A Charge to Innovate

Published April 14, 2010

Fifty years ago this month, history was made in Buffalo when the first successful artificial pacemaker was implanted in a patient.

Developed by Wilson Greatbatch, UB adjunct professor of engineering, the pacemaker emerged as one of the world’s most significant biomedical devices, improving and saving the lives of one million people.

Building on that legacy, the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has partnered with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to train the next generation of biomedical engineers.

In fall 2010, UB will begin offering a baccalaureate program in biomedical engineering. The new Department of Biomedical Engineering is expected to produce a pipeline of highly skilled graduates and spin off new medical technologies and businesses to benefit the region’s robust medical device industry.

Proposals to establish new master’s and doctoral programs in biomedical engineering at UB are expected to be submitted for State Education Department review and approval in the near future.

“The marriage between engineering and medicine is essential to translating basic discovery in engineering to improving human health and wellness,” says Michael E. Cain, MD, medical school dean. “Our new department allows us to formalize and expand our expertise in biomedical engineering and positions UB to lead in this key area of health-related research.”

Among the faculty in the new department is SUNY Distinguished Professor Esther Takeuchi, PhD, a former scientist with the medical device manufacturer founded by Wilson Greatbatch.

While working at Greatbatch, Inc., Takeuchi developed the battery that made possible the first implantable cardiac defibrillator. A prolific inventor, she holds more U.S. patents than any other woman. Her contributions to the field of energy storage were recognized last fall, when President Obama presented her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honor awarded in the country for technological achievement.

Now, Takeuchi is applying her unique perspective on how to coax the best performance out of battery chemicals to the electrical grid.

With a project funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Takeuchi and her husband, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Kenneth Takeuchi, PhD, are developing new, low-cost materials for rechargeable batteries.

The focus is on developing a distributed grid where renewable power is generated closer to where it’s needed, rather than in a central place and transmitted long distances, the way the current grid operates.

“To generate energy at a usable, consistent level, we will need to couple a dependable, energy-storage system with renewable power sources,” Takeuchi says.

Her work on biomedical devices has provided Takeuchi with an unusual appreciation for the properties of batteries that have exceptional longevity. The typical lifetime of a battery in an implantable device is five to 10 years and she is one of those leading the push to increase that for both biomedical and utility applications.

“Whether you’re talking about the power grid, electrical vehicles or biomedical devices the quest is for low cost, longer life and rechargeability,” Takeuchi says.