NSF-funded site at ASU looks to inspire next generation of bright researchers

April 1, 2016

Thanks to a recent award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering have established a program to search seldom-tapped talent pools of students to work on another untapped resource: solar power.

The three-year, $314,261 award will fund an annual summer program aimed at exposing undergraduate students to research opportunities to which they might not otherwise have access. Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site: Solar Energy Research for the Terrawatt Challenge is a program planned to host eight students a session. It will incorporate workshops, seminars and hands-on research experience that culminate in participating students traveling to a conference to present their work. Cailin Treseder, a University of New Mexico student with a Research Experiences for Undergraduates pilot program, presents her research to assistant professor Zachary Holman in the summer of 2013. Cailin Treseder, a University of New Mexico student with a Research Experiences for Undergraduates pilot program, presents her research to assistant professor Zachary Holman in the summer of 2013. Holman was recently awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to establish an REU site at ASU. In addition to providing research opportunities for students, one focus of the program is to encourage students to learn how to present and explain their findings. “It’s vital for researchers to be able to communicate their work,” said Holman. Photographer: Qiudi Zhang/ASU Download Full Image

Assistant professor of electrical engineering Zachary Holman, the principal investigator on the award, said he’s excited to develop a pipeline for talented students to learn about research and the possibilities of solar power.

“For one, we need more people and good researchers working in solar,” said Holman, a faculty member in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “Two, in my experience, I don’t know if I like something until I try it. This gives students an opportunity to try something they might otherwise not.”

The first session of the REU site is slated to run from May 31 to July 29 and will be based in the facilities of the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) Engineering Research Center, funded by the NSF and Department of Energy.

During the nine-week course, students will research existing solar cell technologies and develop new solar materials and devices. In addition to experiencing research, the students will cultivate skills essential to succeeding in academia, such as collaboration and communication. Students will be assigned partners with different experiences and backgrounds to encourage problem solving from multiple perspectives, said Holman.

Holman stresses the importance of not only providing research opportunities, but teaching students to relate their findings.

“It’s vital for researchers to be able to communicate their work,” says Holman. “Be that with peers, parents or the research community at large when we send them to a conference.”

A product of the REU program himself, Holman credits his own research experience as an undergraduate for setting him on the path he’s on today. As a physics undergraduate student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon — a small liberal arts school — Holman did not have access to research.

He participated in two REU sites: at the University of Idaho and the University of Minnesota. While in Minnesota, he headed his own project working on diesel engine exhaust and particulate matter. As a result, Holman switched his major to mechanical engineering and later returned to the University of Minnesota for graduate school.

“A goal of the program is to repeat what happened to me,” said Holman. “We want students to come to ASU, conduct research and have an experience that transforms their careers.”

Prior to receiving this award, ASU has already seen success with REU site pilot programs run by QESST since 2012. These pilot programs established the cohort-focused model of the REU site and contributed to the structure of the proposal for the award, according to Jenefer Husman, Education Director of QESST.

“Over the past four years we have had 30 students participate in the REU pilot program,” said Husman, also an associate professor in the Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Of those students 100 percent have remained in engineering after leaving our program. We have had eight community college students; of those six have gone on to pursue university degrees in engineering, two completed their certificates in solar energy and now work in the solar energy industry.”

Husman will continue to advise on the curriculum of the program going forward.

Holman and co-principal investigator Trevor Thornton look forward to bringing the next cohort of students to ASU to further solar research and make their mark.

"Having an NSF-funded REU site at ASU allows us to build a community of impassioned students who want to make a difference in the world,” said Thornton, a professor of electrical engineering.

Learn more about the REU site program and the other sites across the nation.

Pete Zrioka

Managing editor, Knowledge Enterprise


ASU engineer named IEEE Fellow for advances in energy efficiency

April 1, 2016

We live in an energy constrained world.

