Inventing the Future
Studying ‘Hunters and Busybodies,’ Penn and American University Researchers Measure Different Types of Curiosity
An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Penn Engineering’s Dani Bassett, measured the elusive concept of curiosity through a study involving Wikipedia searches. Study participants were asked to browse Wikipedia for 15 minutes per day for three weeks and networks representing their search history were recorded as they browsed. Networks were created where nodes represented specific topics they searched and the lengths of the paths between nodes were determined by how similar the topics were to each other. The study of the network patterns showed that two dominant types of curiosity were present: the hunter and the busybody. The hunter pattern had shorter paths between nodes and topics all centered around a given theme while the busybody’s search was more sporadic with longer paths and less connection between the nodes. The researchers suggest that there are many ways we practice curiosity and mapping these practices in networks can help people understand that curiosity is on a spectrum, not a trait that you either have or do not have.
Penn Engineering’s Latest ‘Organ-On-a-Chip’ is a New Way to Study Cancer-related Muscle Wasting
Dan Huh’s research on the “organ-on-a-chip” technology has produced three Penn-developed organs, the eye-on-a-chip, the lung-on-a-chip, and the placenta-on-a-chip. Now, he adds to the collection with the fourth: the muscle-on-a-chip. The anisotropic, or non-uniform, design of the muscle cell structure is what allows the chip to function as similarly to real muscle tissue as possible. Muscle cell structure in the body is formed by the anchor points which attach the cells to bone or ligaments, and the contraction and stretching of the muscle shapes its growth and tensile strength. The chip technology allows researchers to then test drugs and vitamins to examine how the body will respond in a realistic and low-risk approach. Huh won the Lush Prize in 2018 which is awarded to researchers who aim to reduce animal testing in medicine, cosmetics, and biological studies.
Penn Engineering’s Artificial Chromatophores Enable Surfaces with Squid-like Active Camouflage
Shu Yang’s research has recently been inspired by the iridescent and color changing cells called chromatophores in animals such as squid and butterflies. Yang and colleagues have developed an artificial chromatophore that can change colors from infrared to ultraviolet on command. The technology involves thin, flexible membranes made from a polymer network of liquid crystals arranged in helical shapes. The key to the color changing ability lies in the physical structure of the liquid crystals. Inflation and deflation of the membranes over top these crystals change the way light reflects off the surface. The deformation of the membranes only requires a small amount of pressure, as light as a touch, allowing them to be arranged like pixels in an LCD screen. Additionally, the liquid crystals have their own reflective properties and thus do not need a backlight or power source to create color. This technology can be used across applications such as digital displays, sensors, camouflage and robotics.
Penn Engineers Create Faster and Cheaper COVID-19 Testing With Pencil Lead
Of the many ways to control the spread of COVID-19, one of the most fundamental is accessible testing. Current tests are limited by their cost of production and the time it takes to analyze a sample and return results to the patient. Cesar de la Fuente and colleagues have been working on innovative ways to develop faster testing. While their previous research highlights the invention of RAPID (Real-time Accurate Portable Impedimetric Detection prototype 1.0), a COVID-19 testing kit which uses screen-printed electrodes, this new research presents LEAD (Low-cost Electrochemical Advanced Diagnostic), using the same concept as RAPID but with less expensive materials. Electrodes made of graphite, the same material found in pencils, are prepared with a variety of chemicals in a specific yet simple protocol before a patient’s sample is introduced to the tube containing the electrodes. The sample interacts with the electrodes and, if present, COVID-19 spike proteins bind to the electrodes. The electrodes are then connected to a computer or smart phone, and an electrochemical signal is produced in under ten minutes that will visually show whether the patient is negative or positive. The entire test kit costs $1.50, takes less than three hours to prepare and 6.5 minutes to diagnose.
No Dead Ends: New Material Makes for a Promising Fuel Cell Electrolyte
Fuel cells can turn clean, abundant hydrogen into large amounts of electrical power — enough for a vehicle or to serve as emergency reserves for a house — without producing carbon emissions. Fuel cells contain an electrolyte which allows electrical charge to flow from electrodes, however, current fuel cells use fluorine in this electrolyte which is expensive and not eco-friendly. Karen Winey’s lab is working on developing an electrolyte that uses a solid polymer that removes the need for fluorine chemistry due to its physical structure. Polymers, or chains of proteins, have complexity in their structure similar to puzzle pieces. Winey and colleagues worked to synthesize a polymer that would align together, fitting perfectly shaped puzzle pieces together to allow electrons in the fuel cells to flow freely without being impeded by dead ends. After designing this new solid-state polymer electrolyte, the team’s next steps are to improve the mechanical toughness of the polymer and evaluate the electrochemical stability of this fluorine-free polymer electrolyte.
Even Without a Brain, Penn Engineering’s Metal-eating Robots Can Search for Food
When it comes to powering mobile robots, batteries present a problematic paradox: the more energy they contain, the more they weigh, and thus the more energy the robot needs to move. James Pikul’s research group has been working on solving this issue with a new design that obtains energy through metal. Their environmentally controlled voltage source, or ECVS, works like a battery, in that the energy is produced by repeatedly breaking and forming chemical bonds, but it escapes the weight paradox by finding those chemical bonds in the robot’s environment. While in contact with a metal surface, an ECVS unit catalyzes an oxidation reaction with the surrounding air, powering the robot with the freed electrons. Inspired by animal foraging behavior, the design was tested by placing the robot on aluminum surfaces capable of powering its ECVS units. By adding “hazards” that would prevent the robot from making contact with the metal, they showed how ECVS units could both get the robot moving and navigate it toward more energy-rich sources.
MSE Seminar: “Data-driven materials design in the quantum regime: motif-centric learning framework and local-symmetry-guided material discovery”
Fall 2021 GRASP Seminar: Gregory S. Chirikjian, “Robot Imagination: Affordance-Based Reasoning about Unknown Objects”
GRASP on Robotics: “Toward Object Manipulation Without Explicit Models”
In Memoriam: Dr. Nabil Farhat, 1933-2020
Penn Engineering mourns the death of our colleague Dr. Nabil Farhat, who died on November 3, 2020. The Penn Engineering community has lost a brilliant teacher, mentor, researcher and friend.
Penn Engineering COVID-19 Impact
Penn Engineering has created a page to host information for students, faculty and staff related to the School's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In Memoriam: Noah Prywes, 1925-2020
Penn Engineering mourns the death of Professor Emeritus Noah S. Prywes, pioneering researcher in the field of computer science and accomplished teacher and mentor, who passed away on September 21, 2020.