Undergraduates blaze path for research in ASU's newest facility

April 22, 2013

Last fall, Arizona State University opened its newest research and discovery facility: the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4). ASU’s largest research building, ISTB 4 includes roughly 300,000 square feet of research laboratories, collaboration spaces and public exhibits on the Tempe campus.

Amidst the latest technology and flexible workspaces, ASU undergraduate student researchers are collaborating with professors and graduate students in the innovative new facility. One such student is Bethany Smith. Bethany Smith Download Full Image

Smith, a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering, works in the lab of Candace Chan, an assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.

“I love the fact that everything is a bit more open,” says Smith. “There are windows so that you can see what other labs are working on and the general public can look in on what you’re doing. Having these open labs can let other people say ‘Oh hey, there are real people working in there.’”

“The lab and meeting facilities in ISTB4 are great,” says Chan. “Everyone loves it here and we get to interact with faculty from other departments that we normally would not have ever met.”

Smith’s research centers on developing batteries at the nanoscale, a project she has been working on since her freshman year. This research seeks to answer questions about how to make batteries more efficient and maximize their power in a smaller volume.

Currently, Smith is in the preliminary stages of experimenting with the folding of batteries, like the way you might fold a map. Commercial batteries today are rolled into cylinders. Smith’s calculations predict that by splitting the battery’s surface into 35 sections and folding it multiple times rather than rolling it, she can reduce battery size up to 28 times.

So far, Smith has successfully produced one- and two-fold battery prototypes. She plans to continue this method of folding versus rolling while contributing to the larger goal of the research, which is to condense large surface areas of power into smaller volumes while still increasing performance.

“There’s no reason why this new method shouldn’t work, but you have to prove it with research and make sure nothing can go wrong,” she says.

In addition to Smith’s work with batteries, Chan’s student team is investigating water splitting and solar energy, with an overarching theme of sustainable energy.

“Working here, you can actually see some applications for what you’re learning in class,” says Smith. “Doing work in a research setting helps supplement your education in a hands-on way.”

“I believe that part of our job as educators in preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers is not only the teaching that occurs in the classroom, but also the mentoring and teaching of research skills and the scientific thought process,” says Chan. “The former is much more difficult to learn in a formal classroom setting and is better acquired through ‘doing.’”

Many of these undergraduate researchers participate in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI), a program designed to enhance the education of undergraduate engineering students. Students applying to FURI must first develop a research idea, and with the help of mentors such as Chan, apply for funding to aid in their research, workshops, summaries and symposiums.

In addition to juggling their schoolwork and lab responsibilities, student researchers like Smith may also hold jobs outside of their research. For Smith, this includes a position with Stephen Krause of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.

“It can get a little hectic juggling all of these responsibilities,” says Smith. “It’s all about time management.”

“ASU students are great at being engaged and involved in a lot of activities on and off-campus, in addition to excelling academically in their coursework,” says Chan. “Based on the interest and motivation of the student, we can develop the projects to more advanced levels, such as for an honors thesis.”

Smith relishes the opportunities opened to her through Chan’s lab and hopes to continue her work in material sciences in the future. Now considering an internship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Smith says her eagerness to get involved with undergraduate research as early as possible has only helped her.

“You get a really good relationship with a professor early on,” said Smith. “By the end of my undergraduate career I’ll have been working with Dr. Chan for four years, which is invaluable.”

“Bethany is outstanding. She came to me as a first semester freshman without any lab experience and has developed into a thoughtful and inquisitive researcher,” Chan says. “I am always open to new approaches and ideas from my students. It is fun and rewarding to see them develop into independent scientists.”

Learn about undergraduate research opportunities at http://uresearch.asu.edu

Written by Lorraine Longhi, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development

Allie Nicodemo

Communications specialist, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development


Forging paths for plant-based sustainable sources of rubber, fuel

April 22, 2013

ASU engineer Amy Landis has a pivotal role in a new potentially far-reaching effort to use biomaterial to produce rubber in a more environmentally and economically sustainable way.

She will lead the sustainability assessment for a four-year project teaming Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Yulex Corporation, ASU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Amy Landis biomaterials research Download Full Image

The project has been awarded a $6.9 million grant through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative of the USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The endeavor focuses on the guayule plant (pronounced why-you-lee), from which latex can be extracted and turned into rubber. It holds promise for being a feasible alternative to petroleum-based synthetics that are now the predominant form of rubber in tires and many other products using rubber.

In addition to producing rubber, guayule material could be used to make industrial, medical, consumer and energy products, as well as biofuels. Substantial use of the plant could reduce the United States’ dependence on producers in other countries for the nation’s supply of rubber.

Exploring full array of impacts

Landis is an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She is also a senior sustainability scientist in the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Her role in the guayule project is to help ensure its use will, in fact, be sustainable in multiple ways.

“Just because you are using a biomaterial does not guarantee what you do will be a ‘green’ venture,” Landis says. “I will be looking at the entire process of creating rubber products, from the agricultural process of growing and harvesting guayule, extracting and processing natural latex, and manufacturing natural rubber tires. The sustainability assessment will evaluate factors such as local impact on the land where guayule is grown and the how cultivation of the crop changes the landscape for the neighboring farmers.”

Her sustainability analysis will also take into consideration “human elements” and community impacts. “This involves looking at things like the potential for job creation and who will be employed throughout the process” of growing and processing guayule to make rubber on a large scale, as well as the implications for communities’ quality of life, she says.

“Our contribution to the sustainability assessment includes a complete life cycle assessment of natural rubber tires,” she says. “We don’t want to ignore or overlook any short-term or long-term impact.”

Potentially far-reaching endeavor

Increased use of guayule could eventually offer a particular benefit for Arizona’s economy. The state is the center of operations for the project partner corporation Yulex, which is already producing some products using guayule, including mattresses and pillows.

The Yulex corporate headquarters is close to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Its manufacturing facility is in Chandler, and the company gets its supply of the plant from some of the eight or more commercial farmers growing the crop in Arizona.

The reach of the project promises to extend much further through lead project partner Cooper Tire and Rubber Company, which is the parent company of a family of companies in 11 countries that specialize in the design, manufacture, marketing and sales of passenger car and light truck tires. The Ohio-based company also has joint ventures, affiliates and subsidiaries that specialize in medium truck, motorcycle and racing tires.

Both Yulex and Cooper have developed company initiatives aimed at operating their enterprises in socially and ecologically responsible ways.

As part of the project, Landis also will explore the impacts of ramping up the use of nonlatex portions of the guayule plant to produce biofuel, bioenergy and fertilizers.

Boosting biobased energy and products

In a separate project, Landis will team with University of Pittsburgh chemical engineer Vikas Khanna on a sustainability research project being supported by a recent $350,000 grant to ASU from the USDA.

The project’s main thrust is to provide data to guide alignment of varying local, state and national policies to set consistent parameters for development and production of biofuels.

It’s part of a larger federal program aimed at spurring the production of bioenergy and biobased products, while at the same time ensuring the environmental and socioeconomic sustainability of such ventures.

Another of the program’s goals in promoting further development of biomaterials to produce fuel and energy is to create new markets for the nation’s agricultural products.

ASU is among universities selected to receive grants from the program through a competitive process. Applicants for the grant awarded to ASU included some of the top university sustainability research programs in the country, Landis says.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering