Governor tours campus labs
A motor the width of a human hair. Ultrasharp ultrasonic silicon needles. A palm-sized embryo-culturing laboratory. A microwave alternative to mammograms.
During a Sept. 15 visit to the engineering campus, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson saw how some UW-Madison engineers apply their cutting-edge research in the nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology fields.
Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor David Beebe uses tiny technologies to solve problems in biology and medicine. "It takes about a million times more fluid to fill one of these," explained research scientist Glennys Mensing, holding up a Petrie dish and comparing it to a palm-sized microchannel device. From his research of these microfluidic systems, Beebe created the spin-off company, Micro Agri Systems, Inc., which could revolutionize how breeders handle and manipulate embryos. Rather than using mouth pipettes, Beebe's technology could allow them to culture embryos in microchannels molded in plastic, and make in vitro fertilization steps easier, more accurate and less expensive. And while traditional embryonic implantation rates take almost twice as long as the natural rate; Beebe's group has shown it can match the natural rate, graduate student Henry Zeringue told Thompson.
Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Yogesh Gianchandani designs miniature motors. One such device is an optical-fiber switch. About a centimeter square, the tiny engine aligns sections of fiber-optic cable, creating a near-flawless "on" connection to preserve the information traveling through the cable. The device, which operates electromagnetically, is unique because it does not require continuous current; rather, it uses electricity only in the "on" position. The switches represent a potential $10 to $20 billion market, said Gianchandani. He also collaborates with Sandia National Laboratories to design motors driven by gears the width of a human hair. "What does this mean?" asked Thompson as he peered through a microscope at tiny motor. Ultimately, said Gianchandani, they will enable more data to travel at higher speeds and for lower costs.
At the touch of a screen, Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor Gregg Vanderheiden can make everyday products, ranging from automatic teller machines and microwaves to cellular telephones, accessible to people with disabilities. His EZ Access interface includes features for people with low vision, blindness, reduced hearing, deafness, physical disabilities, reading problems, inability to read and more. The technology, developed at the college's Trace Research and Development Center, already is in use in job kiosks at the Mall of America, Minneapolis. And 85 percent of the accessibility code in Windows 95/98/NT/2000 computers was developed at Trace, said Vanderheiden. In the lobby of Engineering Hall, he demonstrated some computer accessibility features. "How do you vote?" Vanderheiden asked Thompson, showing him the EZ Access voting kiosks that will debut this fall. "Republican," deadpanned the GOP governor.
Standing in Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Amit Lal's laboratory, Thompson learned how Lal integrates microelectronics, microelectromechanical machines, acoustics and ultrasonics with silicon micromachines. Someday, surgeons using Lal's silicon ultrasonic surgical tools will be able to remove one epithelial cell layer at a time, cut a single blood vessel in the retina or terminate blood flow to a tumor. Soldiers could use his vortex needle pump to measure their protein and determine whether they're getting sick. "I've been told the mosquito is Wisconsin's official state bird," joked Lal. He studied a mosquito's bite to develop his mimetic needles, which pierce without pain.
Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Marc Anderson's discovery can help extend the freshness of grocery-store fruit, vegetables and flowers by a week. Anderson uses titanium dioxide as a catalyst to break ethylene, a natural hormone that causes them to prematurely spoil, into the harmless byproducts of carbon dioxide and water vapor. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has patented Anderson's technology, and KES Irrigation Systems of Atlanta has now licensed it and markets a device called Bio-Kleen to grocery stores throughout the country. Anderson also developed CO2 purification devices and a battery-capacitor combination that reduces a traditional transformer to a thin film.
Part of the university's cluster-hiring initiative, Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Daniel van der Weide conducts much of his research on the molecular scale. He designs, builds and applies tools that help researchers answer questions related to chemical sensing, understanding diseases, drug discovery and advanced computational elements. To speed drug discovery, he says it's possible to test thousands of compounds at once on a single parallel array. "Using microfabrication techniques, we can take a biological idea that's been around forever and make it much, much faster and much, much denser," said van der Weide. He also collaborates with Middleton-based Prairie Technologies on research that might explain how brain cells "talk" to each other--facilitating understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
As an alternative to the mammogram, Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Susan Hagness hopes to develop a microwave imaging method to detect the presence of breast tumors. Her goal is to discover tumors earlier and eliminate some of the anxiety women feel while waiting to find out if a tumor is malignant or benign. "The physical basis of this technology is that there is an enormous contrast between the properties of normal and malignant tissue," she told Thompson, whose wife is a breast-cancer survivor. Hagness' group is gathering data about the dielectric properties of malignant, benign and normal tissues, as well as developing a biopsy method to examine tissue in the breast.
Throughout the tour, Thompson used words such as "amazing," "incredible" and "outstanding" to describe what he'd seen. "I'm very impressed and there's tremendous economic potential for the state in the things you are developing," Thompson said afterward.