research news

UB graduate student receives Department of Energy research award


Master's student in finance

Published December 8, 2022

Nicolas Cuccinello.
“I started crying. You see, it was life-changing. ”
Nicholas Cucciniello, PhD student
Department of Materials Design and Innovation

UB researcher Nicholas Cucciniello wants to make the HALs of tomorrow energy efficient. 

A PhD student in the Department of Materials Design and Innovation, Cucciniello has been selected as one of 44 recipients of 2022 awards from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR). The awards allow recipients to pursue part of their graduate thesis research at a DOE laboratory or facility.

Underlying Cucciniello’s selection for the award are countless hours spent tinkering with obscure materials. From artificial neuron devices to superconductors, he works to make these building blocks keep pace with the sprinting technology. In other words, he will be helping tomorrow’s robots remember more with less effort. Don’t blame him if his work sounds like something taken from the pages of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“My graduate thesis topic is non-volatile memory with metal oxides. For that, we study and grow different materials,” Cucciniello explains. “I don’t just work on that, as our department is diverse. Our research group published a paper recently on niobium nitride, a superconducting material that may be used for quantum devices.”

The SCGSR award marks a turning point in his career.

“(The SCGSR award) is a huge step in my long-term career,” says Cucciniello. “I get to study under and interact with world-renowned scientists every day. I get to see what a national research facility is like. It is a great opportunity to take a peek behind the curtain.” 

Cucciniello began his thesis research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on Nov. 21. At LANL, he is working on developing brain-like computers that run on less energy.

“Artificial neuron devices based on threshold switching are made of 2D materials and metal oxide films,” Cucciniello explains. “These materials and their device architecture typically need high-switching voltages. At LANL, I will work with vanadium oxide films to achieve low-switching energies comparable to the brain.”

Cucciniello says he owes his SCGSR award to his graduate adviser, Quanxi Jia, SUNY Distinguished Professor, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor and National Grid Professor of Materials Research in the Department of Materials Design and Innovation, a collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“Dr. Jia emailed me one day and said there’s this DOE opportunity,” Cucciniello recalls. “At this time, like every PhD student, I was swamped with work. I had a little over a month to finish the application.”

What followed were days spent crafting the three-page user proposal with Jia and his eventual collaborating scientist, Aiping Chen, a staff scientist at LANL. Cucciniello’s submission had to be within the realm of his graduate thesis, yet separate from the thesis topic. It had to also align with one of the SCGSR priority research areas.

Cucciniello’s graduate thesis focuses on non-volatile memory, where the devices retain information even when the power is removed. Meanwhile, his LANL research will be on volatile memory for artificial neuron devices.

“To put it simply, think of saving your pictures or notes on a flash drive or hard drive; that data is stored and retained, even when there is no power to the device. That is an example of non-volatile memory,” Cucciniello says, providing a simple distinction between the two computer memories. “With volatile memory, it can be considered as temporary storage of data, where there is nothing once the power is removed.”

After Jia and Chen approved the proposal, the application was complete. Then came the long wait.

“I didn’t think I was going to get it,” says Cucciniello. “Then one morning, I got an email saying I got it.”

It was 7:30 on a regular weekday morning. Cucciniello was driving to his gym when his phone lit up with the acceptance email.

Bursting with excitement, Cucciniello wanted to call his parents, his girlfriend and friends from his department at UB. He almost abandoned his workout to go knock on Jia’s office door and break the news.

“I started crying,” says Cucciniello. “You see, it was life-changing.”