Announcing the 2014 BU MSE Innovation Grants Winners


This year, 18 excellent proposals were submitted by faculty from the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences.  The selection committee, chaired by Professor Srikanth Gopalan, selected the following 2014 BU MSE Innovation Grant Winners:   

Linda Doerrer
“Molecular Thermoelectrics”

Much contemporary research strives to use the sun as a virtually inexhaustible energy supply, either directly in photovoltaic devices or indirectly by converting its light energy into the chemical energy of solar fuels. The sun’s outpouring contributes thermal energy as well as light energy, and the former is from far being efficiently used in our technology. If we are to make the most of the solar spectrum, materials that can harvest phonons as well as photons are needed. Thermoelectric materials have been less well-studied than photovoltaic materials, but not because they cannot contribute meaningfully to our energy needs. There are many unmet challenges in these materials because of the inherent contradictions in property requirements, a Gordian knot in materials chemistry which requires a new approach.  The Doerrer group will build highly anisotropic structures that facilitate electronic conduction in one dimension, while preventing strong thermal conductivity perpendicular to this flow.

Uday Pal and Peter Zink
“Innovative Recovery and Recycle of Critical Materials”

Rare earth (critical) metals (Dysprosium, Neodymium, Terbium, etc.) are mainly found in very small concentrations as oxides in native ores. Their concentrations in these ores can range from 1 to less than 0.1 w %. Current state-of-the-art extraction processes mainly employ hydrometallurgical techniques which generate large amounts of harmful waste and are capital intensive requiring large plant footprints. This makes it important to recycle the rare earth elements in products such as magnets (used in hybrid/electric vehicles, MRI units, computer hard disks), Phosphors, PV’s and Catalysts. Our technology based on solid oxygen ion conducting oxide membrane shows great promise for the production of critical metals directly from their oxidized feedstock by drastically simplifying the process, lowering the energy requirement, and reducing the environmental impact. The MSE Innovation grant will be used to demonstrate that the new technology can be used for rare earth extraction and recovery from their respective oxides. If successful the technology will be of great commercial interest.

Aaron Schmidt
“Adhesion Energy Microscopy”

The adhesion energy between dissimilar materials is a critical parameter in numerous fundamental problems and practical engineering applications in fields ranging from material science and mechanical engineering to biology and soft-matter physics. For example, adhesion has been shown to be major factor affecting the growth of tumor cells. However, the intermolecular force between different materials is often difficult to quantify, and the established method of measuring the force required to mechanically peel a thin film from a substrate is only applicable to a tiny subset of applications. We propose to develop a new microscopy technique based on high frequency thermal waves that will enable quantitative imaging of the adhesion energy between a solid substrate and soft materials including cells and other biological tissue, liquids, and polymers.

Allison Dennis
“Applying FRET Analysis to Nanoparticle Systems Experimentally and Computationally”

We develop fluorescent biosensors utilizing Förster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) between a semiconductor nanoparticle quantum dot (QD) donor and an acceptor (a fluorescent dye, protein, or a second QD). FRET is the distance-dependent, non-radiative transfer of energy from an excited donor to an acceptor through dipole coupling. Ongoing work in nanoparticle-based fluorescent biosensor design incorporates ever more complicated nanostructures and combinations of nanoparticles, such that a very clear understanding of the foundation of the energy transfer mechanism and how it applies to nanoparticle systems is necessary to enhance our ability to appropriately design complex FRET systems and exploit the energy transfer in applications. This MSE Innovator grant will be used to study the energy transfer between a large heterostructured (core/shell) nanoparticle donor and a small organic acceptor experimentally and through a Monte Carlo model in order to ascertain where within the nanoparticle bulk the energy for transfer originates so that more accurate donor-acceptor distances can be determined. This understanding will then be applied to the design of complex nanomaterials-based FRET systems.

Kamil Ekinci
“Energy Harvesting from Active Biomaterials” 

Active microscopic biomaterials — such as bacteria and spores — provide an abundant and untapped source of energy, especially for low-resource settings. The potential of energy harvesting from microorganisms has been realized early on, and much research has been performed in this promising field. Most efforts in bio-energy harvesting from microorganisms have been focused on bio-chemical (e.g., photosynthesis) and bio-electro-chemical approaches (e.g., microbial fuel cells). Biomechanical motion of microorganisms remains largely unexplored as a source of energy. The goal of this project is to convert the mechanical motion of common microorganisms into electrical energy, opening up bio-mechanical energy harvesting at the micron and sub-micron scales.

Congratulations to this year’s winners!

For more information about the MSE innovation grants, and a list of past winners, please visit our website: