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ASU set to play leading role in planning future of nation’s transportation systems

Arizona State University researchers are poised to help boost innovation in the planning and design of future enhancements to the nation’s transportation systems.

ASU has been named the lead institution for a new U.S. Department of Transportation Tier 1 University Transportation Center that will focus on improving regional travel demand forecasting.

A new ASU research center will work to aid U.S. Department of Transportation efforts to improve how the nation’s local and regional transportation systems serve their communities. Photo: Shutterstock
A new ASU research center will work to aid U.S. Department of Transportation efforts to improve how the nation’s local and regional transportation systems serve their communities. Photo: Shutterstock

The center’s work will be part of a larger U.S. DOT program to develop new systems and technologies that provide better surface transportation mobility and accessibility across the country.

The new center, called the Center for Teaching Old Models New Tricks — or TOMNET for short — puts ASU in charge of a consortium that includes researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Washington and the University of South Florida.

It’s one of 20 Tier 1 centers recently awarded to universities around the country — selected from more than 200 proposals — and the first and only one to be led by an Arizona university since the inception of the University Transportation Centers program two decades ago. The new awards provide each of the Tier 1 centers $7 million over five years.

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Interdisciplinary approach to food-energy-water nexus

An interdisciplinary team from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, School of Community Resources and Development and School of Sustainability are collaborating to create a set of tools to help decision makers sustainably address the future of food, energy and water system policy in the Phoenix metropolitan area and beyond. From left to right: Giuseppe Mascaro, Dave White, Hessam Sarjoughian, Rimjhim Aggarwal and Ross Maciejewski.
An interdisciplinary team from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, School of Community Resources and Development and School of Sustainability are collaborating to create a set of tools to help decision makers sustainably address the future of food, energy and water system policy in the Phoenix metropolitan area and beyond. Photographer: Pete Zrioka/ASU

Here in the desert, water is a big concern. For the average person living in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the prospect of future water shortages makes us think about fixing that dripping faucet, buying high-efficiency washing machines and xeriscaping our green lawns — things we can do as individuals to conserve water.

But to really understand our future as desert dwellers and create the appropriate policies for future generations, it’s necessary to look how water affects and is affected by other crucial resources we depend on: food and energy.

Five Arizona State University faculty members from a range of disciplines recently received a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation award. As part of the NSF’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program, the team conducts research to build decision support tools that look at the interdependence of these systems and help develop sustainable policies for the future.

Historically, policies for agriculture, energy and water have been made in isolation of one another. In reality, these systems are all interconnected. This interplay is called the food-energy-water nexus.

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Fulton Schools takes in lion’s share of solar research funding from DOE

New solar research projects at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering will receive $3.75 million in funding the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative announced today. The home of the Engineering Research Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, Arizona State University garnered five of 19 awards, more than any other institution receiving funding. The awards amount to nearly 20 percent of the funds allocated, each with the potential to dramatically reduce solar energy costs.

The SunShot Initiative’s photovoltaics program, which is the focus of the current round of funding, supports research and development projects that lower manufacturing costs, increase efficiency and performance, and improve reliability of PV technologies in order to support widespread deployment of electricity produced directly from sunlight. The PV portfolio includes research directed toward the SunShot Initiative goals as well as critical challenges beyond 2020.

Stacking yields broader solar harvest, reduces costs

Postdoctoral researcher Mathieu Boccard, front, and electrical engineering Assistant Professor Zach Holman work on solar cells in Holman's lab. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU
Postdoctoral researcher Mathieu Boccard, front, and electrical engineering Assistant Professor Zach Holman work on solar cells in Holman’s lab. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

In May, a unique collaboration between researchers led by electrical engineering Professor Yong-Hang Zhang and Assistant Professor Zachary Holman wedded two previously disparate solar cell technologies, taking another step toward lower-cost and widely accessible solar power.

The results of their partnership not only broke an efficiency record by a large margin for monocrystalline cadmium telluride cells, but more importantly, also achieved the highest open-circuit voltage ever recorded for a cell of its type.

Now with a new $400,000 award, the partnership between the two research groups will continue, investigating the fabrication of high-efficiency, “stacked” photovoltaic cells, which comprise of two different types of cells. The pair is also collaborating with Wyatt Metzger, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

“The long-term aim of this project is to stack two different solar cells on top of one another, one of which is efficient at converting visible light into electricity and one of which is efficient at converting infrared light into electricity,” explains Holman. “We call this a tandem solar cell.”

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ASU receives U.S. Department of Energy award for algae biofuel research

An Arizona State University research team will seek to significantly increase yields of algal biomass feedstock to ramp up production of biofuels as part of a multi-university project supported by a recently awarded $2 million grant from the Bioenergy Technologies Office in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Peter Lammers
Peter Lammers

Peter Lammers, a research professor with Arizona Center for Algal Technology and Innovation, leads the team that will share funding from the grant with collaborators at New Mexico State University, Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. AzCATI, which serves the algae industry and research community alike as a national testbed for research and commercialization of algae-based products ranging from biofuels to pharmaceuticals, is embedded within the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Researchers will evaluate mixotrophic metabolism in algae that consume both carbon dioxide and waste sugars derived from plant cellulose. They’ll use a heat-tolerant algae strain isolated from Yellowstone National Park that is perfectly adapted to growth in closed bioreactors that reduce evaporative water loss — which is critical for deployment of the technology in the arid southwestern United States.

Researchers see potential for multiplying algal production rates by five times over current rates. That achievement would significantly reduce the cost of enclosed algal cultivation systems and boost production particularly in in the southwestern United States.

Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown
Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown

Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Fulton Schools, will utilize her expertise and the facilities at ASU’s Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology to identify all microbes that are able to grow in the production system and describe the full suite of metabolic reactions occurring in the mixotrophic, waste-to-energy process.

Algal feedstock production platforms specifically designed for scale-up on land with limited water resources remain a big gap in the Bioenergy Technologies Office algae research and development portfolio

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Can 50% of the power grid come from renewables? Better forecasting, management is key.

Renewable energy is becoming increasingly cost competitive in comparison to traditional fossil fuel generation. So why is its impact on the power grid limited?

The fact is, renewable energy sources are inherently variable and uncertain. The wind blows, and then it stops. The sun shines, and then a cloud comes.

Fossil fuel generators are spared this fluctuation, so the ebbs and flows of renewable generation must be managed differently to remain effective within the power grid.

Professors Junshan Zhang, Kory Hedman, Vijay Vittal and Anna Scaglione are utilizing a $3 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to accelerate technological advancements that improve the coordination between renewables and other resources within the power grid.

The research team, all faculty members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is collaborating with Sandia National Laboratories, Nexant Inc. and PJM Interconnection.

What is their guiding philosophy?

You can’t stop the clouds from coming, but you can improve the design of the power grid so that it is better equipped to manage renewable energy and offset the use of fossil fuels.

“It goes against the purpose of integrating clean, renewable resources in the power grid if their fluctuations in power generation must be compensated for by excessive ramping of fossil fuel units,” says Hedman.

“To depend more on the electric power coming from renewable sources, rather than fossil fuel generators, we will need to change how the power grid works,” says Scaglione.

The research team includes professors (from left to right) Junshan Zhang, Anna Scaglione, Vijay Vittal and Kory Hedman.
The research team includes professors (from left to right) Junshan Zhang, Anna Scaglione, Vijay Vittal and Kory Hedman.

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Doctoral student combines biomedical and industrial engineering to develop better brain diagnostics

Research opportunities, industry partnerships and world-class faculty provide Fulton Schools industrial engineering graduate researcher associate Nathan Gaw with the best tools to conduct high-impact brain data analysis research.

Nathan Gaw
Photographer: Nick Narducci/ASU

Nathan Gaw is currently an industrial engineering doctoral student. He previously earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering from Arizona State University. 

A plane ride, a magazine and a curious mind led Nathan Gaw to engineering.

Before a flight from Arizona to Chicago, Gaw picked up a National Geographic magazine that had a feature on neuroprosthetics. He read it once, then again and kept re-reading it until the plane landed.

“It was about using engineering to help translate really complicated signals from the brain, which I believe is the last frontier of the human body,” Gaw said. “I was fascinated by how you can use technology and engineering to translate the brain’s complex signals.”

This moment was more influential to Gaw’s decision to pursue engineering than his general interest in math and science and growing up with a father in engineering. Before the pivotal trip he hesitated to pursue engineering because it felt like the obvious choice, but after learning what engineering could lead to — something clicked.

When college acceptance letters started coming in, it wasn’t difficult for Gaw to choose Arizona State University. Though he was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, among other good options, Gaw thought ASU provided the best opportunity for research as well as academics.

“I could have studied really hard at UPenn and never gotten my hands very wet with research, but ASU gives you more room to get involved in research and actually apply what you’re learning on top of rigorous academics,” Gaw said.

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How bacteria can produce electricity, treat wastewater

Chemical engineer César Torres leads the Torres Lab where students aid his research efforts to understand the diverse applications of microbial fuel cells. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Chemical engineer César Torres leads the Torres Lab where students aid his research efforts to understand the diverse applications of microbial fuel cells. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU[/caption]

What if the bacteria found in wastewater could power the water’s own purification system?

Chemical engineering professor César Torres is exploring this possibility through research in microbial fuel cells (MFCs), supported in large part by a $1,900,000 grant from the Department of Defense.

An MFC is a bio-electrochemical device that converts the power of respiring microorganisms into electrical energy.

Specifically, MFCs contain anode-respiring bacteria (ARB) that can produce electricity when electrons from wastewater organics are transferred to an anode.

“In this system organic compounds can be removed from water, while electrical current is simultaneously produced,” said Torres, who earned his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from ASU in 2009.

The electrical current in MFCs is used to produce hydrogen peroxide — a powerful oxidant that can then be reused to treat and disinfect wastewater.

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Exploring new frontiers in human-robot collaborations

human robot collaboration Methods developed in Ben Amor’s lab allow robot assistants to anticipate the actions of human co-workers and help whenever needed. Photo provided by ASU’s Interactive Robotics Lab.[/caption]

Imagine an assembly robot that collaborates with a human to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture. The robot would need to analyze the movements of the human to avoid potentially hazardous collisions.

Heni Ben Amor is trying to help robots better understand and respond to human behavior. The assembly robot may learn that it must hand over a screwdriver whenever a human is stretching out an arm.

Ben Amor, an assistant professor computer science and engineering in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is working to make advances in human-robot collaboration and on identifying the importance of such collaborations.

Heni Ben Amor

Heni Ben Amor

“I develop new methods that allow a robot to work in close proximity with human partners,” he said. “To ensure safe interaction, autonomous robots need to include movements and actions of human partners into their decision-making process.”

There is a widespread misconception that robots will replace humans in all workplaces, Ben Amor said. While it is true that robots can perform mundane, repetitive tasks better than humans, there are still a many tasks at which humans are way better than robots.

He believes in a combination of robotic strength and speed on one side, and human decision-making, creativity and dexterity on the other side of a symbiotic relationship between robot and human.

“A fascinating aspect of working with robots is discovering how challenging even presumably simple tasks can be for a machine,” he said. “For humans, opening a fridge is not a particularly difficult thing to do. For robots however, this can be a daunting challenge.”

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Top externally funded research awards

Between July 2016–January 2017

Nicholas Colaneri
$2,832,985
ASU-Army Flexible Display Initiative Center: Transitionin Flexible Detectors from the Prototype Stage into Low Volume Manufacturing
Department of Defense: Army Research Office

Sayfe Kiaei
$3,864,775
U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCASE)
U.S. Agency for International Development

Christiana Honsberg
$1,680,000
NSF Engineering Research Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies: QESST
NSF-ENG: Division of Engineering Education Centers

Armando Rodriguez
$3,997,534
Collaborative Research: Academic Success and Professional Development Project-Based Engineering Excellence Transfer Academy Across Arizona
NSF-EHR: Division of Undergraduate Education

James Adams
$1,293,794
Treating Gastrointestinal and Autism Symptoms in Adults with Autism Using Microbiota Transfer Therapy
DOD-ARMY: Army Med Research Acquisition Activity

Antonio Garcia
$1,075,000
Bridge to Doctorate: WAESO LAMP Self Efficacy and Academic Community for Underrepresented Minority Student Success
NSF: Directorate for Education Human Resources

Kurt VanLehn
$1,009,724
DIP: Graphical model construction by system decomposition: Increasing the utility of algebra story problem solving
NSF-CISE: Division of Information Intelligent Systems

Ross Maciejewski
$1,799,266
INFEWST2: Flexible Model Compositions and Visual Representations for Planning and Policy Decisions at the Sub-regional level of the food-energy-water
NSF: Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering

Junshan Zhang
$2,460,000
Stochastic Optimal Power Flow for Real-Time Management of Distributed Renewable Generation and Demand Response
DOE: Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy