flow-reactors based on a  single-temperature-stage, as opposed to a dual-temperature-stage, necessarily  produce CQDs of low-quality and broad size distribution.


This work paves the way towards the large-scale and affordable  synthesis of high-quality CQD nanocrystals in tunable sizes, enabling  photovoltaics, light-emitting diodes, photodetectors, and biological tagging  technologies that take advantage of the nanoscale properties of those promising  materials.


“Over the last ten years we have seen tremendous advancements in  software and computer integration, in items that we use in our everyday lives,”  says Bakr. “Flow-reactors as a platform are ideally placed to take advantage of  this trend. Software that automates the routines of flow-reactors already  exists. In the near future, researchers will be able to run and monitor hundreds  of experiments to produce CQDs from home using a mobile app.


Moreover, because  flow-reactors contain very few moving parts, essentially just programmable  pumps, I expect that it will become an automated research platform that most  labs studying nanocrystals can afford.”   “Our work has shown that flow-reactors can produce nanocrystals  that are as good as the best batch produced reactions, with exquisite control  over reaction conditions,” he adds. “We believe that this will encourage the  nanomaterials community to take advantage of the enormous productivity gains in  R&D afforded by flow-reactors, which other chemical industries, such as  pharmaceuticals, are currently utilizing earnestly.”

Read more: http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=32945.php#ixzz2j2YbZvu8

Solar paint paves the way for low-cost photovoltaics

072613solar(Nanowerk Spotlight) Using quantum dots as the basis  for solar cells is not a new idea, but attempts to make such devices have not  yet achieved sufficiently high efficiency in converting sunlight to power. The  latest advances in  quantum dots photovoltaics have recently resulted in solar  cell power conversion efficiencies exceeding 7% (see for instance: “Graded Doping for Enhanced Colloidal Quantum Dot  Photovoltaics”).


Although these performance levels are promising, all  high-performing device results to date have relied on a multiple-layer-by-layer  strategy for film fabrication rather than employing a single-layer deposition  process.    The attractiveness of using quantum dots for making solar cells  lies in several advantages over other approaches: They can be manufactured in an  energy-saving room-temperature process; they can be made from abundant,  inexpensive materials that do not require extensive purification, as silicon  does; and they can be applied to a variety of inexpensive and even flexible  substrate materials, such as lightweight plastics.


In new work, reported in the August 12, 2013 online edition of  Advanced Materials (“Directly Deposited Quantum Dot Solids Using a  Colloidally Stable Nanoparticle Ink”), a research team from the University  of Toronto and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)  developed a semiconductor ink with the goal of enabling the coating of large  areas of solar cell substrates in a single deposition step and thereby  eliminating tens of deposition steps necessary with the previous layer-by-layer  method.


“We sought an approach that would achieve highly efficient  utilization of CQD materials,” says Professor Ted Sargent from the  University of Toronto, who, together with Osman Bakr, an  assistant professor in the Solar & Photovoltaics Engineering Research Center at KAUST,  led the work. “To achieve this, we made a solar cell ink that can be deposited  in a single step which makes it an excellent material for high-throughput  commercial fabrication.”


The team’s ‘solar paint’ is composed of semiconductor  nanoparticles synthesized in solution – so-called colloidal quantum dots (CQDs).  They can be used to harvest electricity from the entire solar spectrum because  their energy levels can be tuned by simply changing the size of the particle.    Previously, films made from these nanoparticles were built up in  a layer-by-layer fashion where each of the thin CQD film deposition steps is  followed by curing and washing steps to densify the film and form the final  semiconducting material.


These additional steps are required to exchange the  long ligands that keep the CQDs stable in solution for short ligands that allow  efficient charge transport. However, this means that many steps are required to  build a thick enough film to absorb enough sunlight.   “We simplified this process by engineering the CQD surfaces with  short organic molecules in the solution phase to enable a stable colloidal  solution and reduce the film formation to a single step,” Bakr explains to  Nanowerk. “At the same time, the post processing steps are reduced  significantly, since the semiconducting material is formed in solution.  This  means that CQD films can be deposited quickly and at low cost, similar to a  paint or ink.”


       colloidal quantum dot solar cell fabrication methods


a)  Schematic of the standard layer-by-layer spin-coating process with active  materials usage yield and required total material indicated. b) Schematic of the  single-step film process with active materials usage yield and required total  material indicated. (Reprinted with permission from Wiley-VCH Verlag)  



Besides the reduction in processing steps, the new process is  also much more efficient in terms of materials usage. While the layer-by-layer,  solid-state treatment approach provides less than 0.1% yield in its application  of CQD materials from their solution phase onto the substrate, the new approach  achieves almost 100% use of available CQDs.


“This means that for the same amount of CQD material, we could  make a thousand-fold larger area of solar cells compared with conventional  methods,” Bakr points out.  “Our technology paves the way for low-cost  photovoltaics that can be fabricated on flexible substrates using roll-to-roll  manufacturing, similar to a printing press,” adds Lisa Rollny, a PhD candidate  in Sarget’s group and a co-author of the paper. “Our ink is also useful in  biological applications, e.g. in biosensors and tracing agents with an infrared  response.”  


“In previous work, we found new routes of passivating the CQD  surface using a combination of organic and inorganic compounds in a solid state  approach with large improvements in efficiency,” says Rollny. “We intend to  integrate this knowledge with our solar CQD ink to further improve the  performance of this material, especially in terms of how much solar energy is  converted into usable electrical energy.”  


Although the team have developed an effective method for  producing a CQD film in a single step, the electronic properties of the  resulting films are not optimized yet. This is due to the very small  imperfections on the CQD surface that reduce the usable electricity output of a  solar cell. Through careful engineering of CQD surfaces in solution, the  researchers  plan to eliminate these unwanted surface sites in order to make  higher quality, higher efficiency CQD solar cells using their single step  process.


By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

Read more: http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=31922.php#ixzz2dkjBHzZG

Nanotechnology Design for micro-sized microbial Fuel Cells

By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8(Nanowerk Spotlight) Microbial fuel cells are a prime  example of environmental biotechnology that turns the treatment of organic  wastes into a source of electricity. Fuel cell technology, despite its recent  popularity as a possible solution for a fossil-fuel free future, is actually  quite old – the principle was discovered in 1838 and the first fuel cell was  developed in 1843.

The operating principle of a fuel cell is fairly  straightforward: it is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts  the chemical energy from fuel (on the anode side) and oxidant (on the cathode  side) directly into electricity.   Today, there are many competing types of fuel cells, depending  on what kind of fuel and oxidant they use. For instance, a hydrogen fuel cell  uses hydrogen as fuel and oxygen as oxidant. In microbial fuel cells (MFCs), the  naturally occurring decomposing pathways of electrogenic bacteria are used to  both clean water and produce electricity by oxidizing biological compounds from  wastewater and other liquid wastes, even urine.

“Micro-sized microbial fuel cells are essentially miniature  energy harvesters requiring only the insertion of a liquid feed source  containing organic materials for the bacteria to feed,” Muhammad Mustafa Hussain, an Associate Professor of Electrical  Engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in  Saudi Arabia, explains to Nanowerk.

“As a new technology, a full range of  microbial fuel cell conditions and materials must be rapidly tested to determine  the optimal parameters for maximum power production and future  commercialization. From that perspective, micro-sized MFCs offer a unique  miniature platform for rapid testing of MFC components.”   In new work, Hussain and his team have now demonstrated a  sustainable and practical design for a micro-sized microbial fuel cell.  Reporting their work in the July 30, 2013 online edition of ACS Nano (“Sustainable Design of High Performance Micro-sized  Microbial Fuel Cell with Carbon Nanotube Anode and Air Cathode”), the team  has successfully integrated multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) into the anode  of a completely mobile micro-sized MFC using an air cathode.           microbial fuel cell design (a)  Schematic of the 75 µL micro-sized microbial fuel cell with MWCNT on silicon  chip anode and air cathode. Gold and Nickel on silicon chip anodes were also  tested and compared in the same set up; (b) Photograph of MWCNT on silicon chip  microbial fuel cell in plastic encasing with titanium wire contact visible as  well as the black air cathode compared to a US penny. (Reprinted with permission  from American Chemical Society)

With a focus on sustainability and low-cost usability, the  researchers designed their MFC as a one-chamber device by removing the proton  exchange membrane and replacing the cathode/chemical electron acceptor  combination with an air cathode and ambient oxygen electron acceptor, thus  making the entire device small enough for system-on-chip functionality.   “We have used oxygen instead of hazardous chemical ferricyanide,  which eliminates otherwise required continuous flow of liquid chemicals,” says  Justine Mink, a PhD student in Hussain’s Integrated Nanotechnology Laboratory, and the paper’s first  author. “This is the first time oxygen has been used in micro-sized MFC.

By  comparing the same air cathode set up with the most commonly used but expensive  gold anode as well as an inexpensive metal nickel anode we were able to confirm  that air cathodes in microsized MFCs are feasible even without a membrane and  that the devices are durable and long-lasting.”   She points out that, during their experiments where they tested  their MFCs for over 15 days, the used MWCNT anode outperformed the others in  current and power production most importantly due to its increased surface area.

microbial fuel cell design

Maximum current densities produced by the devices (a) are about 800%  higher for the MWCNT anode compared to the gold and more than 2200% higher  compared to the nickel anode. Maximum power densities (4b) indicate that the  MWCNT anode produced more than 600% the power of the gold anode and 1900% the  power of the nickel anode. Their peak power values over a 10 day period (4c)  show that all devices were able to have reproducible and stable power but not at  the values of their peak power achieved indicating further need for optimization  within the micro-size MFC. (Reprinted with permission from American Chemical  Society)  

Having system-on-chip functionality on their mind, Hussain’s  group used CMOS compatible processes to fabricate their anodes with pure carbon  nanotubes on silicon. The material selection for the cathode, like that of the  anode, requires a highly conductive material and is most typically carbon. In  this case, the team used a specially designed and nano-engineered carbon cloth  air cathode. This is the first time an air cathode has been integrated directly  onto a silicon based MFC chip.

Applications of this new microbial fuel cell design will be  found in two areas: as rapid testing tools for MFC components for macroscale  designs; and as onboard power source for lab-on-chip and point-of-care  diagnostic devices.                       

By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

Read more: http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=31646.php#ixzz2apOoCLJs

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Investigates Online Monitoring of Printed Electronics by SD – OCT

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8 Printing technology is now being utilized to fabricate electronics and other active and passive devices and structures. Rotary printing techniques such as rotogravure, rotary screen, and flexography have been advantageous due to their ability to integrate with other rotary techniques to form what we refer to as Roll-to-Roll (R2R) process.


In a R2R process, a roll of the base material (referred to as substrate) is unwined, functional materials printed on top of the substrate to form the needed structures or device, dried and rewined back to roll, or cut into individual devices. Most of current characterization of printed devices is done off line and requires the interruption of the process, which is not feasible when scaling up to a manufacturing level.

There are few cameras and microscope-based methods capable of providing spatial information about printed structures in a R2R process, even at relatively high speeds. However, such techniques do not provide any information in relation to depth, especially when the imaged structure is buried. Industry requires integrated tools that can monitor online the fabricated device quality and structure.

It is demonstrated, in this case study, the use of Spectral-Domain OCT to monitor structural properties of moving printed devices, thus presenting a simple example simulating a R2R process. An interdigitated electrode structure of screen printed silver nanoparticles on a flexible PET substrate was used as a sample. Electrodes were first measured by an optical profilometer to get a reference for online OCT measurements.

R2R process was simulated by using a DC-servo motor-based translation stage with speeds from 0 to 1.50 m/min, with 0.15 m/min steps to demonstrate the dynamic imaging capability of OCT. The pattern was clearly recognizable at all speeds. Dimensions were resolved accurately up to speed of 1.05 m/min, after which the pixel pitch becomes too large in machine direction compared to the measured feature size, causing inaccurate measurement. Comparison between OCT and optical profilometer data was performed by overlaying OCT image by profilometer image with varying opacity from 0% to 100% to illustrate the correlation of data sets. The pattern measured by OCT matches well with the optical profilometer data.
Our vision is to integrate OCT as part of the R2R process to monitor structural parameters, evaluate the printing quality and provide feedback for process control. In a real R2R process imaging we have to deal with vibrations of the printer and web itself which have to be minimized either by supporting the web or using signal post-processing. Current OCT tools are limited to relatively slow R2R processes.

