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Rittmann receives Arizona BioIndustry's top research award


October 5, 2009

Bruce Rittmann, a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, a part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has won the 2009 Award for Research Excellence from the Arizona BioIndustry Association.

Rittmann is director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute at ASU. Download Full Image

He is an international leader in using microbes found in nature in ways that can benefit the environment or human health. His research team tackles some of the world’s leading problems related to water, waste and energy.

Their research projects include pollution cleanup, treating water and wastewater, capturing renewable energy and understanding how microbes in the digestive system may be linked to obesity, as well as other efforts.

Rittmann also was honored this year with the Simon W. Freese Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Environmental Water and Resource Institute, for his innovative work on using microorganisms to improve water quality.

Especially noteworthy is the membrane biofilm reactor, a technology now being commercialized to destroy a wide range of pollutants found in waters and wastewaters. This technology can remove harmful contaminants such as perchlorate, nitrates and arsenate from water and soils – problems that are vital to the future of the Southwest, where the Colorado River water is used by seven states.

Rittmann is part of an ASU research team using two innovative approaches to renewable bioenergy: harnessing anaerobic microbes to convert biomass to useful energy forms, such as methane, hydrogen or electricity; and using photosynthetic bacteria or algae to capture sunlight and produce new biomass that can be turned into liquid fuels, like biodiesel.

To improve human health, his research team’s collaboration with the Methuselah Foundation is exploring how to mitigate aging by identifying naturally occurring microbes to clean up the "junk" that accumulates in our bodies.

In addition, in an innovative study with partner Mayo Clinic Arizona, Rittmann’s group explored the causes of obesity by identifying microbial communities to offer new clues in the body weight differences in average, obese and gastric bypass subjects.

Writer: Joe Caspermeyer, Biodesign Institute at ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-965-8122

Federal stimulus grants give boost to ASU research


September 28, 2009

Arizona State University researchers to date have received more than $39 million in stimulus package research grants. For ASU, which has played a very active role in attracting this additional funding, much of these research funds have gone for projects that meet challenges currently confronting society.

Projects funded include work to unlock the secrets of photosynthesis for new sources of energy; research into a computational understanding of the skills required in surgical training; development of a new method for screening and diagnosing tuberculosis in children; a study on child development and immigrant adaptation; and development of a new type of robotic hand. Download Full Image

Funds for these projects come from the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, says Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, ASU’s deputy vice president for research and economic affairs.

“Funding for these projects come at a critical time as we look to finding new sources of renewable energy, smarter ways of diagnosing and fighting diseases, and better ways to educate our next generation workforce,” Panchanathan says. “Now is the time to invest in bold new ideas that result in large scale innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The research funds are part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal economic stimulus package approved in February. Several federal agencies have been allocated a portion of this money for funding competitive research proposals from universities for work on basic and applied research in critical areas of national importance. 

These grants are restricted to use for specific research projects and cannot be used to fund general university expenses. However, they do add a significant amount of money to the state economy.

The ASU projects involve teams of researchers from across the university and across the country. This leverages ASU’s strength in interdisciplinary research, Panchanathan says. Highlights of ASU’s newly funded projects include:

Power from sunlight

One grant awarded ASU — $14 million for five years — has come from the Department of Energy to set up an Energy Frontier Research Center that will focus on research on solar energy conversion based on the principles of photosynthesis. The goal of ASU’s new center is to design and construct a synthetic system that uses sunlight to convert water cheaply and efficiently into hydrogen fuel and oxygen.

Society requires a renewable source of fuel that is widely distributed, abundant, inexpensive and environmentally clean. The use of solar energy to produce a clean fuel such as hydrogen is essentially the only process that can satisfy these criteria at a scale large enough to meet the world’s energy demands.

Plants and similar organisms use photosynthesis to oxidize water, producing oxygen and fuel compounds such as carbohydrate and hydrogen. The system to be developed in the ASU center will be designed using principles borrowed from these natural processes.

“This grant will allow us to put together a complete system that starts with the absorption of sunlight and ends with the creation of a clean fuel, such as hydrogen,” says Devens Gust, an ASU professor of chemistry and biochemistry who is director of the new center. 

“It also will provide resources to educate students at all levels about renewable energy, and it could lead to whole new industries,” Gust adds.

Easier diagnosis of pediatric TB 

A grant of $107,700 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to Robert Husson at Children’s Hospital in Boston and Joshua LaBaer, director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Medicine at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, will improve methods for detecting tuberculosis (TB) in children.

An accelerating TB epidemic in settings where HIV is highly prevalent demands new tools for TB control. One area of great need, especially for pediatric TB, is improved diagnosis. The standard approach of sputum smear microscopy and culture are insensitive, especially in children and in HIV infected persons of all ages. They also require laboratory resources and skilled personnel.

LaBaer has been working with his colleague in Boston on new, high throughput technologies in the field of functional proteomics, which seeks to understand the roles proteins play in the human body. In this project, LaBaer will produce microscopic arrays of Mycobacterium tuberculosis proteins that can be screened with patient serum to identify antigens of that can be used to develop new anti-body based tests for TB in children. 

Helping children improve their oral language

A $130,527 grant from the NIH is helping ASU researcher Shelley Gray tackle the challenges that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) face in trying to understand and use new words.

Children with SLI often have poor vocabularies. It is not that they cannot learn new words, but they require significantly more exposure to new words before they can store sufficient phonological and semantic information to recognize and produce them. This has a negative impact on their oral language and literacy development, especially reading comprehension.

This project is investigating whether phonological or semantic encoding or retrieval cues help children with SLI learn new words faster, says Gray, an ASU associate professor of speech and hearing science. 

“Faster word learning will result in a larger vocabulary,” Gray says. “This is crucial for preventing reading comprehension problems and for closing the academic gap between children with SLI and children with typical language development as they progress through school.”

Child development and immigrant adaptation

School can be tough on any child, but for children new to the U.S., it can become an ordeal as they try to acclimate to a new school and a new country. With a $221,575 NIH grant, Jennifer Glick, an ASU associate professor in the School of Social and Family Dynamics, will take an integrative approach to study child development and immigrant adaptation.

Children of newly arrived immigrants can find many ways to adapt in the U.S. depending on the resources of the family and the interactions they receive in the community. If society fails to support immigrant adaptation, it’s expected that the child’s school performance will suffer.

However, the child’s family and ethnic community may bring additional resources to the education sphere. Thus, the interaction of family background, parental involvement and community context all will influence developmental and educational outcomes for children in immigrant families. A key goal of this study is to go beyond using immigrant status as a proxy for other traits to determine how family migration context — including parent’s age and arrival, language background and use, national origins and ethnicity — are related to school readiness and early academic progress.

“This project is a multi-disciplinary approach, combining theoretical perspectives of immigrant adaptation and child development,” says Glick, who studies immigrant adaptation and family survival strategies. “We are looking for a better understanding of how the school performance of immigrants’ children is advanced by the family context in which they live.”

Training a surgeon’s hand

In any field, good training improves skills. This is as true for airplane pilots as it is for surgeons. The more you do, the better you become. But when it comes to training surgeons, there is an associated need to cut training costs that can compromise training quality.

An $874,484 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Baoxin Li, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Computing Informatics & Decision Systems Engineering, to overcome this quandary by exploring simulation-based surgical training.

“Our goal is to come up with a system that can shorten the time involved in training a surgeon and improve the quality of the training,” Li says.

But to do this Li needs to come up with a system that can do several things, including monitoring and measuring a surgical resident as she performs a procedure and then being able to put value judgments on what the system sees during the exercise, and to associate skill ratings with correction procedures.

“We present a machine-learning based approach to computational understanding of surgical skills based on temporal inference of visual and motion capture data from surgical simulation,” he says. “This learning approach is enabled by our simulation and data acquisition design that ensures clinical meaningfulness of the data.”

A simpler grasp

Because the human hand is an evolutionary marvel, it is incredibly hard to replicate and employ on a machine, like a robot. For example, says Marco Santello, an ASU professor of kinesiology, robotic grasping has been around for 25 years and yet there are no successful devices for grasping in unstructured environments.

“The new generation of highly successful mobile and humanoid robots still lack basic ‘hands’ that can reliably grasp arbitrary objects,” Santello says. 

That may change as a three-year, $236,000 National Science Foundation grant to Santello and a team of researchers (Peter Allen, Columbia University, and Robert Howe, Harvard University) will let them explore new ways of developing simpler grasping devices for robots. The work is based on four basic principles: begin with robust grasping as the goal; learn from the human hand but do not replicate it; simplicity is essential; and put functionality in passive mechanics, not in elaborate sensing and control. Experimental work at ASU, involving graduate and undergraduate students, will aim to understand how the brain controls dexterous manipulation activities.

Using these ideas, “we propose to build a low-cost, low degree of freedom grasping device that is based on hard human grasping data,” Santello explains. “We will test the new tools in simulation and build hardware that is functionally proven for a given set of robotic grasping tasks.”

Panchanathan says that ASU faculty have responded rapidly and strategically to acquire stimulus research grants. To date, ASU researchers have sent in proposals totaling nearly $410 million in research funding.

“ASU faculty and researchers have put forth tremendous efforts to secure stimulus funding in a highly competitive environment,” he adds. “We are pleased with our success thus far and are looking forward to securing a number of new projects over the next year. This will allow us to not only contribute significantly towards solving challenging problems faced by society, but also result in a significant economic impact.”

