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2008–2009 highlights

Research advances

  • Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering Rolf Reitz and his students (pictured at right) have developed a novel technique in which an engine can, in real time, blend gasoline and diesel fuels to create an optimal mix, increasing fuel efficiency by an average of 20 percent. If all U.S. cars and trucks could achieve fuel-efficiency levels demonstrated in the research, transportation-based oil consumption would drop by one third. Reitz presented his findings August 3, 2009, at the U.S. Department of Energy Diesel Engine-Efficiency and Emissions Research Conference.

  • An experimental approach to wound healing could take advantage of silver’s antibacterial properties, while sidestepping the damage silver can cause to cells needed for healing.

    Healthy fibroblast cells (green) in a low dose of silver

    Healthy fibroblast cells (green) in a low dose of silver (large image)

    Cells die (red) in a slightly higher dose of silver

    Cells die (red) in a slightly higher dose of silver. (large image)

    Working with John T. and Magdalen L. Sobota Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Nicholas Abbott, postdoctoral researcher Ankit Agarwal crafted an ultra-thin material carrying a precise dose of silver. In tests in lab dishes, the low concentration of silver killed 99.9999 percent of the bacteria but did not damage cells called fibroblasts that are needed to repair a wound. Agarwal presented his results August 19, 2009, at the American Chemical Society Meeting.

  • An atom-level view of the nanoscale interface between amorphous carbon and diamond. At such a small scale, the surfaces are rough, although researchers have been treating them as smooth.

    An atom-level view of the nanoscale interface between amorphous carbon and diamond. At such a small scale, the surfaces are rough, although researchers have been treating them as smooth. (large image)

    Turning current nanoscale friction theory upside-down, Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Izabela Szlufarska and colleagues used computer simulations to demonstrate that atomic-level friction occurs much like friction generated between large objects. While the current theories center around the idea that nanoscale surfaces are smooth, in reality, nanoscale surfaces resemble a mountain range, where each peak corresponds to an atom or a molecule. The team, which included materials science and engineering graduate student Yifei Mo and Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Kevin Turner, found that friction is proportional to the number of atoms that interact between two nanoscale surfaces. The researchers published their findings in the February 26, 2009, issue of the journal Nature.

  • In early April 2009, biomedical engineering PhD student Adam Wilson posted a status update on the social networking website Twitter — just by thinking about it. Just 23 characters long, his message, “using EEG to send tweet,” demonstrated a natural, manageable way in which “locked-in” patients can couple brain-computer interface technologies with modern communication tools. To facilitate the message, Wilson used a simple communication interface he and Biomedical Engineering Professor Justin Williams developed with colleagues at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, New York.

  • Leo Walton, Justin Williams, and Adam Wilson

    Student Leo Walton wearing the electrode cap. Adam Wilson (seated in the foreground) and Justin Williams (standing). (large image)

  • A team of materials researchers developed single-material superlattices from silicon nanomembranes. Essentially, the equivalent of heterojunction superlattices, the more efficient, easily manufactured strained-silicon superlattices could improve devices that convert thermal energy into electrical energy. Led by Erwin W. Mueller and Bascom Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Max Lagally, the team published its findings in the March 24, 2009, issue of the journal ACS NanoM.

  • With mathematical representations of known virus biology, Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor John Yin and former graduate student Kwang-il Lim showed, with computational models, that simply shuffling the order of the five genes in the vesicular stomatitis virus genome has a huge effect on how well the virus grows and how it interacts with its simulated host cell. The research could help guide efforts to develop vaccines or to study the genetic basis of other viral characteristics, such as how a virus evolves to become drug-resistant. Yin and Lim reported their results February 6, 2009, in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.

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