Research on Biological Jet Flows Could Lead to New Diagnostic Tools for Heart Disease

PASADENA, Calif.--If you're a squid, your typical day consists of leisurely squirting water behind you to move forward, and occasionally squirting larger quantities of water behind you to stay off someone else's lunch menu. If you're a human with heart disease, your day consists of pumping blood through your heart valves much more forcefully than you did when you were young and healthy.

Is there any fundamental connection between these two seemingly dissimilar events? The answer is turning out to be yes, and moreover that a better understanding of what they have in common could lead to a new and improved diagnostic tool for heart disease.

In a new paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, California Institute of Technology engineers John Dabiri and Mory Gharib report on their work in understanding the fundamental nature of biological fluid transport. Specifically, they look at the way that vortex formation is optimized and controlled by various organisms, and how jets of fluid can be manipulated to affect energy transport and system efficiency.

"Heart disease typically manifests itself in problems with fluid transport, so if we can learn general principles of effective fluid transport from other animal systems, then we can potentially identify new strategies to diagnose and treat heart failure," says Dabiri, who recently joined the Caltech faculty as an assistant professor of bioengineering and aeronautics. Gharib, who was Dabiri's graduate adviser at Caltech, is the Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioengineering.

The researchers' strategy is to apply the same principles that have gone into the refinement of airplane and spacecraft designs to matters of biomedical concern. The landing of a space shuttle and the operation of a human heart may seem unrelated, but the fluid flow involved in both cases obeys the same general physical laws. Therefore in both instances one can apply "reverse engineering," in which one looks at a complex system already in existence and tries to understand its fundamentals.

In the case of biological fluid flow, scientists know that a number of animals regularly manipulate jet flows for their survival. Therefore, trying to understand precisely how these jet flows function can lead to a new way of understanding how to fix the individual parts that are broken.

"If you can figure out the basic design principles that allow the left ventricle to function well in terms of fluid transport, then creating therapies for disease may not be much different from redesigning an airplane wing for improved performance using the appropriate aerodynamic principles," Dabiri says.

Since many kinds of heart disease are known to be reflected in blood flow near the heart valves, Dabiri, Gharib, and Dr. Arash Kheradvar, an MD who is working for his Ph.D. in Gharib's group, hope to be able to determine the overall health of the heart by viewing this smaller subsection. The diagnostic procedure might turn out to be as simple as taking an echocardiogram of a patient's heart-in much the same way that a sonogram is currently taken of a pregnant woman's abdomen to monitor the health of a fetus.

Then, if a problem with the jet flow through the valve were to be identified, the discovered design principles could be used to direct surgeons on how to correct the malfunction.

Further laboratory and clinical research is needed before the current results will translate into such a practical diagnostic tool, Dabiri says. However, this study takes an important step toward this goal by developing the paradigm under which future research will proceed.


Robert Tindol

New Propane-Burning Fuel Cell Could Energize a Future Generation of Small Electrical Devices

PASADENA, Calif.--Engineers have created a propane-burning fuel cell that's almost as small as a watch battery, yet many times higher in power density. Led by Sossina Haile of the California Institute of Technology, the team reports in the June 9 issue of the journal Nature that two of the cells have sufficient power to drive an MP3 player. If commercialized, such a fuel cell would have the advantage of driving the MP3 player for far longer than the best lithium batteries available.

According to Haile, who is an associate professor of materials science and of chemical engineering at Caltech, the new technology was made possible by a couple of key breakthroughs in fuel-cell technology. Chief among these was a novel method of getting the fuel cell to generate enough internal heat to keep itself hot, a requirement for producing power.

"Fuel cells have been done on larger scales with hydrocarbon fuels, but small fuel cells are challenging because it's hard to keep them at the high temperatures required to get the hydrocarbon fuels to react," Haile says. "In a small device, the surface-to-volume ratio is large, and because heat is lost through the surface that is generated in the volume, you have to use a lot of insulation to keep the cell hot. Adding insulation takes away the size advantage."

The new technology tackles this problem by burning just a bit of the fuel to generate heat to maintain the fuel cell temperature. The device could probably use a variety of hydrocarbon fuels, but propane is just about perfect because it is easily compressible into a liquid and because it instantly becomes a vapor when it is released. That's exactly what makes it ideal for your backyard barbecue grill.

"Actually, there are three advances that make the technology possible," Haile says. "The first is to make the fuel cells operate with high power outputs at lower temperatures than conventional hydrocarbon-burning fuel cells. The second is to use a single-chamber fuel cell that has only one inlet for premixed oxygen and fuel and a single outlet for exhaust, which makes for a very simple and compact fuel cell system. These advances were achieved here at Caltech."

"The third involves catalysts developed at Northwestern University that cause sufficient heat release to sustain the temperature of the fuel cell." In addition, a linear counter-flow heat exchanger makes sure that the hot gases exiting from the fuel cell transfer their heat to the incoming cold inlet gases.

Although the technology is still experimental, Haile says that future collaborations with design experts should tremendously improve the fuel efficiency. In particular, she and her colleagues are working with David Goodwin, a professor of mechanical engineering and applied physics at Caltech, on design improvements. One such improvement will be to incorporate compact "Swiss roll" heat exchangers, produced by collaborator Paul Ronney at USC.

As for applications, Haile says that the sky is literally the limit. Potential applications could include the tiny flying robots in which the defense funding agency DARPA has shown so much interest in recent years. For everyday uses, the fuel cells could also provide longer-lasting sources of power for laptop computers, television cameras, and pretty much any other device in which batteries are too heavy or too short-lived.

In addition to Haile, the other authors are Zongping Shao, a postdoctoral scholar in Haile's lab; Jeongmin Ahn and Paul D. Ronney, both of USC; and Zhongliang Zhan and Scott A. Barnett, both of Northwestern.

Robert Tindol
Exclude from News Hub: 

Autonomous Racing: Bob, Meet Alice

PASADENA, Calif. - We Went! We Raced! We Ate Barbed Wire! So stated the unabashedly honest headline on the "Team Caltech" website last year. It was lamenting how the California Institute of Technology's autonomous truck, nicknamed Bob, fared in last March's DARPA Grand Challenge desert road race.

The 142-mile race from L.A. to Las Vegas called for a vehicle that could operate with complete autonomy (no driver or remote control) and finish a course that included dirt trails and open desert in 10 hours or less. Bob completed about 1.3 miles of the course; its demise was getting tangled in barbed wire. The farthest any entry made it was 7.4 miles.

Enter Alice. It's the new driverless vehicle being built by Team Caltech 2005--a group of undergrads (more than 50 in the last nine months), graduate students, and faculty advisers--that will compete in this year's race on October 8. "We are light years ahead with Alice with respect to where we were last year at the same point with Bob," says project manager Richard Murray, a professor of control and dynamical systems. That may explain why Alice sports the license plate, "I 8 Bob."

The DARPA Grand Challenge race (DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is intended to hasten the research and development of autonomous ground vehicles that could ultimately be used to ferry supplies to the front lines or transport wounded soldiers. "The technology is also likely to have ramifications for future automobile technology, especially for helping disabled drivers," says Joel Burdick, a technical adviser and a professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering. "And it will likely have an impact on future autonomous space exploration as well."

The race is open to individuals and organizations, and has a $2 million first prize. This year's desert racecourse will be similar to last year's, but participants won't know the exact route until two hours before the race.

Bob, the 1996 Chevrolet Tahoe four-wheel-drive SUV used last year, has been replaced by a Ford E-350 van that has been customized for off-road travel by a company called Sportsmobile, based in Fresno, that specializes in building 4X4 vehicles. It is powered by a six-liter diesel engine that allows for long periods of idling at low fuel consumption. Special hardware has been mounted on the bumper and roof to hold the various sensors that serve as the vehicle's eyes during autonomous driving. Inside, the students have transformed Alice into a complete software lab that includes its brain--seven Dell servers sitting in temperature controlled and shock-resistant housing--and four seats with racing harnesses that, during testing, keep the students safe while strapping them down enough to let them type on a computer keyboard during rough off-roading.

Although they won't know officially until June, presumably Alice passed an important test on May 11, when DARPA officials made a site visit to see how the truck was progressing. (The visits are intended to whittle down the 100-plus entries to a final 40 teams that will actually race.) "This was due, no doubt, to what was approximately 100 hours of additional work the students put into Alice in the week prior," says Burdick, who notes the students can receive academic credit for two classes by working on Alice.

The visit took place in the parking lot at Santa Anita racetrack. Alice completed two runs of the course in approximately 45 seconds, avoiding all obstacles, but crunched a trashcan in its third run and made an unnecessary safety stop when it "thought" it spied an obstacle. On run four, it re-ran the first part of the course (including the obstacles from the third run) at 15 mph, then demonstrated higher driving speeds while navigating through a cluttered field of trashcans.

"We've learned some valuable lessons and have some advantages this year," says Murray. "For one thing, last year's race took place during finals week; this year they'll be over. We've learned some tricks--for example, Alice is completely street legal, so we don't have to haul it on a trailer everywhere we go, like we did with Bob. And we now have the advantage of knowing what the actual racecourse will be like, so we'll be doing a lot of testing in the desert over the summer."

While no one is going out on a limb to say Caltech will win the race ("There's a lot of good competition," says Murray), Burdick, for one, predicts that someone will complete this year's course. That is, he says, "a remarkable evolution of the technology and a testament to the hard work of all the teams."

To win the race in less than 10 hours, as the rules state, Alice will need to average a speed of 20 mph. "But we believe we will have to be able to drive at speeds of up to 50 mph for portions of the course in order to maintain that average, since some sections will be slow going," notes Murray. This, in a driverless, fully autonomous vehicle.

Exclude from News Hub: 

Five from Caltech Faculty Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

PASADENA, Calif.-Five faculty members at the California Institute of Technology are among this year's newly elected fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They join 191 other Americans and 17 foreign honorees as the 225th class of fellows of the prestigious institution that was cofounded in 1780 by John Adams.

This year's new Caltech inductees are Barry Barish, the Linde Professor of Physics and director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO); Andrew Lange, the Goldberger Professor of Physics; Barry Simon, the IBM Professor of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics; David Tirrell, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and McCollum-Corcoran Professor and professor of chemistry and chemical engineering; and William Bridges, the Braun Professor of Engineering, Emeritus.

The five from Caltech join an illustrious list of fellows, both past and present. Other inductees in the 225th class include Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Angels in America author Tony Kushner, Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, Washington Post CEO Donald Graham, and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Past fellows have included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill.

According to the academy's president, Patricia Meyer Spacks, the fellows were chosen "through a highly competitive process that recognizes individuals who have made preeminent contributions to their disciplines and to society at large."

"Throughout its history, the Academy has convened the leading thinkers of the day, from diverse perspectives, to participate in projects and studies that advance the public good," said Executive Officer Leslie Berlowitz.

The academy is an independent policy research center that focuses on complex and emerging problems such as scientific issues, global security, social policy, the humanities and culture, and education.

The new fellows and foreign honorary members will be formally recognized at the annual induction ceremony on October 8 at the academy's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Robert Tindol
Exclude from News Hub: 

Seismic experiments provide new clues to earthquake wave directionality and growth speed

PASADENA, Calif.--In recent years, seismologists thought they were getting a handle on how an earthquake tends to rupture in a preferred direction along big strike-slip faults like the San Andreas. This is important because the direction of rupture has a profound influence on the distribution of ground shaking. But a new study could undermine their confidence a bit.

Reporting in the April 29 issue of the journal Science, researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Harvard University discuss new controlled laboratory experiments using dissimilar polymer plates to mimic Earth's crusts. The results show that the direction of rupture that controls the pattern of destruction is less predictable than recently thought.

The results explain puzzling results from last year's Parkfield earthquake, in which a northwestward rupture occurred. A southeastward rupture had been predicted on the basis of the two past earthquakes in the area and on numerical simulations. Also, during the recent large earthquakes in Turkey, some ruptures have occurred in the direction opposite to what happened in the past and are thought to involve unusually high speeds along that direction.

The phenomenon has to do with the basic ways rupture fronts (generating seismic waves) are propagated along a boundary between two materials with different wave speeds--an area of research that is yielding interesting and important results in the engineering laboratory.

The reason this is important is that geophysicists, knowing the wave speeds of the materials in different tectonic plates and the stresses acting on them, could someday have an improved ability to predict which areas along a major fault might be more powerfully hit. In effect, a better fundamental knowledge of the workings of Earth's plates could lead to a better ability to prepare for major earthquakes.

In the experiment, Caltech's von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering Ares Rosakis (the director of the Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories); his cross-campus colleague, Smits Professor of Geophysics Hiroo Kanamori; Professor James Rice of Harvard University; and Caltech grad student Kaiwen Xia, prepared polymer plates to mimic the effects of major strike-slip faults. These are faults in which two plates are rammed against each other by forces coming in at an angle, and which then spontaneously snap (or slide) to move sideways.

Because such a breaking of lab materials is similar on a smaller scale to the slipping of tectonic plates, the measurement of the waves in the polymer materials provides a good indication of what happens in earthquakes.

The team fixed the plates so that force was applied to them at an acute angle relative to the "fault" between them. The researchers then set off a small plasma explosion with a wire running to the center of the two polymer plates (the "hypocenter"), which caused the two plates to quickly slide apart, just as two tectonic plates would slide apart during an earthquake.

The clear polymer plates were made of two different materials especially selected so that their stress fringes could be photographed. In other words, the waves and rupture fronts that propagate through the system due to this "laboratory earthquake event" showed up as clearly visible waves on the photographic plates.

What's more, if the rupture fronts are super-shear, i.e., faster than the shear speed in the plates, they produce a shock-wave pattern that looks something like the Mach cone of a jet fighter breaking the sound barrier.

"Previously, it was generally thought that, if there is a velocity contrast, the rupture preferentially goes toward the direction of the slip in the low-velocity medium," explains Kanamori. In other words, if the lower-velocity medium is the plate shifting to the west, then the preferred direction of rupture would typically be to the west.

"What we see, when the force is small and the angle is small, is that we simultaneously generate ruptures to the west and to the east, and that the rupture fronts in both sides go with sub-shear speed," Rosakis explains. "But as the pressure increases substantially, the westward direction stays the same, but the other, eastward direction, becomes super-shear. This super-shear rupture speed is very close to the p-wave speed of the slower of the two materials."

To complicate matters even further, the results show that, when the experiment is done at forces below those required for super-shear, the directionality of the rupture is unpredictable. Both waves are at sub-shear speed, but waves in either direction can be devastating.

This, in effect, explains why the Parkfield earthquake last year ruptured in the direction opposite to that of past events. The experiment also strongly suggests that, if the earthquake had been sufficiently large, the super-shear waves would have traveled northwest, even though the preferred direction was southeast.

But the question remains whether super-shear is necessarily a bad thing, Kanamori says. "It's scientifically an interesting result, but I can't say what the exact implications are. It's at least important to be aware of these things.

"But it could also mean that earthquake ruptures are less predictable than ever," he adds.

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631


Caltech fluid dynamics expert wins annual Feynman Award for excellence in teaching

PASADENA, Calif.-Chris Brennen has many pleasant memories of the "frosh camp" trips he used to make to Catalina Island with famed physicist Richard Feynman. As two California Institute of Technology faculty members who were particularly willing to accompany the new crop of Caltech freshmen on the annual orientation trip, Brennen and Feynman shared various interesting experiences at the rustic Camp Fox.

"I remember him sitting on the low stone wall at Camp Fox surrounded by maybe a hundred frosh," says Brennen, a professor of mechanical engineering, "all enthralled by his stories of particle physics, or lock picking, or Mayan hieroglyphics, or whatever."

Now, two decades later and 16 years after the passing of his friend, Brennen has been named winner of the annual Feynman Prize, which is Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor. The prize is given to a faculty member each year for "exceptional ability, creativity, and innovation in both laboratory and classroom instruction."

Brennen is known to the student body as an especially lucid and helpful teacher of fluid mechanics, which is a crucial field for any future engineer to master if he or she intends to work in pretty much any technical application that concerns fluid flow. The rudiments of fluid mechanics were important to the Wright brothers, and are just as important today to the designers of Mars landers-and someday, perhaps even to the designers of future Europa submarines. Brennen himself has done research on one of the components of the space shuttle's engine, and his interests generally center on the still-imperfectly understood issues of complex multiphase and multicomponent flows.

"These are a ubiquitous part of almost all existing and projected energy systems, yet our understanding of these flows is inadequate for many engineering purposes," Brennen writes on his Web site.

Brennen's research also involves acoustics, and one of the students nominating him for the Feynman Award recalls a student field trip to the Mojave Desert, where the group hiked up several miles to the top of a sand dune, then slid back down to cause the dunes to "boom."

"Professor Brennen's enthusiasm, even in hundred-degree-plus temperatures, was an inspiration," the student said in nominating him. "His scientific intuition in the field taught me a lot."

Another student applauded Brennen's "perpetual enthusiasm that kept me interested through unavoidably dry material." Yet another remarked that he'll never forget Brennen, "dressed up in a suit, riding a bike into the swimming pool at the year-end swimming party-that is, the year-end real-life experimental laboratory in fluid mechanics, where the undergrads compete in underwater bicycle racing."

As for his faculty peers, Caltech mechanical engineering professor Melany Hunt notes that Brennen "has shown us the importance of connecting with students, of encouraging their interests and their abilities, and of enjoying and appreciating student-faculty interactions.

"He has also demonstrated that it is okay to be a little crazy-such as riding a bicycle into a swimming pool-especially if it helps students to appreciate the wonder of fluid mechanics and engineering."

The bicycle stunt is a Brennen original, but is very much in keeping with the spirit and enthusiasm of the Nobel laureate for whom the award is named. Brennen says he is thrilled to be associated with Feynman through the award.

"I regard myself as being truly blessed to have lived out my career at this unique institution, to have interacted with such inspiring colleagues and to have had the privilege of teaching the best students in the world," he says.

Robert Tindol
Exclude from News Hub: 

New light-emitting device could eliminate the bottleneck that slows down electrical circuits

PASADENA, Calif.--Applied physicists at the California Institute of Technology have invented a light-emitting transistor that could potentially bypass a major bottleneck that slows down electronic circuitry. The new device could pave the way for on-chip optical interconnections that would enable the marriage of two great modern technologies--communications based on the transmission of photons, and computing with silicon-based devices that are driven by electric currents. A successful optical interconnection technology would allow information to move around inside a silicon chip at the speed of light while creating substantially less heat, leading to dramatically faster computers.

Reporting in the current issue of the journal Nature Materials, Caltech graduate student in applied physics Robb Walters and his faculty adviser, Professor Harry Atwater, describe their success in building a nanophotonic device that employs a novel method of turning an electric signal into a light pulse.

"It's been difficult to combine silicon-based integrated circuits and optical devices," says Walters, who invented the device and is the first author of the Nature Materials paper. "Our new device brings us one step closer to a silicon-based light source that may ultimately lead to the light-emitting devices needed for on-chip optical interconnections."

The device Walters has invented contains at its core a tiny spherical bead called a silicon nanocrystal that absorbs an electron and a positive-charge carrier called a "hole." Inside this nanocrystal, the electron and the hole can be combined to release energy as a photon of near-infrared light that shines out of the transparent side of the bead. In effect, this pulse of light, when launched into a waveguide, takes the place of an electrical signal traveling down a wire in a chip, increasing the speed of data transmission. The bead is literally a nanocrystal, because its diameter is only about three or four nanometers.

So tiny is the bead, in fact, that its very dimensions are responsible for the wavelength of the light emitted, due to quantum effects. The bead size can be used to "tune" the frequency of the photons, a slightly smaller bead emitting slightly higher photon energy and a larger bead, lower energy. The fact that one nanocrystal absorbs one electron and hole, and emits one photon, could also conceivably be useful for future single-photon technologies, says Atwater.

"Eventually, the photons from the nanocrystals will go to a photodetector in a complete, photonic integrated circuit," says Atwater. "The device might also be useful for visible displays. However, this is still basic research and development. We have not yet integrated the device with waveguide detection; but in principle, it will work."

The new device is different from existing silicon light-emitting diodes and other nanocrystal structures in that there is not a constant driving current required for light emission. The new approach, based on field-driven carrier injection, may be far more efficient than any existing technology.

"The current external power efficiency record for a silicon-based LED is about 1 percent," Atwater says. "We hope that our new device will allow that record to be substantially improved."

The title of the paper is "Field Effect Electroluminescence in Si Nanocrystals," and an illustration of the device is on the cover of the February issue. Copies of the paper may be obtained from Ruth Francis at

The research was cofunded by Intel and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Robert Tindol

Caltech Launches New Information Initiative

PASADENA, Calif. — Information is everywhere. Most of us think about it in terms of mere facts--facts gleaned from a teacher or a colleague, from the media, or words from a textbook or the Internet.

But there are other, near-infinite types of information--the instructions encoded in our genome that tell our cells when to divide and when to die, or the daily flow of data into the stock market that somehow motivates people to buy and sell.

Information constantly streams to scientists from around the world, and from other "worlds" as well, thanks to sensors and actuators in the sea or out in space.

What's needed is a way to harness and understand all of this data so that scientists and engineers can continue to unravel the secrets of nature and the human institutions in which we operate. In an unprecedented effort, the California Institute of Technology has launched a university-wide initiative called Information Science and Technology (IST)--drawing back the curtain on the nature of information itself and redefining the way we approach, understand, and use science and engineering. IST will cut across disciplines, eventually involving over 25 percent of all faculty and nearly 35 percent of students on campus, likely altering the Institute's intellectual and organizational landscape.

Caltech has committed to raising $100 million for IST as part of the Institute's five-year, $1.4 billion capital campaign. Nearly $50 million has been raised in the form of separate grants of $25 million from the Annenberg Foundation and $22.2 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The Annenberg Foundation gift will be used to construct the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology--a new building that will be the physical center of IST. The building will join the existing Watson and Moore laboratories in forming a core of buildings linking together IST researchers.

Funding from the Moore Foundation will provide seed money to establish four new interdisciplinary research centers within IST. These new centers will join two that already exist at Caltech, and together the six groups will anchor and organize Caltech's effort to lead the way in this new field.

IST evolved over the last 50 years from an activity that focused on enabling more efficient calculations to a major intellectual theme that spans disciplines in engineering and the sciences. While other universities created schools of computer science (or computer and information science), these are generally related to computer science and software--a limited view of information science and technology. At Caltech, IST serves as a new intellectual framework on which to build information-based research and instructional programs across the academic spectrum.

"To maintain preeminence in science, the U.S. needs new and unified ways of looking at, approaching, and exploiting information in and across the physical, biological, and social sciences, and engineering," says Jehoshua (Shuki) Bruck, the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering and the first director of IST. "Caltech is taking a leadership role by creating an Institute-wide initiative in the science and engineering of information. IST will transform the research and educational environment at Caltech and other universities around the world."

In the same way that the printing press heralded the start of the Renaissance, and the study of physics helped to foster the Industrial Revolution, technological advances in computation and communication in the 20th century have set the stage for the Age of Information. Yet, scientific and technological changes are accelerating so fast they are outpacing existing institutions such as schools, media, industry, and government--structures originally designed for the needs of the Industrial Age. "So we need a new intellectual framework to harness these new advances," says Bruck, "in order to provide for a stable and well-educated society that's prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow."

"Some say biology is the science of the 21st century, but information science will provide the unity to all of the sciences," says Caltech president and Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore. "It will be like the physics of the 20th century in which Einstein went beyond the teachings of Newton--which were enough to put people on the moon--and allowed people's minds to reach into the atom or out into the cosmos. Information science, the understanding of what constitutes information, how it is transmitted, encoded, and retrieved, is in the throes of a revolution whose societal repercussions will be enormous. The new Albert Einstein has yet to emerge, but the time is ripe."

Annenberg Foundation Gift The Annenberg gift is the first portion of a $100 million institutional commitment to IST, and is part of the Institute's capital campaign. Now in the design stage, the Annenberg Center is expected to be completed when the campaign ends in 2007.

"I am delighted that the Annenberg Foundation will be a part of this visionary enterprise," said Leonore Annenberg, foundation president and chairman. "As a publisher, broadcaster, diplomat, and philanthropist, Walter Annenberg was known for breaking new ground. Support for this important new initiative surely would have pleased him as much as it honors the work of the foundation."

Founded in 1989 by Walter H. Annenberg, the Annenberg Foundation exists to advance the public well-being through improved communication. As the principal means of achieving its goal, the foundation encourages the development of more effective ways to share ideas and knowledge.

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Gift The Moore Foundation gift is part of a $300 million commitment the foundation made to Caltech in 2001.

The four centers funded by the Moore grant are the following: the Center for Biological Circuit Design, which will address how living things store, process, and share information; the Social and Information Sciences Center, which will investigate how social systems, such as markets, political processes, and organizations, efficiently process immense amounts of information and how this understanding can help to improve society; the Center for the Physics of Information, which will examine the physical qualities of information and will design the computers and materials for the next generation of information technology; and the Center for the Mathematics of Information, which will formulate a common understanding and language of information that unifies researchers from different fields.

The Moore Foundation seeks to develop outcome-based projects that will improve the quality of life for future generations. It organizes the majority of its grant-making around large-scale initiatives that concentrate on: environmental conservation, science, higher education, and the San Francisco Bay Area. 


Fuel Cells: the Next Generation

PASADENA, Calif. — For several years now the Department of Energy (DOE) has been urging the fuel cell community to solve a major problem in the design of solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs): heat. Such fuel cells could someday provide reliable power for homes and industry, dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions as well as other pollutants.

But SOFCs run hot, at temperatures as high as 1000 degrees Celsius (about 1800 degrees Fahrenheit). They're efficient at such temperatures, but only a few costly materials can withstand the heat. Using such materials makes things expensive, and is the reason for the push for lower temperatures by the DOE.

Sossina Haile, an associate professor of materials science and chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, is an expert in fuel cells, and she has been whittling away at the heat problem for years. Now she and her colleagues have not only solved the problem, they've smashed it. They've brought the temperature down to about 600 degrees Celsius (1100 degrees Fahrenheit), while achieving more power output than others are achieving at the higher temperatures--about 1 watt per square centimeter of fuel cell area.

They accomplished this by changing the chemical composition of one component of a fuel cell called the cathode. The cathode is where air is fed in to the fuel cell, and it's where the oxygen is electrochemically reduced to oxygen ions. The oxygen ions then migrate across the electrolyte (which conducts electricity), to react with fuel at the anode, another fuel cell component. The electrochemical reduction of oxygen is an essential step in the fuel cell's process of generating power. But the problem with running solid oxide fuel cells at 500 to 700 degrees Celsius is that the cathode becomes inactive when the temperature is less than about 800 degrees Celsius.

Haile and postdoctoral scholar Zongping Shao's insight was to switch out the conventional cathode and replace it with a compound that has a long chemical formula guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of every undergraduate, but is abbreviated as "BSCF" for short.

What BSCF can do that standard cathodes can't is to allow the oxygen to diffuse through it very rapidly. "In conventional cathodes, the oxygen diffuses slowly, so that even if the electrochemical reaction is fast, the oxygen ions are slow in getting to the electrolyte," says Haile. "In BSCF the electrochemical reaction is fast and the oxygen ion transport is fast. You have the best combination of properties." This combination is what gives the very high power outputs from Haile's fuel cells.

The work was reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature. Because they are using relatively conventional anodes and electrolytes with this new cathode, says Haile, it would be easy to switch out cathodes in existing fuel cells. That will probably be their next step, says Haile: to partner with a company to produce the next generation of solid-oxide fuel cells.

Exclude from News Hub: 

National Institutes of Health Name Phillips, Quake as Director's Pioneer Award Winners

PASADENA, Calif.—The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that California Institute of Technology mechanical engineering and applied physics professor Rob Phillips is one of nine recipients of the first annual Director's Pioneer Award. Stephen Quake, the Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Applied Physics and Physics at Caltech, currently at Stanford University, is also among this year's recipients.

The Director's Pioneer Award will provide Phillips with $2.5 million in funding for the next five years as part of the NIH's new "Roadmap for Medical Research" program. Phillips, an authority on the nanoscale mechanics of biological systems, says he will use the funding to enter into novel research areas.

"The NIH Director's Pioneer Award is both a huge honor and a privilege for which I am tremendously grateful," Phillips says. "Quite frankly, this award is going to completely transform my scientific life and will permit me to pursue some questions about the dynamics of complex systems such as cells that have been gnawing at me since I was a teenager.

"My background is of someone who builds mathematical models of these kinds of systems," he adds. "As a result of this award, we can now design and build experiments aimed at concretely exploring the extent to which our models are correct.

"In the short run, this overall vision will be played out in the context of a few key case studies, including how viruses manage the physical requirements of packing and releasing their genomes, how macromolecules conspire to decide when genes are turned on and off, and how cells respond to mechanical forces." A graduate of Washington University, Phillips has worked recently on DNA injection and packing that occur during the life cycles of bacterial viruses, as well as on how certain classes of ion channels are gated by mechanical forces. He is the author of a book titled Crystals, Defects and Microstructures that is based on his extensive work in modeling materials and which served as his jumping-off point for modeling living materials.

According to a statement from the NIH, the Director's Pioneer Award is intended to provide substantial support for researchers "willing and able to explore ideas that were considered risky at their inception.

"Such individuals are more likely to take such risks when they are assured of adequate funds for a sufficient period of time, and with the freedom to set their own research agenda," the statement continued. "Many of the new opportunities for [biomedical] research involve crossing traditional disciplinary lines and bringing forward different conceptual frameworks as well as methodologies. These developments appear to justify support for more aggressive risk-taking and innovation."

The nine recipients were formally announced at 9 a.m. PDT Wednesday by NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. During a telebriefing, Zerhouni and the Pioneer Award program cochairs, Stephen E. Straus, M.D., and Ellie Ehrenfeld, Ph.D., will discuss the selection process and the areas of research the awardees will explore.



Subscribe to RSS - EAS