We can overcome this by incorporating higher acquisition rate camera, faster beam scanning, as well as faster ability to process and save large amount of data. Requirements for resolution are also higher than in medical field. Submicron resolution is required and it’s necessary to utilize high power ultra-broadband light source like supercontinuum source. Our team is actively developing ultrahigh resolution and fast OCT tools for industrial manufacturing and applications and processes, in particular, for imaging in R2R of printed electronics and photonics.
For more information see recent Article. Courtesy of Erkki Alarousu from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

Saudi Money Shaping U.S. Research

Susan Schmidt | February 11, 2013

qdots-imagescakxsy1k-8.jpgSaudi Arabia’s oil reserves are expected to run dry in fifty years. This prospect has encouraged the Saudis to go shopping for cutting-edge science that can secure the kingdom’s future—at elite American research universities.


King Abdullah and Saudi Aramco are spending tens of billions on technology research to make the oil last longer and develop other energy resources that future Saudi generations can someday export.


King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened its doors in 2009 and already has lavished more than $200 million on top U.S. university scientists. Stanford, Cornell, Texas A&M, UC Berkeley, CalTech, Georgia Tech—all are awash in new millions of Saudi cash for research directed at advancing solutions for Saudi energy and water needs. The new university, known as KAUST, has similar partnerships with scientists at Peking University and Oxford.

Many American universities and their scientists, lured by research grants of as much as $25 million, have jumped at the chance to partner with KAUST. Some of those scientists do research at their universities here and spend a small part of their time in Saudi Arabia creating “mirror” labs.

The arrangement with KAUST raises novel and largely unaddressed issues for American universities. With the United States determined to become energy self-sufficient, what are the ramifications of having scientists at top university labs—many of them recipients of U.S. government research dollars—devoting their efforts to energy pursuits selected by Saudi Arabia?

KAUST funding for U.S. scientists is geared to helping the Saudis cut their own heavy oil use at home to lengthen the life of their much more lucrative exports. It’s aimed at getting more oil per well with new technology, finding new reserves and developing new methods of carbon capture for continued use of fossil fuels. American scientists are also working to develop solar technology, including solar panels that can survive sandstorms and power desalinization of the Red Sea for water and electricity.

Among the areas KAUST is not funding is research on biofuels—which compete with oil—except for work on Red Sea algae.

KAUST’s mission statement lays out a plan to rapidly become a top international institution that “will play a crucial role in the development of Saudi Arabia and the world.” KAUST’s goal is not only to find new energy sources, but to create a Silicon Valley-like commercial hub of jobs and innovation. King Abdullah provided a whopping $20 billion endowment to launch the graduate-level research institution, and named the Saudi oil minister chairman of the board of trustees. Aramco built the campus, funds current operating costs and provided administrative leadership.

“It’s an important research lab for Aramco with a university façade,” said Alyn Rockwood, one of several scientists who say they want KAUST to succeed but believe a corporate ethos is stifling academic autonomy.

Some have bridled over changes that require them to get administrative approval in spending their research funds. KAUST officials declined interview requests, but in a Science magazine story late last year that cited some of those complaints, the former Aramco executive who runs KAUST, Nadhmi al-Nasr, acknowledged that he comes from a “top-down” corporate culture and is adjusting to academia.

Scientific research at universities is a key driver of debate over how to meet global energy needs. Often of late, it is the research itself that gets debated. Dueling studies about the environmental impact of biofuels and the safety of hydraulic fracking for natural gas has spurred charges and countercharges about the role of commercial interests biasing the science, for example.

The impact of published studies is not lost on the leaders at KAUST. In fact, the top of its mission statement sets out very specific goals for getting its research published in “prestigious professional journals.” By that measure, KAUST-funded scientists have been highly successful, with stacks of prestigious journal publications and patents to their credit.

One of them is William J. Koros, a Georgia Tech professor who was awarded a $10 million research grant for his work there on hydrocarbons. “They are very generous to home universities,” he said. Koros is working on technology that would help capture impurities from natural gas. “The Middle East is loaded with natural gas. They viewed this as a world problem that intersected with their interests,” he said.

Experts in issues related to academic research funding say KAUST’s relationship with U.S. scientists is unusual, posing pitfalls as well as opportunities.

“I don’t think there is a framework for dealing with foreign governments or corporations who invest in American universities to compete,” Tufts professor Sheldon Krimsky, who has studied conflicts of interest in academic research. Where American researchers get money does not mean the science produced will be anything less than honest. But, he said, scientific inquiry is shaped by the scope of the questions asked.

James Luyten, former director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, sees the creation of a specific research agenda as a problem at KAUST. KAUST awarded Woods Hole $25 million and Luyten spent three years helping set up their Red Sea research center.

“They are using their money to limit and constrain where people put their energy as research scientists,” said Luyten, something that corporate sponsors often try to achieve by carefully choosing which science to fund and which to ignore.

Luyten said he was under “enormous pressure” to devote resources to algae biofuels research, for example, but was discouraged from research on the effect of carbon emissions on Red Sea coral. “A group of us wanted to hold a symposium on climate change,” he said, but the university president rejected the idea. “We were told that was not in the interest of Saudi Arabia,” he said.

KAUST reserves the right to review studies before publication, something that is not generally done by U.S. universities, though scientists and administrators who’ve worked at KAUST say so far it has been pro forma.

American universities, faced with a shrinking pool of research dollars at home, have welcomed the Saudi partnership as a way to fund important science, including in the area of carbon capture, an issue that has global implications. Creating jobs and educating the Saudi populace is seen as vital to making theirs a stable society, something that may benefit the rest of the world, though aiding a repressive regime has drawn objections from faculty on a few U.S. campuses. To bring in foreign scientists, the Saudi king has made KAUST an oasis of modernity, where male and female students are allowed to mix.

Several prominent scientists said KAUST has the resources to have a big impact on scientific research.

“I don’t think there is any university in the world that has as advanced equipment as they have,” said Stanford solar cell researcher Mike McGeehee. He spent a month helping set up a lab at KAUST and leads Stanford’s Center for Advanced Molecular Photovoltaics, created with a $25 million KAUST grant.

Science at KAUST is directed more toward commercial application. “Things are different there. There’s a tighter connection to industry,’’ said McGeehee.

“You can’t do certain kinds of research at US universities—you can’t have industry come in and do experiments because federal dollars are paying for it, and you can’t give one company an advantage over another. But there, the king says I’m paying for it, I want [commercial] spin-offs.”

American university relationships with corporate research sponsors are a hotly debated topic, notably because of controversy over biased drug studies paid for by pharmaceutical companies. Many universities encourage professors to find corporate as well as government funders, but they keep those contractual arrangements confidential, including terms for industry access to research as well as intellectual-property arrangements. The American Association of University Professors is completing a major study on how universities should structure industry relationships.

To date, in fact, KAUST’s website has publicized its grants to a greater degree than the U.S. universities and scientists receiving them. Universities here have reported very few of the KAUST grants and contracts to the U.S. Department of Education, which maintains a public database of foreign funds to American colleges.

AAUP president Cary Nelson, who is working on the report on corporate-sponsored research, said he was not previously aware of the KAUST grants. “What you are looking at is the touchiest area. All funded research should be reviewed by faculty senate or faculty committee. It should be transparent,” he said.

Cornell University campus publications contain more information of its work with KAUST than is available from other universities, but even there administrators are circumspect about terms of Cornell’s $28 million in KAUST grants and contracts.

“It’s not public,” said Celia Szczepura, administrator of the KAUST-Cornell Center for Energy and Sustainability. As for the work Cornell does that may end up aiding the Saudi oil industry, she said: “KAUST isn’t an industry sponsor—it’s a university. What they share with Aramco and what they don’t, you’d have to ask KAUST.”

But separating the Saudi king’s new university from the kingdom’s oil industry is all but impossible. For now, Saudi Arabia’s petroleum interests have a key role in choosing what energy research is pursued by some of America’s leading scientists.

Susan Schmidt is a longtime Washington journalist and a visiting fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.