17 innovations of 2017

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On December 19, 2017

A cotton candy-like glass fiber that speeds healing of open wounds. Lightweight materials that retain their shape after being twisted or bent. Insights into work-life balance — from the industrious ant. How gaming can help you get a good job. These are among the many notable innovations and discoveries made by Missouri University of Science and Technology professors and students in 2017. Here are 17 that were publicized during the year – but are well worth talking about again. (You can read about many more innovations in the research section of our news site.)


1.) Not so bent out of shape

A time-lapse photo of a polyurethane aerogel flexing from a closed position back to its original straight shape. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T

You can bend, fold or twist this material, and it will bounce back to its original shape. Polyurethane aerogels developed by researchers led by Dr. Nicholas Leventis, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of chemistry, have a rubber-like elasticity that allows them to “remember” their shape. While shape-memory alloys and polymers have been around for years, Leventis’ shape-memory aerogels are new and “represent the last frontier in lightweight” materials. They hold promise for biomimetic applications, such as prosthetic hands that can grasp and release objects. The team’s research was published in the May 2, 2017, issue of Chemistry of Materials.


2.) Laser printing with nanoparticles

Dr. Heng Pan is conducting research into dissolving bioresorbable electronics. Jesse Cureton / Missouri S&T

Electronic devices that can not only be implanted in the human body but also completely dissolve on their own – known as “bioresorbable” electronics – are envisioned by many as one of medical technology’s next frontiers. A 2017 Missouri S&T study published in the journal Advanced Materials suggests that a laser printing technique using nanoparticles could help unlock a more cost-effective approach to building sturdier and safer components. The research describes a process to print tiny electronic components by using lasers to process print-ready zinc nanoparticles. The journal’s authors include Dr. Heng Pan, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Missouri S&T, and Dr. Xian Huang, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tianjin University in China.


3.) Even ants need time off

Missouri S&T research show that even ants need work-life balance.

The humble ant, long seen as the workaholic of the insect world, may not be as industrious as Aesop’s famous fable has led us to believe. Research by Dr. Chen Hou, assistant professor of biological sciences, finds that the long-term health of an ant colony depends on some work-life balance to best conserve food, energy and resources. And the larger the colony, the more important this balance becomes. “We found that this is because in large colonies, there are relatively more ‘lazy workers,’ who don’t move around, and therefore don’t consume energy,” Hou says. “We found that the portion of inactive members of a group increases in a regular pattern with the group size.”


4.) New help for hard-to-heal wounds

The bioactive glass product Mirragen is used for medical dressings. Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T

A new glass-based medical product, developed in Missouri S&T labs, hit the marketplace in 2017 and offers diabetics and others a way to speed healing of open wounds. Dr. Steve Jung laid the groundwork for the Mirragen Advanced Wound Matrix while earning a master’s degree in ceramic engineering and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at S&T. Jung is now chief technology officer at Mo-Sci Corp., a Rolla specialty glass manufacturer that continued the product’s development in collaboration with ETS Wound Care, also of Rolla. Mo-Sci was founded by Dr. Delbert Day, Curators’ Distinguished Professor emeritus of ceramic engineering.


5.) It takes a smart village

Missouri S&T researchers are studying how residents of smart homes interact with the technology that surrounds them.

The smart city of the future could start with a village — Missouri S&T’s Solar Village. Students who live in the Solar Village and EcoVillage — small neighborhoods of sun-powered homes designed and built by S&T students — are taking part in a three-year study on how humans interact with smart appliances and smart energy-management systems. Dr. Denise Baker, assistant professor of psychological science, and her colleagues received a three-year, $800,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, funded as part of the National Science Foundation’s Cyber-Physical System initiative. The researchers will use the data they collect from Solar Village residents, as well as from a massive online survey of city dwellers across the country, to investigate the interactions between humans and smart technologies.


6.) Probiotics: Good for trees, too

Trees growing on the Silicon Valley test site in northern California at the start of their third season. The second and fourth trees (from left) have been given microbes and are growing faster than the poplars with no microbes (first and third trees, from left). Michael Blaylock/Edenspace Systems Corporation

Probiotics – or natural microbes – are believed to boost the human immune system and provide other health benefits. Research by Missouri S&T and the University of Washington indicates that certain types of probiotics can also help remove pollutants from groundwater. The University of Washington researchers work with Dr. Joel Burken, Curators’ Distinguished Professor and chair of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, to test the poplar trees fortified with a probiotic to clean up groundwater at a Superfund site. The results were published in July in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.


7.) Dedicated followers of fashnology

Missouri S&T researchers found that certain factors influence the adoption of wearable devices.

From smart watches to fitness trackers, wearable technology has grown in popularity in recent years. But why do consumers prefer one wearable gadget over another? In a word, “fashnology,” say Missouri S&T researchers in an August 2017 study. Wearables “are both fashion accessories as well as functional technology,’ says Dr. Fiona Fui-Hoon Nah, a professor of business and information technology at Missouri S&T and one of the study’s co-authors. “The findings suggest that wearable technology needs to be designed with fashion, aesthetics, and the look and feel in mind.”


8.) Game on

Elizabeth Short, a graduate student in industrial/organizational psychology, poses in front of her World of Warcraft character. Sam O'Keefe/Missouri S&T

Elizabeth Short, a graduate student in industrial/organizational psychology, poses in front of her World of Warcraft character. Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T

Since the days of the earliest arcade video games of the mid-1970s, parents have admonished their slacker children to put down the joystick and get a job. But according to research by Elizabeth Short, a graduate student in industrial-organizational psychology, a role-playing game like World of Warcraft can actually prepare gamers for the world of work. Short is part of a research team led by Dr. Nathan Wiedner, assistant professor of psychological science. The team found that WOW gamers who were successful working as a team in “raids” had qualities that psychological studies have shown to translate to success on virtual workplace teams.


9.) Fake news, circa 1738

Top of the front page of the Sept. 28, 1738, issue of the Boston News-Letter, which carried a false news story about a supposed Native American uprising on Nantucket Island.

We heard a lot about “fake news” during the past election cycle and beyond, but as research by Dr. Justin Pope, assistant professor of history and political science, shows us, false reporting is nothing new. In a research paper published last summer, Pope discusses how a widely circulated 18th-century newspaper account of a Native American uprising against British settlers on the New England island of Nantucket – a report that turned out to be false – offers important lessons for historians today. Colonial America was fertile ground for sensationalized news reports, and New England in particular was teeming with newspapers that had an intense interest in sharing stories of slave unrest in the Americas, Pope writes. That, along with British colonists’ fears of Native Americans and a growing appetite in England for what one British newspaper called the “furious itch of Novelty,” created conditions favorable for the bogus news report.


10.) A golden discovery for wearables

An example of a gold foil peeled from single crystal silicon. Reprinted with permission from Naveen Mahenderkar et al., Science [355]:[1203] (2017)

An example of a gold foil peeled from single crystal silicon. Reprinted with permission from Naveen Mahenderkar et al., Science [355]:[1203] (2017)

Some day, your smartphone might completely conform to your wrist, and when it does, it might be covered in pure gold, thanks to researchers at Missouri S&T. A team led by Dr. Jay A. Switzer, Donald L. Castleman/FCR Endowed Professor of Discovery in Chemistry, reported last March in the journal Science that they had developed a way to “grow” thin layers of gold on single crystal wafers of silicon, remove the gold foils, and use them as substrates on which to grow other electronic materials. The team’s discovery could revolutionize wearable or flexible technology research, greatly improving the versatility of such electronics in the future.


11.) Unraveling the mysteries of mass extinction

Dr. Wan Yang shows his research student Ziyue Ju how to properly label and cut rock samples for analysis. Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T

Missouri S&T geologist Dr. Wan Yang has devoted his academic career to unlocking the mysteries of the Permian mass extinction more than 250 million years ago. That geological odyssey now finds him leading an 11-institution consortium that’s been collectively awarded a $2.1 million National Science Foundation research grant. The research team will document the detailed evolution of land animals and plants before, during and after the extinction event and analyze evidence of ancient climatic, atmospheric, environmental, tectonic and other ecosystem changes to find the causes, timing and pace of the extinction and ensuing recovery.


12.) Calling citizen scientists

The Water Citizen Science project (WatCitSci) could empower individuals to rapidly share news of flooding or other water issues. (Image from 2017 flooding in Houston, Texas.)

Picture teams of smartphone-toting citizen scientists, poised to collect water samples and test for contaminants thanks to a user-friendly app that can crowdsource rapid responders to mobilize the next time a public water system is at risk. Researchers from Missouri S&T and the University of South Florida are tapping National Science Foundation seed money set aside for “potentially transformative research” to advance the technology and hone the social mobilization efforts needed to summon trained, trusted teams of everyday water watchers. The Water Citizen Science project builds on a 2015 effort by the White House and federal agencies to promote private-sector development of low-cost nutrient sensors that could be deployed in cell phones.


13.) Closing the science communication gap

Dr. Kathryn Northcut leads a discussion in ethics with her Theory and Practice of Technical Communication class. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T

Communicating scientific and technical topics to a lay audience can be challenging. A new book co-edited by Dr. Kathyrn Northcut should help future students learn to cut through scientific clutter and jargon. Scientific Communication: Practices, Theories, and Pedagogies presents case studies from experts in technical and science communication to make students and instructors more aware of the various types of science writing. “It’s writing about science topics in a few different ways for a few different audiences,” says Northcut, a professor English and technical communication and co-director of technical communication programs at Missouri S&T.


14.) Boosting energy storage

Dr. Fatih Dogan’s capacitor incorporates nanoparticles made of titanium dioxide. This transmission electron microscopy image shows the grain boundary of nanostructured titanium oxide and the atomic planes of two adjacent crystalline grains. Image via Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

One of the latest innovations to come from Missouri S&T’s labs is a multi-layer ceramic capacitor that could help boost energy storage in applications ranging from pulse power devices to military hardware. Dr. Fatih Dogan, a professor of ceramic engineering, has received a federal patent for the device. Dogan has spent decades exploring the interaction between ceramic science and energy storage in capacitors. The technology has been licensed exclusively to Presidio Components Inc., a southern California manufacturer of ceramic capacitors for the military and space industry.


15.) At the atomic level, an unusual shift

Dr. Michael Schulz’s research involved comparisons of the interference pattern in an optical double-slit experiment (left) with the scattered projectile diffraction pattern in collisions with molecular hydrogen (right), where the two atomic centers act like a double slit. Image via SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University.

In an August 2017 article published in the American Physical Society journal Physical Review Letters, researchers reported observing unexpected instantaneous phase shifts during atomic scattering. The observation adds a new angle to ongoing studies into the “few-body problem” in physics, which emerges with three or more interacting particles. “When we studied two-center interference patterns occurring in the reaction probabilities for proton-hydrogen collisions, we identified that there were unexpected shifts in the interference fluctuations,” says Dr. Michael Schulz, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of physics at Missouri S&T and one of the principal investigators. “That means that, apart from the electronic symmetry in the hydrogen molecule which can explain such a phase shift in other systems, there appear to be other causes that can lead to a phase shift in the interference term.”


16.) A high-tech answer to border security

An early prototype of the automated screening kiosk.

An early prototype of the automated screening kiosk.

An automated screening kiosk developed by Dr. Nathan Twyman could alleviate concerns about safety and wait time at U.S. airports and border crossings. Twyman’s screening kiosk uses an algorithm of “yes” or “no” questions delivered by a computer-generated avatar to quickly and efficiently assess the potential threats passengers may pose to others. The assistant professor of business and information technology says the screening can be completed in less than four minutes with a 90 percent success rate.


17.) A view toward the future of amorphous materials

Dr. Julia Medvedeva, professor of physics, demonstrates the potential of amorphous oxide semiconductors in future transparent display technologies. Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T

Because of their unusual and often superior mechanical, optical, electrical and thermal properties, amorphous oxide materials are already in use in display panels from iPads to smart TVs. Yet we still don’t know much about these materials. Dr. Julia Medvedeva, a professor of physics, hopes to illuminate our understanding thanks to a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant shared by S&T and Northwestern University researchers. “This is very fundamental research,” she says, but adds that the results could enable advances in flexible-panel displays and wearable electronics, smart windows for homes and cars, and solar panels that could wrap around a surface to capture as much sunlight as possible.


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