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications

480-965-4823

ASU praised for green efforts by national magazine


August 20, 2009

Sierra magazine has named the nation’s top 20 “coolest” schools for their efforts to stop global warming and operate sustainably.

The magazine’s September/October cover story spotlights schools that are making a true impact for the planet, and marks Sierra’s third annual listing of America’s greenest universities and colleges. The complete list is available online at www.sierraclub.org/coolschools. Download Full Image

ASU">http://www.sierraclub.org/coolschools">www.sierraclub.org/coolschools was No. 13 on the list. Sustainability initiatives at ASU include the only purchasing program to score a perfect "10" among Sierra's top 20, ramped-up recycling and waste-diversion efforts, energy-efficiency upgrades that have saved ASU an estimated 33 million kilowatt and 70 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually, and one of the largest university solar initiatives in the country. And ASU is home to the nation’s first School of Sustainability.

“We're thrilled to see Arizona State University making a real commitment to greening its campus,” says Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director. “The next generation of students cares deeply about stopping global warming, and schools such as Arizona State University that take the initiative to become environmentally responsible are doing the right thing for the planet and are better poised to attract the best students.”

“Universities are in a unique position to address the grand challenges of sustainability in the 21st century,” says Rob Melnick, the executive dean of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “ASU is committed to aligning its research, education, outreach and business practices with these increasingly urgent and complex challenges.”

“We have a great responsibility to advance sustainability in our daily operations – to consistently model best practices for our students and our community,” says Ray Jensen, the associate vice president for Business Services and ASU’s sustainability operations officer. "It's imperative for a university that is leading the way in sustainability education to also walk the talk. We're honored that Sierra has recognized our efforts with this distinction."

This year’s top 20 cool schools are taking dramatic steps to curb climate change. Whether it’s ASU, with 67,082 students, or College of the Atlantic with 321 students, Sierra’s list shows that schools of all sizes are taking action.

Sierra’s Top 20 coolest schools of 2009 are:
1. University of Colorado at Boulder (Boulder, Colorado)
2. University of Washington at Seattle (Seattle, Washington)
3. Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vermont)
4. University of Vermont (Burlington, Vermont)
5. College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, Maine)
6. Evergreen State College (Olympia, Washington)
7. University of California at Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, California)
8. University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley, California)
9. University of California at Los Angeles (Los Angeles, California)
10. Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio)
11. Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
12. University of New Hampshire (Durham, New Hampshire)
13. Arizona State University (Tempe, Arizona)
14. Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut)
15. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
16. Bates College (Lewiston, Maine)
17. Willamette University (Salem, Oregon)
18. Warren Wilson College (Asheville, North Carolina)
19. Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania)
20. New York University (Manhattan, New York)

Sierra magazine has 1.2 million readers and is a publication of the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental group. For full descriptions of each winning school’s green efforts, visit www.sierraclub.org/coolschools.http://www.sierraclub.org/coolschools">www.sierraclub.org/coolschools />

Michelle Schwartz

Senior Manager, Marketing and Communications, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

480-727-6302

Engineering prof lauded as leading innovator


August 18, 2009

Achieving advances in new battery technologies that could more reliably and efficiently power electronic devices, electric cars and renewable-energy systems has earned Arizona State University faculty member Cody Friesen a place on a prominent list of the world’s top young innovators of 2009.

Friesen, an associate professor in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace, Chemical and Materials Engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has been named among the “TR35” by Technology Review magazine, one of the leading technology news publications.

He is one of only 35 people – all under the age of 35 – chosen from more than 300 nominees around the world for the award recognizing scientists, engineers, technologists and entrepreneurs who “exemplify the spirit of innovation.”

Editors of the magazine, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), were impressed with Friesen’s work with a method that solved a long-time problem of how to recharge zinc-air batteries.

This type of battery – using zinc metal for an anode and an alkaline paste for an electrolyte – had proven to be simple, nontoxic, inexpensive to produce and durable, but not rechargeable.

Friesen fixed that using a porous electrode with a liquid solution of zinc ions and additives as an electrolyte.

He has co-founded Fluidic Energy to commercialize his new design for a rechargeable metal-air battery. Testing of a prototype is planned for later this year.

Friesen’s goal is to see batteries on the market in about two years that can store twice as much energy as the batteries currently used in laptop computers and some hybrid electric cars.

Eventually, he said, the metal-air technology could produce a battery capable of storing 10 times as much energy as today’s lithium-ion devices – and be less expensive to produce than conventional batteries.

There’s also great potential for using the new batteries to improve storage of energy from wind-generated and solar-generated electricity.

“Entrepreneurial spirit, risk-taking and the desire to make a positive impact on society are the key factors driving the growth and evolution of our school. Cody Friesen embodies these traits,” said Kyle Squires, interim director of the School of Mechanical, Aerospace, Chemical and Materials Engineering.

Friesen’s recognition by Technology Review “is a validation of the environment that is being shaped at ASU, where we promote entrepreneurship and researchers are encouraged to boldly pursue innovative solutions, “ Squires said.

Friesen and the other TR35 winners for 2009 will be featured in the September/October issue of Technology Review magazine and honored at the EmTech@MIT 2009 Conference  MIT in Cambridge, Mass., Sept. 22 to 24.

See a video of Friesen">http://www.technologyreview.com/video/?vid=409">Friesen talking about his research and more information about TR35">http://www.technologyreview.com/tr35/index.aspx?Year=2009">TR35 award winners. Download Full Image

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-965-8122

Professor strives for 'greener' power plants


June 30, 2009

Research to help make the next generation of power plants more environmentally sustainable will be led by Arizona State University chemical engineering professor Jerry Lin.

His project to capture carbon dioxide created in the combustion of coal, natural gas or biomass to produce hydrogen for energy generation will be supported by a recently announced grant of more than $650,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy. Download Full Image

The hydrogen resulting from this conversion method is used to produce heat that generates electrical power, but the carbon dioxide that escapes in the process contributes to greenhouse gases that are accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere – with potentially negative long-term environmental impacts.

Lin is working on ways to capture such carbon dioxide emissions before the combustion required to produce hydrogen, preventing the release of carbon dioxide and allowing it to be safely sequestered.

His goal also is to make the conversion process more energy efficient. He wants to not only be able to separate carbon dioxide from hydrogen and contain it, but produce a higher yield of hydrogen from coal, natural gas or biomass.

Lin will assemble a team of ASU chemical engineering doctoral students and post-doctoral research assistants to work on the projects.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-965-8122

Carbon nanotubes may lower cost of fuel cells


June 16, 2009

The high cost of manufacturing fuel cells makes their large-scale production for power generation next to impossible, but researchers at Arizona State University are working to change that so cars, electricity and much more can run on the “green” technology.

Engineering technology professor Arunachalanadar Madakannan (Kannan) has been studying the proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC) for more than eight years. The fuel cells Kannan and his graduate students are focusing on employ carbon nanotube-based catalysts and electrodes.

Fuels cells, which cleanly and quietly generate electric power by passing fuels like hydrogen over one electrode while passing air over a second electrode, have been around for more than 100 years. But their development has long been dogged by costs of the technology as well as safety concerns. Download Full Image

Kannan said PEMFC fuel cells have layers of electrode and electrolyte components. In a PEMFC, the cell is made up of an hydrogen-based anode (positive) terminal and oxygen-based cathode (negative) terminal, with carbon-particle supported platinum acting as a catalyst (electrode) to produce power.  While fuel cells produce electrical energy, the only waste generated is water, so it’s considered a very clean energy conversion system.

Scientists have been honing fuel cell technology since its inception, but, even after more than a century, the cost of producing fuel cells remains high because of the platinum-based catalysts.

“Platinum is the most effective electrocatalyst and a good conductor of electricity in fuel cells, but the cost is so prohibitive that we have not yet been able to use fuel cells widely,” says Kannan, an associate professor in the College of Technology and Innovation at ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

Kannan is working to create lower cost PEMFCs by directly growing carbon nanotubes on carbon paper substrates, otherwise known as the gas diffusion layer, rather than spherical carbon particles and then deposit platinum nanoparticles onto the surface of the nanotubes. This innovative approach allows for the use of less platinum, without impacting energy efficiency.

“This modified process saves about 10 to 15 percent of the cost compared to what exists today, without sacrificing any power output,” says Kannan.

During his research, Kannan was evaluating the performance of several different materials, measuring power output and efficiency along the way.

“The carbon nanotube-based electrode is more efficient because it has a greater surface area,” says Kannan, “which allows for less platinum to be needed.  In addition, the electrodes also perform extremely well under lower relative humidity, which will ultimately reduce the fuel cell system complexity.”

Kannan co-authored three papers on the topic, which were all recently published in the Journal of Power Sources as well as the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.

In addition, ASU and Helsinki University of Technology along with VTT in Finland have entered into a project regarding an advanced material solution for PEMFCs. Currently ASU graduate student Chad Mason is in Finland testing and improving the performance of the gas diffusion layer materials, while lowering costs and increasing manufacturability.

“The next step is to make the development of the gas diffusion layer continuous, rather than a batch process, so that it can be commercially viable,” says Kannan. “Chad’s work overseas will allow us to move in this direction. We believe that PEM fuel cells will become commercially viable in a decade or so and help us move toward a hydrogen economy.”

Source:
Dr. Kannan, amk">mailto:amk@asu.edu">amk@asu.edu

Media Contact:
Chris Lambrakis, lambrakis">mailto:lambrakis@asu.edu">lambrakis@asu.edu
(480) 727-1173
Public Affairs at ASU Polytechnic campus

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