This is evident in the metrics by which we measure desirable digital products. “How long can this mobile device last on a single battery charge?” is a common question for consumers and battery life is one of the biggest selling points for electronic device companies. Sarma Vrudhula, recently named an IEEE Fellow, has discovered techniques to save energy in our digital devices without sacrificing performance. Photography: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Sarma Vrudhula (left), recently named an IEEE Fellow, has discovered techniques to save energy in our digital devices without sacrificing performance. Photography: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

A career dedicated to improving the energy efficiency of digital devices has resulted in Sarma Vrudhula’s elevation to a fellow in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), one of the world’s most prominent professional organizations.

Fellow is a distinction reserved for the most prestigious IEEE members and is conferred by the Board of Directors upon engineers with an extraordinary record of accomplishments in their field. Less than one-tenth of one percent earn new fellow status each year.

Vrudhula, a computer science and engineering professor, was selected for his contributions to low power and energy efficient design of digital circuits and systems.

“Energy efficiency in mobile devices untethers people and gives them total access to the globe anywhere, anytime,” said Vrudhula. “But after two decades of continuous improvement we are still limited to operating our devices for no more than eight to ten consecutive hours,” he added.

“Saving energy by turning off useful functions in our microelectronic systems is easy,” said Vrudhula, “but the hard part is making our devices last for long periods while being put to maximum use, such as watching a full-length HD movie.”

Vrudhula’s contributions focus on saving energy without sacrificing performance in digital electronic systems.

“If the video decoder on your cell phone runs too slowly then the video playback becomes choppy and completely destroys the viewing experience,” said Vrudhula. The same thing happens if a web browser takes too long to render the page.

To improve efficiency without sacrificing high-level performance Vrudhula has generated improvements that span hardware and software design, including reducing energy waste in chip transistors during idle periods and more dynamic control over the heat generated by multi-core processors.

Recently, he has been researching alternative ways of computing logic functions that have been computed the same way for more than 50 years. He is also taking what he calls a “radically different approach” to designing new circuit architectures capable of performing these energy efficient logic functions.

The results have been extraordinary: power reductions of up to 30 percent without sacrificing performance. Even more surprising is the fact that this approach has led to smaller chip sizes.

“Our discoveries have been unheard of. Using conventional logic, you always trade savings in power for a loss in performance. And this achievement never comes with a size reduction as well,” said Vrudhula.

He has spent the last eight years developing this idea and seeking to commercialize it. “These new circuits fit within existing design methodologies so they can be easily adopted by industry,” he said.

His additional research efforts include improving power and energy efficiency and performance in multi-core processors, wireless sensor networks and the heterogeneous multicores that are used in mobile hand-held devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Science Foundation of Arizona have supported his research.

In 2006, Vrudhula became the director of the Center for Embedded Systems, an NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center that connects researchers from ASU and Southern Illinois University Carbondale with leading electronics companies throughout the world.

The center’s researchers focus on creating and bettering embedded systems technologies that enable sensing, communications, computing and control in everyday things — evolving into the field referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). This includes advances such as creating a wrist sensor that can be worn by clinical patients and send real-time reports directly to a doctor‘s cell phone.

“The biggest impact of IoT is expected to be in the area of personalized healthcare, involving wearable microelectronic systems for monitoring, analyzing and reporting the data collected about the users physiological conditions,” said Vrudhula.

Vrudhula’s expertise is imperative because the computational capabilities of wearable devices are highly energy constrained.

“The challenge is to embed much greater functionality into these wearable systems and have them deliver real-time performance while being powered by ultra small energy sources,” he said.

The Center is pursuing several research opportunities in this area by taking the approach of performing machine learning algorithms directly on a chip.

The automotive industry is another big driver of embedded systems technology and the Center is actively pursuing a number of projects with several automotive companies as well.

Vrudhula joined ASU in 2005 after 12 years at the University of Arizona (UA) where he established and directed the NSF UA/ASU Center for Low Power Electronics. He is currently a faculty member in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

He has published more than 200 journal articles, conference papers and book chapters, and holds six patents. He has attracted funding in excess of $13 million in the area of low power electronics as a faculty member at both UA and ASU.

He holds master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California.

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering