Caltech Graduating Senior Wins Multiple National Honors

When Caltech senior Arvind Kannan graduates on Friday, he will be one highly decorated Techer. During this academic year, the chemical engineering major racked up multiple honors that will support his graduate studies, including a Churchill Scholarship, a Hertz Foundation fellowship, and a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.

As one of only 14 new Churchill scholars, Kannan will spend the next academic year working on a Master of Philosophy in chemistry at the University of Cambridge. While there, he will work in the laboratory of Michele Vendruscolo, using computational methods to build a detailed structural model of a large protein complex called the 20S proteasome, which is involved in regulating processes ranging from gene expression to cell signaling. According to the Winston Churchill Foundation's website, the scholarship program "offers American citizens of exceptional ability and outstanding achievement the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in engineering, mathematics, or the sciences at Cambridge. 

When Kannan returns to the United States to complete a doctoral program at Stanford University, he will receive support from both the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. These awards, Kannan says, will allow him to carry out an ambitious research project free from financial constraints. 

At Caltech, Kannan developed a passion for engineering proteins to do chemically useful things—like break down plant matter for use in biofuel production or speed up drug development. He has been working with Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, utilizing a technique called "directed evolution," which applies the principles of natural selection to molecules in the laboratory rather than animals or plants in nature.

"Arvind's brilliance and insatiable thirst for learning is matched by his commitment to studying and practicing science," says Arnold, who also described him as "well-rounded." Indeed, Kannan, has played the flute for eight years, has been singing Carnatic music—a type of South Indian classical music—since he was five years old, and is now a baritone in the Caltech Glee Club. "When not playing music, I love listening to it," he says. "I have also cultivated a passion for modern electronic dance music and enjoy participating in the major electronic music festivals of the L.A. area."

Of his time at Caltech, Kannan says he feels fortunate that the breadth of the curriculum and the diversity of opportunities for learning have prepared him so well for his future. He enjoys, for example, sitting at a lunch table with physics majors and biologists alike, and being able to join in conversations about both quantum field theory and cell signaling. "That experience, I think, has been really wonderful because science is an interdisciplinary, collaborative process," he says. "The more you know about other fields, the more it enriches both your own research and your appreciation for science as a whole."

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Caltech Rover Ready for Rock-Yard Competition in Houston

Later this week, a four-wheeled robot designed and built by Caltech undergraduate students will maneuver, apparently under its own guidance, through various challenges at the NASA Johnson Space Center Rock Yard in Houston. In actuality, the robot's every move will be under the control of a group of those students who will be located back on campus, in the basement of Spalding Laboratory.

The Caltech group, which is named simply the Caltech Rover Team, will be competing for glory and prizes in a contest whose name is quite a mouthful: the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops Competition. Sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace, the competition will take place during a three-day forum, beginning May 30. The challenge will test the ability of rovers from eight universities to navigate sand dunes, climb out of mock lunar craters, pick up rocks, and more—all while being tele-operated off-site.

"This has been an amazing experience," says sophomore Daniel Lo, a physics and planetary science double major and the leader and organizer of the Caltech team. "In the beginning, I couldn't have imagined that our rover would turn out this great."

Each of the eight university teams were chosen as finalists based on written proposals submitted in December, then given $10,000 to build their rover and to send three team members and an advisor to the competition in Houston. Joel Burdick, professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering, and Issa Nesnas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are the Caltech team's advisors.

During a recent demonstration on campus attended by onlookers including Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau, team member Harrison Miller stood at a picnic table and operated a sensored master arm made of acrylic; his movements were transmitted and copied by the rover's own robotic "slave" arm. "Oh, that's so buttery," Miller said, marveling at the master-slave arm-control system's latest improvements. He was able to lead the rover through a challenge known as the "Tower of Hanoi" problem, which requires picking up, moving, and setting down disks of various sizes and weights in a particular order.

In the actual competition, the rocks that the rover will have to pick up will be lighter and easier to grip than the disks used in the demonstration. "If we can do this, we'll be fine," said Russell Newman, the team's chief designer and a senior mechanical engineering major. In addition, the rover arm's six degrees of freedom should allow it to reach over and around obstacles to gain access to target rocks.

The Caltech robot uses a so-called rocker-bogie suspension system, in which the differential links, or "rockers," of the undercarriage keep the vehicle balanced. This type of system is used by NASA's Mars rovers to give them the ability to drive over relatively large rocks and varying terrain, without tilting drastically—and, possibly, toppling over. As it traverses the Rock Yard in Houston, the rover's eight cameras will feed visual information via Verizon's 4G network to the operating team located in Caltech's Jim Hall Design and Prototyping Lab; the network will also deliver the team's commands to the rover.

Each team, in addition to being judged based on their rover's performance in the challenge, will be evaluated on a final written report and on education and outreach efforts. Caltech's team, for example, has a website and Facebook and Twitter accounts for its rover and has shared the project with several groups of local school children. 

The competition in Houston will be streamed live on May 31 and June 1.

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Researchers Demonstrate Possible Primitive Mechanism of Chemical Info Self-Replication

PASADENA, Calif.— When scientists think about the replication of information in chemistry, they usually have in mind something akin to what happens in living organisms when DNA gets copied: a double-stranded molecule that contains sequence information makes two new copies of the molecule. But researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have now shown that a different mechanism can also be used to copy sequence information.

In this alternate version, tiny DNA tile crystals consisting of many copies of a piece of information are first grown, then broken into a few pieces by mechanically-induced scission, or force. The new crystal bits contain all the information needed to keep copying the sequence. Each piece then begins to replicate its information and grow until broken apart again—without the help of enzymes, an essential ingredient in biological sequence replication. In some ways, the new system is reminiscent of Goethe's poem, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in which the apprentice smashes a magic mop with an axe, producing many exact replicas of the sweeper, all programmed to do the same job.

"The genome-copying mechanism used by cells requires tight control between the separation of DNA strands and the copying process," explains study lead author Rebecca Schulman, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who was a graduate student at Caltech when the research began.

"But no such coordination is required in the system we designed, which makes it simpler in many ways," she says. "This suggests that there may be other mechanisms of copying information that follow this method using chemistry that could be simpler than the process cells use. What we showed in the paper was a capacity to take a given chemical message—a sequence of 1s and 0s—and make more copies of that message through a new, designed self-replication process." 

The findings were reported in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The idea that crystals can self-replicate was first presented by organic chemist and molecular biologist Graham Cairns-Smith in 1965. He proposed, as well, that such crystals might have been the first chemical self-replicators capable of Darwinian evolution. His theory was controversial at the time, and his ideas have never gained widespread support. But according to Erik Winfree, professor of computer science, computation and neural systems, and bioengineering at Caltech and senior author on the PNAS paper, this new research shows that Cairns-Smith's hypothesis on the origin of life is demonstrably more plausible than previously thought.

"Overall, we found that his principles and mechanisms are sound, and although we didn't experimentally demonstrate his theory all the way, self-replication via crystal growth and scission should be sufficient for Darwinian evolution," he says. "This is because DNA tile crystals can be programmed to process information during growth, allowing them to adapt to their environment. Our findings could even form the basis of novel molecular technologies for making complex self-replicating nanoscale objects."

Their new research found that it is possible to design a mechanism for copying chemical information very accurately without relying on biological enzymes to assemble and separate sequence copies. Instead, the researchers relied only on simple kinds of attachments—molecular binding and unbinding reactions that they designed—and mechanical forces.

Having shown that information can be made to chemically self-replicate, says Schulman, the question becomes, what kinds of messages can be copied in this way?

"Our theoretical work suggests that not just linear sequences but also patterns in two dimensions, similar to wallpaper patterns that repeat every so often, could also be replicated," she says.

The crystals used in the study simply copied information verbatim from layer to layer as they grew, which in itself is insufficient to kick-start a Darwinian evolutionary process.  But crystal growth that produces complex patterns resulting in 2- or 3-dimensional structures would, in this context, correspond to a rudimentary "genotype-phenotype" relationship, thereby enriching the Darwinian evolutionary process by introducing complex forms that would be subject to selective pressures, Winfree says. 

"Our findings show that there is a bewildering variety of imaginable ways that chemical systems could self-replicate and evolve," he says. "This really puts into question whether or not the way biology does things now is the only possible way that life could be organized on a molecular level."

The PNAS study, "Robust self-replication of combinatorial information via crystal growth and scission," was funded by the Miller Institute of Basic Science, the National Science Foundation, and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration astrobiology grant. Bernard Yurke, a Distinguished Research Fellow at Boise State in Idaho, is also a coauthor of the paper.

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Better, Stronger, Lighter Armor

What makes a piece of armor effective? Sure, it needs to be strong, and it should be lightweight. But what is it about a material's composition that gives it such properties? And can we develop materials that provide even better protection? With decades' worth of investment and preparation, Caltech engineers are particularly well equipped to address such questions as part of a new Army-funded program to improve protective gear and vehicles for soldiers.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory recently announced that it would provide up to $90 million to a consortium of researchers—led by engineers at Johns Hopkins University's newly created Extreme Materials Institute—to investigate what happens to protective materials during intense impact. The collaboration includes engineers from national laboratories, private industry, and four universities—Caltech, Johns Hopkins, Rutgers University, and the University of Delaware. 

"Here at Caltech we have developed a very unique expertise and one-of-a-kind tools for trying to understand the behavior of structural materials across all scales," says Kaushik Bhattacharya, Caltech's lead in the army effort and the Howell N. Tyson, Sr., Professor of Mechanics and professor of materials science. "What the army recognizes is that such understanding can play a significant role in speeding up the process of developing new materials—a process that can take up to 20 years with standard methods."

Six engineers and applied scientists from Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science will collaborate on the new project, focusing initially on magnesium alloys and boron carbide ceramics. Magnesium alloys—known by car buffs thanks to their incorporation into the wheels of fancy cars—are extremely strong, tough, and lightweight. But like most traditional alloys, they have been made empirically—that is, someone realized that by adding just so much aluminum, a little bit of zinc, and so on, they would wind up with a much stronger product than magnesium alone. No one has worked out the science explaining exactly why those small additions change the properties of the material, and so it's difficult to say if the alloys are performing at their peak or if the "recipe" could be improved.

"Right now we don't have a predictive model for designing advanced materials," Bhattacharya says. "We have some theories that guide us, but they really are not fully predictive." 

Developing the level of understanding needed to create such a predictive tool is an incredibly complex problem that requires engineers and applied scientists to tap into their knowledge of multiple disciplines. They must understand the mechanics across length scales from the subnanometer level—units smaller than billionths of meters—all the way to materials that can be measured in meters. They also need to understand how materials behave across timescales from femtoseconds—millionths of billionths of seconds—up to seconds, and at various temperatures and pressures.

"You have to somehow understand this complete hierarchy and how all of these pieces fit together," says Bhattacharya. "And you have to understand how all of the levels of hierarchy change during a high-velocity impact, such as when a bullet hits armor or a missile strikes a vehicle." 

Part of that requires understanding how the defects in a material will behave. It would be relatively easy to model a metal with a perfect crystal configuration—where all of its atoms line up to form an ideal lattice. But as materials scientists like to say, "Crystals are like people: it is the defects in them which tend to make them interesting." These defects, such as missing atoms and misalignments, can confer beneficial properties upon the material, giving it greater strength or ductility, for example.  But they also add a level of complexity; changing the placement of a single atom can have a large effect on the rest of the material.

Along with Bhattacharya, William Goddard III, Dennis Kochmann, and Michael Ortiz will work on the theory side of the problem, using a range of tools developed at Caltech over the last two decades to accurately model the behavior of materials from the subatomic level all the way to the scale of bulk materials.

On the experimental side, Guruswami Ravichandran will investigate how a material deforms, or changes shape, at different scales and temperatures when struck by a high-speed projectile. Meanwhile, Julia Greer will look at the deformation and mechanical properties of materials at the nanoscale.

"When you have a large chunk of a metal, such as magnesium, it deforms under certain known conditions. But if you make a very small sample of the same metal, it's going to have very different mechanical characteristics," says Greer. "So if you're planning on utilizing nanotechnology at all in a production application, you need to know first what your material's properties are at its various scales. We will provide that experimental data."

In addition to their participation in the army's extreme-materials project, Caltech engineers are working on several other programs focused on multiscale modeling of materials and the development of damage-tolerant materials. Ortiz is the principal investigator and director of Caltech's Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program Center, sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which focuses on the hypervelocity impacts of metallic projectiles. For his part, Ravichandran is heading up a new Center of Excellence funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory; it will look at the physics of what happens to materials ranging from sands to layered composites when they are suddenly struck by a powerful force and deform quickly.

"When you take these major projects together, you see that studying materials in very extreme conditions is an area where Caltech engineering really stand out," says Bhattacharya. "The tools we bring, on both the theoretical and experimental sides uniquely bridge deep fundamental principles with unprecedented application."

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Caltech Researchers Gain Greater Insight into Earthquake Cycles

New dynamic computer model first to show full history of a fault segment

PASADENA, Calif.—For those who study earthquakes, one major challenge has been trying to understand all the physics of a fault—both during an earthquake and at times of "rest"—in order to know more about how a particular region may behave in the future. Now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed the first computer model of an earthquake-producing fault segment that reproduces, in a single physical framework, the available observations of both the fault's seismic (fast) and aseismic (slow) behavior. 

"Our study describes a methodology to assimilate geologic, seismologic, and geodetic data surrounding a seismic fault to form a physical model of the cycle of earthquakes that has predictive power," says Sylvain Barbot, a postdoctoral scholar in geology at Caltech and lead author of the study.

A paper describing their model—the result of a Caltech Tectonics Observatory (TO) collaborative study by geologists and geophysicists from the Institute's Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and engineers from the Division of Engineering and Applied Science—appears in the May 11 edition of the journal Science.

"Previous research has mostly either concentrated on the dynamic rupture that produces ground shaking or on the long periods between earthquakes, which are characterized by slow tectonic loading and associated slow motions—but not on both at the same time," explains study coauthor Nadia Lapusta, professor of mechanical engineering and geophysics at Caltech. Her research group developed the numerical methods used in making the new model. "In our study, we model the entire history of an earthquake-producing fault and the interaction between the fast and slow deformation phases."

Using previous observations and laboratory findings, the team—which also included coauthor Jean-Philippe Avouac, director of the TO—modeled an active region of the San Andreas Fault called the Parkfield segment. Located in central California, Parkfield produces magnitude-6 earthquakes every 20 years on average. They successfully created a series of earthquakes (ranging from magnitude 2 to 6) within the computer model, producing fault slip before, during, and after the earthquakes that closely matched the behavior observed in the past fifty years. 

"Our model explains some aspects of the seismic cycle at Parkfield that had eluded us, such as what causes changes in the amount of time between significant earthquakes and the jump in location where earthquakes nucleate, or begin," says Barbot.

The paper also demonstrates that a physical model of fault-slip evolution, based on laboratory experiments that measure how rock materials deform in the fault core, can explain many aspects of the earthquake cycle—and does so on a range of time scales. "Earthquake science is on the verge of building models that are based on the actual response of the rock materials as measured in the lab—models that can be tailored to reproduce a broad range of available observations for a given region," says Lapusta. "This implies we are getting closer to understanding the physical laws that govern how earthquakes nucleate, propagate, and arrest."

She says that they may be able to use models much like the one described in the Science paper to forecast the range of potential earthquakes on a fault segment, which could be used to further assess seismic hazard and improve building designs. 

Avouac agrees. "Currently, seismic hazard studies rely on what is known about past earthquakes," he says. "However, the relatively short recorded history may not be representative of all possibilities, especially rare extreme events. This gap can be filled with physical models that can be continuously improved as we learn more about earthquakes and laws that govern them."

"As computational resources and methods improve, dynamic simulations of even more realistic earthquake scenarios, with full account for dynamic interactions among faults, will be possible," adds Barbot. 

The Science study, "Under the Hood of the Earthquake Machine; Toward Predictive Modeling of the Seismic Cycle," was funded by grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Southern California Earthquake Center.

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Katie Neith
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From the Ground Up

What's it like to build an entire research program from scratch? It's all about becoming part of a community, according to three brand-new professors: 

"It's very important to generate an environment where people help each other." —André Hoelz 

"I have two challenges getting started here. One is bringing in students and postdocs, and the other is fostering a connection between economics and computer science." —Katrina Ligett

"It is not traditionally a field Caltech has done. . . . So when I was looking at coming to Caltech, the idea of being 'the oceanographer' was an exciting prospect.' —Andrew Thompson

Read "From the Ground Up" in the Spring 2012 issue of Caltech's Engineering & Science magazine. 

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Doug Smith
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Building a Research Program from the Ground Up
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Leadbetter Elected Fellow of American Academy of Microbiology

Jared R. Leadbetter, professor of environmental microbiology, has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. Fellows of the academy are elected annually through a selective, peer-review process based on their records of scientific achievement and original contributions that have advanced microbiology.

Leadbetter's research seeks to clarify the form, function, and spatial distribution of diverse microbes in their environment. His past studies have focused on the cultivation of microbial strains possessing unusual, atypical, or previously unrecognized properties, and have sought to reveal the impact of these organisms on their given environment.

There are over 2,000 fellows of the American Academy of Microbiology, representing all subspecialties of microbiology, including basic and applied research, teaching, public health, industry, and government service.

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Allison Benter
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Caltech Offers Online Course with Live Lectures in Machine Learning

Anyone anywhere can watch one of Caltech's most popular courses on machine learning, complete with live lectures, beginning April 3. Every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the spring term, Yaser Abu-Mostafa, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Caltech, will deliver lectures for his Learning From Data class live on Caltech's Ustream channel. Course material will be available on Dr. Abu-Mustafa's website, so that no matter where a viewer is, they can experience the class—both the lectures and the coursework.

"The idea is that if people in the furthest reaches of the world want to learn the material and have the discipline to go through it, we are giving them the opportunity to experience this course in real time," Abu-Mostafa says. "We will be interested to see how this experiment goes."

With 18, one-hour lectures scheduled, the course will cover basic theory, algorithms, and applications of machine learning—the discipline that deals with enhancing the ability of computational systems to learn from data, enabling them to improve their performance with experience. Examples of machine learning applications include systems used by banks to determine whether to approve applications for credit cards based on financial data, and the Netflix system that tries to anticipate how much a given subscriber will enjoy a particular movie. 

For more information on the course and to register as an online participant, click here. Recorded lectures and course materials will also be available for download as an iTunes U course for viewing on Apple mobile devices here

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Liquid-like Materials May Pave Way for New Thermoelectric Devices

PASADENA, Calif.—In the continual quest for better thermoelectric materials—which convert heat into electricity and vice versa—researchers have identified a liquid-like compound whose properties give it the potential to be even more efficient than traditional thermoelectrics.

Thermoelectric materials have been used to power spacecraft ranging from Apollo to the Curiosity rover now headed for Mars. Recently, however, scientists and engineers have been turning to these materials to use wasted heat—released from automobiles or industrial machinery, for instance—as an efficient energy source. They have also proposed using these materials to create more efficient heating systems in electric cars or even as new ways to exploit solar power.

In identifying this new type of thermoelectric material, the researchers studied a material made from copper and selenium. Although it is physically a solid, it exhibits liquid-like behaviors due to the way its copper atoms flow through the selenium's crystal lattice.

"It's like a wet sponge," explains Jeff Snyder, a faculty associate in applied physics and materials science in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a member of the research team. "If you have a sponge with very fine pores in it, it looks and acts like a solid. But inside, the water molecules are diffusing just as fast as they would if they were a regular liquid. That's how I imagine this material works. It has a solid framework of selenium atoms, but the copper atoms are diffusing around as fast as they would in a liquid."

The research, led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Science's Shanghai Institute of Ceramics in collaboration with researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Michigan, as well as from Caltech, is described in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Materials.

A thermoelectric material generates electricity when there is a temperature difference between one end of the material and the other. For example, if you place a thermoelectric device right next to a heat source—say a laptop battery—then the side closest to the battery will be hotter. The electrons in the hot end will diffuse to the cool end, producing an electric current.

A good thermoelectric material must be good at conducting electricity but bad at conducting heat. If it were good at conducting heat, the heat from the hot end would move to the cool end so fast that the whole material would rapidly reach the same temperature. When that happens, the electrons stop flowing.

One way to improve thermoelectric efficiency, then, is to decrease a material's ability to conduct heat. To that end, researchers have been developing thermoelectric materials with a mix of crystalline and amorphous properties, Snyder says. A crystalline atomic structure allows electrons to flow easily, while an amorphous material, such as glass, has a more irregular atomic structure that hinders heat-carrying vibrations from traveling.

These heat-carrying vibrations travel via two types of waves. The first type is a longitudinal or pressure wave, in which the direction of displacement—in this case, the jiggling of atoms—is the same as the direction of the wave. The second type is a transverse wave, in which the direction of displacement is perpendicular to the direction of the wave, like when you shake a jump rope up and down, resulting in waves that travel horizontally along the rope.

In a solid material, a transverse wave travels because there is friction between the atoms, meaning that when one atom vibrates up and down, an adjacent atom moves with it, and the wave propagates. But in a liquid, there is minimal friction between the atoms, and a vibrating atom just slides up and down next to its neighbor. As a result, transverse waves cannot travel inside a liquid. Ocean waves are different because they have an interface between the liquid and the air.

The team found that because heat-carrying vibrations in a liquid can travel only via longitudinal waves, a material with liquid-like properties is less thermally conductive. Therefore, a liquid-like material that's also good at conducting electrically should be more thermoelectrically efficient than traditional amorphous materials, Snyder says.

In the case of the copper-selenium material that the researchers studied, the crystal structure of the selenium helps conduct electricity, while the free-flowing copper atoms behave like a liquid, damping down thermal conductivity. The efficiency of a thermoelectric material is quantified using a number called a "thermoelectric figure of merit." The copper-selenium material has a thermoelectric figure of merit of 1.5 at 1000 degrees Kelvin, one of the highest values in any bulk material, the researchers say.

NASA engineers first used this copper-selenium material roughly 40 years ago for spacecraft design, Snyder says. But its liquid-like properties—which were not understood at the time—made it difficult to work with. This new research, he says, has identified and explained why this copper-selenium material has such efficient thermoelectric properties, potentially opening up a whole new class of liquid-like thermoelectric materials for investigation.

"Hopefully, the scientific community now has another strategy to work with when looking for materials with a high thermoelectric figure of merit," Snyder says.

In addition to Snyder, the research group includes Caltech graduate student Tristan Day. The other authors on the Nature Materials paper, titled "Copper ion liquid-like thermoelectrics," are Huili Liu, Xun Shi, Lidong Chen, Fangfang Xu, Linlin Zhang, and Wenqing Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Science's Shanghai Institute of Ceramics; Qiang Li of Brookhaven National Laboratory; and Citrad Uher of the University of Michigan.

Support was provided by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission, the CAS/SAFEA International Partnership Program for Creative Research Teams, the National Basic Research Program of China, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research's Multidisciplinary Research Program of the University Research Initiative.

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Marcus Woo
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ME 72 Robots Prepared to Take Over Caltech's Millikan Pond

Robots designed and built by Caltech undergraduate students will battle in head-to-head competition on Thursday, March 8, in what has been dubbed "The Conquest of Millikan Islands," this year's ME 72 Engineering Design Contest. Setup for the contest, which has become a popular event in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, begins at 1 p.m. at Millikan Pond, and the competition is scheduled to begin around 2 p.m.

"You don't get a whole lot of opportunities like this where you're given a challenge, given a budget, and just told to go do it," says Wesley Swank, a junior mechanical engineering major who is participating in the competition.  "If you're a real MechE, you live for that."

In each heat of the double-elimination tournament, two teams will have five minutes to direct their robots to retrieve 11 ping-pong balls from dispensers on the footbridge and to use a second robot to enter the water and deposit the balls on "islands" in Millikan Pond. At the end of each heat, teams will receive points for having their ping-pong balls on the various islands, earning two points for "controlling" harder-to-access islands and just one for those closer to the pond's perimeter.

In this, the competition's 27th year, organizers have added an autonomous component into the mix. To pick up extra points, robotic vessels will be able to head under the footbridge, into an "autonomous zone." Once a vessel enters that zone, its operators must take their hands off the controls, allowing the robot to direct itself. An infrared beacon on an island there will help the robots, outfitted with their own infrared sensors, find their bearings. Getting close to the island will earn a team four points, and depositing a ball on the island will garner a whopping 10 points. 

Each team was given $400 worth of radio-control equipment and a budget of $800 for discretionary spending. Some teams are focusing on defense, trying to swat away balls deposited by opponents, while others are more interested in racking up high scores. To convert their designs into actual robots, the students worked in the Jim Hall Design and Prototyping Lab using drills, lathes, a water jet, a laser cutter, and a rapid 3D prototyper. The task also requires some understanding of electronics and computer programming.

"One of the things that's great about this contest is it gives students a chance to build something and see all the complications of it," says John Van Deusen, the mechanical engineering shop supervisor. It's easy enough to draw something up and do all the modeling and everything, but in reality, it's a different world. Just the progression to get these things up and moving is huge."

Juniors Matthew Fu and Christine Viveiros would agree. They have spent about 40 hours each week for a few weeks working on their robots as part of a team called Dim Sum 41. "It's weirdly cathartic while simultaneously masochistic," says Fu. "You spend five weeks tearing your hair out, but when it finally works, you feel really, really happy."

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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