Wednesday, February 17, 2016
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The Magic of Inquiry—from high school fundamentals to authentic research projects

Where Is Solar Energy Headed?

In a new paper in ScienceNate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, reviews recent developments in solar-energy utilization and looks at some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the research and development of solar-electricity, solar-thermal, and solar-fuels technologies. Read the full paper.

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Where Is Solar Energy Headed?
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Friday, January 29, 2016
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Van Lehn Named to Forbes's 30 Under 30 List

Postdoctoral scholar Reid Van Lehn has been named to Forbes's annual 30 Under 30 list in the science category. The list honors 30 outstanding individuals under 30 years old in 20 different categories, from venture capital to sports to science. Van Lehn was recognized for his research on chemically engineered nanoparticles and their interactions with cell membranes.

"I'm honored to be included amongst this impressive list of scientists—both those named this year and in prior years," Van Lehn says. "I know many dedicated researchers both at Caltech and elsewhere who are deserving of such accolades, and I feel very fortunate to have been recognized for my contributions. I would especially like to thank my colleagues and advisors, who have had a profound effect on my education and research and have been immensely supportive throughout my career."

Van Lehn uses molecular simulation to study what happens when synthetic molecules—engineered nanoparticles injected into the body—and biological molecules interact with cell membranes. During his graduate work at MIT, he discovered a mechanism by which certain kinds of nanoparticles insert themselves into cell membranes, a finding that could have implications in novel drug delivery pathways. As a postdoc in Professor of Chemistry Tom Miller's group at Caltech, Van Lehn uses simulations to study how membrane proteins integrate into cell membranes via a protein-conducting channel called the Sec translocon.

This fall, Van Lehn will join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in its Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. His research will focus on developing and utilizing new simulation methods to understand the interactions of bioactive materials and engineer novel nanoparticles for therapeutic applications.

When not in the lab, Van Lehn can be found avidly playing or watching sports. "I hail from Pittsburgh, so I primarily follow the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates," he says. "I also play pickup Ultimate Frisbee, and I can occasionally be seen being horribly outplayed in pickup basketball."

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Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Furthers Legacy of Support

A $10 million gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation has created an endowment that will provide year-in, year-out support to graduate students at Caltech. Augmented by $5 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, the grant establishes the Beckman-Gray Graduate Student Fellowship Fund at Caltech.

The fellowships honor the foundation's cofounder Arnold O. Beckman (PhD '28) and its former chair, Harry B. Gray, who is the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and founding director of the Beckman Institute at Caltech.

Read the full story at giving.caltech.edu

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Major Gift Furthers Legacy of Support
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The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation helps to create a fellowship fund for graduate students

Toward Liquid Fuels from Carbon Dioxide

In the quest for sustainable alternative energy and fuel sources, one viable solution may be the conversion of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into liquid fuels.

Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight, water, and CO2 into sugars, multicarbon molecules that fuel cellular processes. CO2 is thus both the precursor to the fossil fuels that are central to modern life as well as the by-product of burning those fuels. The ability to generate synthetic liquid fuels from stable, oxygenated carbon precursors such as CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) is reminiscent of photosynthesis in nature and is a transformation that is desirable in artificial systems. For about a century, a chemical method known as the Fischer-Tropsch process has been utilized to convert hydrogen gas (H2) and CO to liquid fuels. However, its mechanism is not well understood and, in contrast to photosynthesis, the process requires high pressures (from 1 to 100 times atmospheric pressure) and temperatures (100–300 degrees Celsius).

More recently, alternative conversion chemistries for the generation of liquid fuels from oxygenated carbon precursors have been reported. Using copper electrocatalysts, CO and CO2 can be converted to multicarbon products. The process proceeds under mild conditions, but how it takes place remains a mystery.

Now, Caltech chemistry professor Theo Agapie and his graduate student Joshua Buss have developed a model system to demonstrate what the initial steps of a process for the conversion of CO to hydrocarbons might look like.

The findings, published as an advanced online publication for the journal Nature on December 21, 2015 (and appearing in print on January 7, 2016), provide a foundation for the development of technologies that may one day help neutralize the negative effects of atmospheric accumulation of the greenhouse gas CO2 by converting it back into fuel. Although methods exist to transform CO2 into CO, a crucial next step, the deoxygenation of CO molecules and their coupling to form C–C bonds, is more difficult.

In their study, Agapie and Buss synthesized a new transition metal complex—a metal atom, in this case molybdenum, bound by one or more supporting molecules known as ligands—that can facilitate the activation and cleavage of a CO molecule. Incremental reduction of the molecule leads to substantial weakening of the C–O bonds of CO. Once weakened, the bond is broken entirely by introducing silyl electrophiles, a class of silicon-containing reagents that can be used as surrogates for protons.

This cleavage results in the formation of a terminal carbide—a single carbon atom bound to a metal center—that subsequently makes a bond with the second CO molecule coordinated to the metal. Although a carbide is commonly proposed as an intermediate in CO reductive coupling, this is the first direct demonstration of its role in this type of chemistry, the researchers say. Upon C–C bond formation, the metal center releases the C2 product. Overall, this process converts the two CO units to an ethynol derivative and proceeds easily even at temperatures lower than room temperature.

"To our knowledge, this is the first example of a well-defined reaction that can take two carbon monoxide molecules and convert them into a metal-free ethynol derivative, a molecule related to ethanol; the fact that we can release the C2 product from the metal is important," Agapie says.

While the generated ethynol derivative is not useful as a fuel, it represents a step toward being able to generate synthetic multicarbon fuels from carbon dioxide. The researchers are now applying the knowledge gained in this initial study to improve the process. "Ideally, our insight will facilitate the development of practical catalytic systems," Buss says.

The scientists are also working on a way to cleave the C–O bond using protons instead of silyl electrophiles. "Ultimately, we'd like to use protons from water and electron equivalents derived from sunlight," Agapie says. "But protons are very reactive, and right now we can't control that chemistry."

The research in the paper, "Four-electron deoxygenative reductive coupling of carbon monoxide at a single metal site," was funded by Caltech and the National Science Foundation.

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Toward Liquid Fuels from Carbon Dioxide
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Caltech researchers gain insight into carbon monoxide coupling, one carbon atom at a time

Science with a Smile

The choice of career path—from teacher to musician to engineer—often results from experiences during one's formative years. For children born after 1985, it's likely a certain bow-tied, rumple-haired figure wearing a blue lab coat figured prominently in the lives of those who went on to pursue science and technology.

"I really admire Bill Nye due to his ability to inject a lot of entertainment and fun into teaching," says Caltech graduate student Sho Takatori. He was one of those kids who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy, the long-running and award-winning science education series that originally aired on PBS Kids. "His wacky blend of engaging science concepts, wild experimentation, and humor was very compelling. His enthusiasm really got me fired up about science."

Growing up in Sacramento, California, in the 1990s, Takatori was a loyal fan of the show's fast-paced blend of science and amusement. This appreciation would later inspire him in ways he could have never guessed. After realizing the depth of his zeal for science in high school, Takatori moved on to UC Berkeley to earn a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. While there, he worked with the California Environmental Protection Agency to help draft regulatory policies for the California Green Chemistry Initiative, a regulatory effort to develop safer chemicals and consumer products through the principles of green chemistry.

Takatori now works in the lab of John F. Brady, Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, where his work focuses on the fluid mechanics of particles suspended in liquids.."

Read more on the E&S website

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Inspired by Bill Nye’s blend of science and entertainment, Sho Takatori approaches his teaching and lab work with enthusiastic dedication.

National Academy of Inventors Names Three Caltech Fellows

Caltech professors Harry Atwater, Mark Davis, and Ali Hajimiri have been named as fellows of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). According to the NAI press release, fellows are "academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society."

Harry Atwater is the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science as well as the director of the Department of Energy Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). His research focuses on photovoltaics and solar energy—he helped develop an artificial leaf as part of his work with JCAP—as well as plasmonics (oscillations of electrons on the surface of materials) and optical metamaterials (materials comprised of nanostructures). Atwater joined the Caltech faculty in 1988 and is a fellow of the Materials Research Society and member of U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

Mark Davis is the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering and a member of the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Davis's research aims to synthesize catalytic materials called zeolites—crystalline solids made of silicon, aluminum, and oxygen and containing "micropores"—and biocompatible materials for the delivery of macromolecular therapeutics. Davis arrived at Caltech in 1991 and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering. In 2014, he received the Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research. Davis is the holder of more than 50 U.S. patents.

Ali Hajimiri is the Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering, the executive officer for Electrical Engineering, and director of Information Science and Technology. Hajimiri's research covers broad areas within high-speed and high-frequency electronics- and photonics-integrated circuits. This year, the Hajimiri group synthesized a 3-D camera—called a nanophotonic coherent imager—that provides the highest depth-measurement accuracy (similar to resolution) of any such nanophotonic 3-D imaging device. He joined the Caltech faculty in 1998 and holds 78 issued U.S. patents. Hajimiri is also a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The 2015 fellows account for more than 5,300 issued U.S. patents. This year's fellows will be inducted on April 15, 2016, as part of the Fifth Annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Virginia.

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15 for 2015: The Year in Research News at Caltech

The year 2015 proved to be another groundbreaking year for research at Caltech. From seeing quantum motion, to reconfiguring jellyfish limbs, to measuring stellar magnetic fields, researchers continued to ask and answer the deepest scientific questions.

In case you missed any of them, here are 15 stories highlighting a few of the discoveries, methods, and technologies that came to life at Caltech in 2015.

 

 

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Here are 15 stories highlighting a few of the discoveries, methods, and technologies that came to life at Caltech in 2015.

15 for 2015: The Year in Research News at Caltech

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15 for 2015: The Year in Research News at Caltech
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Credit: K.Batygin/Caltech

New Research Suggests Solar System May Have Once Harbored Super-Earths

Thanks to recent surveys of exoplanets—planets in solar systems other than our own—we know that most planetary systems typically have one or more super-Earths (planets that are substantially more massive than Earth but less massive than Neptune) orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury does. In March, researchers showed that our own solar system may have once had these super-Earths, but they were destroyed by Jupiter's inward and outward migration through the solar system. This migration would have gravitationally flung small planetesimals through the solar system, setting off chains of collisions that would push any interior planets into the sun.
Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech and the Hoelz Laboratory/Caltech

Caltech Biochemists Shed Light on Cellular Mystery

The nuclear pore complex (NPC) is an intricate portal linking the cytoplasm of a cell to its nucleus. It is made up of many copies of about 34 different proteins. Around 2,000 NPCs are embedded in the nuclear envelope of a single human cell and each NPC shuttles hundreds of macromolecules of different shapes and sizes between the cytoplasm and nucleus. In February, Caltech biochemists determined the structure of a significant portion of the NPC called the outer rings; in August, the same group solved the structure of the pore's inner ring. Understanding the structure of the NPC could lead to new classes of cancer drugs as well as antiviral medicines.
Credit: iStockphoto

Research Suggests Brain's Melatonin May Trigger Sleep

For decades, supplemental melatonin has been sold over the counter as a sleep aid despite the absence of scientific evidence proving its effectiveness. Few studies have investigated melatonin produced naturally in the human body. This March, Caltech researchers studying zebrafish—animals that, like humans, are awake during the day and asleep at night—determined that the melatonin hormone does help the body fall asleep and stay asleep. Specifically, they found that zebrafish larvae that could not produce melatonin slept for only half as long as normal larvae.
Credit: Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

Advances in Radio Astronomy

In May, a new radio telescope array called the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array (OV-LWA) saw its first light. Developed by a consortium led by Caltech, the OV-LWA has the ability to image simultaneously the entire sky at radio wavelengths with unmatched speed, helping astronomers to search for objects and phenomena that pulse, flicker, flare, or explode.

In July, Caltech researchers used both radio and optical telescopes to observe a brown dwarf located 20 light-years away and found that these so-called failed stars host powerful auroras near their magnetic poles.
Credit: Michael Abrams and Ty Basinger

Injured Jellyfish Seek to Regain Symmetry

Some kinds of animals can regrow lost limbs and body parts, but moon jellyfish have a different strategy. In June, Caltech researchers reported that the star-shaped eight-armed moon jellyfish rearranges itself when injured to maintain symmetry. It is hypothesized that the rearrangement helps to preserve the jellyfish's propulsion mechanism.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Geologists Characterize Nepal Earthquake

In April, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal. While the damage was extensive, it was not as severe as many geologists predicted. This year, a Caltech team of geologists used satellite radar imaging data and measurements from seismic instruments in Nepal to create models of fault rupture and ground movement. They found that the quake ruptured only a small fraction of the "locked" tectonic plate and that there is still the potential for the locked portion to produce a large earthquake.
Credit: Caltech/JPL

New Polymer Creates Safer Fuels

Plane crashes cause devastating damage, but this damage is often exacerbated by the highly explosive nature of jet fuel. This October, researchers at Caltech and JPL discovered a polymeric fuel additive that can reduce the intensity of postimpact explosions that occur during accidents and crashes. Preliminary results show that the additive can provide this benefit without adversely affecting fuel performance. The polymer works by inhibiting "misting"—the process that causes fuel to rapidly disperse and easily catch fire—under crash conditions.
Credit: Spencer Kellis/Caltech

Controlling a Robotic Arm with a Patient's Intentions

When you reach for a glass of water, you do not consciously think about moving your arm muscles or grasping with your fingers—you think about the goal of the movement. This May, by implanting neural prosthetic devices into the posterior parietal cortex (PCC)—the region of the brain that governs intentions for movement—rather than the motor cortex, which controls movement, Caltech researchers enabled a paralyzed patient to more smoothly and naturally control a prosthetic limb. In November, the researchers showed that there are individual neurons in the PPC that encode for entire hand shapes, such as those used for grasping or gesturing.

 

Caltech Scientists Develop Cool Process to Make Better Graphene

Graphene is an ultrastrong and conductive material made of a single layer of carbon atoms. While it is a promising material for scientific and engineering advances, manufacturing it on an industrially relevant scale has proven to be impractical, requiring temperatures of around 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and long periods of time. A new technique invented at Caltech allows the speedy production of graphene—in just a few minutes—at room temperatures. The technique also produces graphene that is stronger, smoother, and more electrically conductive than normally produced synthetic graphene.
Credit: Rafael A. García (SAp CEA), Kyle Augustson (HAO), Jim Fuller (Caltech) & Gabriel Pérez (SMM, IAC), Photograph from AIA/SDO

Astronomers Peer Inside Stars, Finding Giant Magnets

Before this October, astronomers have only been able to study the magnetic fields of stars on the stellar surfaces. Now, using a technique called asteroseismology, scientists were able to probe the fusion-powered hearts of dozens of red giants (stars that are evolved versions of our sun) to calculate the magnetic field strengths inside those stars. They found that the internal magnetic fields of the red giants were as much as 10 million times stronger than Earth's magnetic field. Magnetic fields play a key role in the interior rotation rate of stars, which has a dramatic effect on how the stars evolve.
Credit: Chan Lei and Keith Schwab/Caltech

Seeing Quantum Motion

To the casual observer, an object at rest is just that—at rest, motionless. But on the subatomic scale, the object is most certainly in motion—quantum mechanical motion. Quantum motion, or noise, is ever-present in nature, and in August, Caltech researchers discovered how to observe and manipulate that motion in a small device. By creating what they called a "quantum squeezed state," they were able to periodically reduce the quantum fluctuations of the device. The ability to control quantum noise could one day be used to improve the precision of very sensitive measurements.
Credit: Ali Hajimiri/Caltech

New Camera Chip Provides Superfine 3-D Resolution

3-D printing can produce a wide array of objects in relatively little time, but first the printer needs to have a blueprint of what to print. The blueprints are provided by 3-D cameras, which scan objects and create models for the printer. Caltech researchers have now developed a 3-D camera that produces the highest depth-measurement accuracy of any similar device, allowing it to deliver replicas of an object to be 3-D printed within microns of similarity to the original object. In addition, the camera, known as a nanophotonic coherent imager, is inexpensive and small.
Credit: Image provided courtesy of Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis; artwork by Darius Siwek.

One Step Closer to Artificial Photosynthesis and 'Solar Fuels'

Plants are masters of photosynthesis—the process of turning carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water into oxygen and sugar. Inspired by this natural and energy-efficient process, Caltech researchers have created an "artificial leaf" that takes in CO2, sunlight, and water to produce hydrogen fuels. This solar-powered system, one researcher says, shatters all of the combined safety, performance, and stability records for artificial leaf technology by factors of 5 to 10 or more.
Credit: Santiago Lombeyda and Robin Betz

Potassium Salt Outperforms Precious Metals As a Catalyst

Rare precious metals have been the standard catalyst for the formation of carbon-silicon bonds, a process crucial to the synthesis of a host of products from new medicines to advanced materials. However, they are expensive, inefficient, and produce toxic waste byproducts. This February, Caltech researchers discovered a much more sustainable catalyst in the form of a simple potassium salt that is one of the most abundant metals on Earth and thousands of times less expensive than other commonly used catalysts. In addition, the potassium salt is much more effective at running challenging chemical reactions than state-of-the-art precious metal complexes.
Credit: Qi Zhao/National University of Singapore

Probing the Mysterious Perceptual World of Autism

The way in which people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) perceive the world is unique. It has been a long-standing belief that people with ASD often miss facial cues, contributing to impaired social interaction. In a study published in October, Caltech researchers showed 700 images to 39 subjects and found that people with ASD pay closer attention to simple edges and patterns in images than to the faces of people. The study also found that subjects were strongly attracted to the center of images—regardless of what was placed there—and to differences in color and contrast rather than facial features. These findings may help doctors diagnose and more effectively treat the different forms of autism.
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The year 2015 proved to be another groundbreaking year for research at Caltech. From seeing quantum motion, to reconfiguring jellyfish limbs, to measuring stellar magnetic fields, researchers continued to ask and answer the deepest scientific questions.

In case you missed any of them, here are 15 stories highlighting a few of the discoveries, methods, and technologies that came to life at Caltech in 2015.

Written by Lori Dajose

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