By Mark Dwortzan
Recognizing the need to create a low-overhead way of encouraging innovation and risk taking in a constrained national funding environment, the Materials Science & Engineering Division has launched a new Innovation Grants Program. The program, which awarded its first grants last month, aims to encourage innovation in as-yet-unproven technologies.
Seven faculty members in the extended MSE community representing five proposed projects received the first annual MSE Innovation Grants Program awards—one-time grants of about $10,000 each that can be used for equipment, salary for a student or postdoc, travel or any other legitimate research expense. Project proposals were evaluated by a small committee chaired by Assistant Professor Linda Doerrer (Chemistry).
“The idea is to enable real innovations to take place and encourage far-out thinking, maybe even be a little crazy,” said MSE Division Head David Bishop. “We aren’t interested in supporting things that are almost done or already funded by someone else. In the venture capitalist world they talk about ‘failing early and often.’ Those are the kind of ideas we hope to stimulate, the ones that are very high risk but, if proven, might create a revolution.”
Winners of the initial MSE Innovation Grants are:
- Professor Soumendra Basu (ME) and Associate Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE), who will attempt to design novel semiconductor core optical fibers that can guide mid-infrared (IR) light over tens of meters, the order of fiber- lengths needed for non-telecommunications applications such as jamming heat-seeking missiles or detecting bioterror threats. Their ultimate goal is to develop alternatives to conventional silica optical fibers, in which transmission losses increase dramatically at wavelengths in the mid-IR part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
- Professor Mark Grinstaff (BME), who will investigate the use of new biomaterials to control the release of drugs in implantable drug delivery systems (DDS) in real time using ultrasound. While implantable DDS are designed to deliver a therapeutic drug dose over extended periods directly to a target site, they lack real-time control over the release of the drug; once implanted, the drug is delivered at a preprogrammed dose and rate. Grinstaff aims to design a unique, implantable, ultrasound-activated DDS using newly synthesized materials that will enable healthcare providers to release specific doses at specific times in coordination with diagnostics technologies for lung cancer and other diseases.
- Professor Anders W. Sandvik (Physics), who will develop a novel computer simulation method for “quantum glasses.” A common “glass,” such as a window pane, has an exceedingly long relaxation time—its microscopic structure changes so slowly that it normally appears stable. A “quantum glass” is a generalization of the classical glass concept to systems in which quantum fluctuations play an important role, particularly at low temperatures. Theoretical models of quantum glasses are notoriously difficult to study reliably, but Sandvik recently developed a novel algorithm which he plans to use in computer simulations of these systems. A better understanding of quantum glasses is important for future materials applications.
- Associate Professor Anna Swan (ECE) and Professor Bennett Goldberg (Physics), who will attempt to engineer graphene, a single sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycombed structure, to exhibit discrete electrical energy levels that could be exploited to design very efficient electronic devices. A very strong magnetic field could in principle accomplish this, but would be completely impractical. Instead, they plan to stretch and deform the material in such a way to give rise to the desired energy structure. They will probe the response of the material to stretching using light-amplifying plasmonic structures developed by Professor Hatice Altug (ECE).
- Associate Professor Joyce Wong (BME), who will investigate the development of 3D vascularized tissues using self-assembly techniques. A major challenge for tissue engineering is the formation of thick, replacement tissue equipped with blood vessels that integrate the tissue with its host. For example, the current standard practice of care for reconstructive surgery after mastectomy is to obtain vascularized fat tissue from another part of the patient’s body and then transplant it to replace tissue removed during the mastectomy. Elimination of the need to harvest the tissue from the patient would have tremendous impact, because the majority of the surgery is taken up by the time required to harvest tissue with a sufficiently large diameter blood vessel that can then be hooked up via microsurgery to the vessel in the transplant site.