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ASU receives 15 NSF CAREER awards

March 30, 2020

$9.5M in funding for research spanning robotics to locusts to augmented reality

Arizona State University has to date earned 15 National Science Foundation early faculty career awards for 2020. The awards total $9.5 million in funding for ASU researchers over five years.

The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program identifies the nation’s most promising young faculty members and provides them with funding to pursue outstanding research, excellence in teaching and the integration of education and research. Often, these awards spur the creativity of the faculty member and helps set them on an innovative career path.

“The number of NSF CAREER Program awardees at ASU this year speaks to the excellence and creative aptitude of our junior faculty, from a range of academic disciplines,” said Mark Searle, university provost and executive vice president. “Each was selected for their innovative research and potential for leadership in their field. They are outstanding scholars, and their dedication and commitment to their research is rightly rewarded with these prestigious awards.”

This year’s ASU NSF CAREER award recipients to date:

Daniel Aukes, assistant professor, Polytechnic School, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

This grant will make it possible to develop cost-effective, “specialist” robots that can be quickly prototyped by a non-expert. The goal is to make robots more ubiquitous; accessible and tunable for newcomers to robotics; and for applications in industry, education and academic research. The results will impact fields in which specialization is desirable, such as assistive robotics for the elderly, custom agricultural applications and trash pickup in smart cities. Access to robotics will also benefit education and provide higher access to robots and robotic technology.

Bruno Azeredo, assistant professor, Polytechnic School, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

This grant investigates methods of scaling the production of three-dimensional structures in electronic-grade inorganic semiconductors. Patterning beyond two-dimensional structures is critical to enable the design of novel metamaterial-based infrared optical devices.

Samantha Brunhaver, assistant professor, Polytechnic School, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

This project develops the means to characterize, measure and promote adaptability as a key meta-competency for engineering graduates. Fostering adaptable engineers strengthens the economic competitiveness of the U.S. technical workforce and improves recruitment and retention for engineering, particularly among underrepresented groups.

Arianne Cease, assistant professor, School of Sustainability

This project will combine local and international educational opportunities, as well as lab and field research to test how nutrition, population density and historical habitat variability interact to affect migration, immune function and reproduction of locusts. The results will be used to develop sustainable management and policy recommendations and will be given to global partners to improve livelihoods and human and environmental health.

Richard Kirian, assistant professor, Department of Physics, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

This award focuses on the development of new biomolecular imaging techniques that exploit the unique capabilities of ultrabright X-ray sources. The research aims to enable broadly applicable methods of visualizing dynamic motions of proteins and other biomolecules in solution at physiological temperature. The research targets the general need for measurement techniques that can reveal detailed three-dimensional structures and functional dynamics of biomolecules such as proteins.

Jennifer Kitchen, assistant professor, School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

This project will employ a novel paradigm for automating the design of analog systems, in particular, integrated power electronics. The automation of these closed-loop systems will be achieved through novel analytical and statistical modeling of architectures and circuits, development of analog circuit component libraries, integrated built-in self-test to collect in-field data and update models, and development of a computationally efficient and accurate optimization approach.

Robert LiKamWa, assistant professor, School of Arts, Media and Engineering, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts 

An augmented reality (AR) system allows for virtual objects to be overlaid visually in physical spaces through the use of AR glasses or through the camera/screen of a mobile device. However, current AR systems suffer from high energy consumption and limited performance due to the high data rates associated with visual computing with high image frame resolutions and high frame rates. The proposed project aims to reduce the sensing data rate of visual computing, enabling more compact augmented reality devices with smaller battery sizes and higher precision placement of virtual objects in physical spaces.

Ariane Middel, assistant professor, School of Arts Media and Engineering, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

The goal of this grant is to advance understanding of how the built environment impacts heat and human thermal exposure in cities. The project will use MaRTy (a mobile weather station) and novel modeling approaches (deep learning) to assess how people experience heat in the summer. The work will reframe how heat is assessed in urban areas by using radiation-based metrics and indices. New academic-practitioner partnerships with cities will yield research that translates into best practices for infrastructure management and human-centric heat hazard mitigation.

Brent Nannenga, assistant professor, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

One of the most well-studied proteins that controls the growth of inorganic materials is ferritin, a protein responsible for controlling the growth of iron oxide nanoparticles and maintaining proper levels of free iron in the cell. This project will make significant contributions to both the understanding of how the ferritin protein functions and the general molecular interactions of biomolecules with nanomaterials.

Yulia Peet, assistant professor, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

The goal of this project is to develop new theories that help explain how the interaction between flexible surfaces and near-wall turbulence will change the structure of flow. Surfaces that deform under the influence of fluid forces occur in practical situations, such as those involving vibrations of aircraft wings, human blood vessels and compliant coatings.

Christian Rabeling, assistant professor, School of Life Sciences, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

This research will unravel the evolutionary history of a complex parasite-host system; specifically, ant species that are parasites of the colonies of other ant species. This parasite-host system has evolved many times across ant species, but it is unknown how this convergently evolved behavior has affected speciation patterns in the social parasites.

Abhishek Singharoy, assistant professor, School of Molecular Sciences, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

His research seeks to understand the chemistry of the molecular motor, and how it translates into cell function.

Barbara Smith, assistant professor, School of Biological and Health Systems, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

The aim of this research is to develop and apply a new technology that integrates photoacoustics (sound generated by light) and fluorescence to precisely target neurocircuits activated by addiction.

Xuan Wang, assistant professor, School of Life Sciences, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Product export is an important but elusive research area for renewable biochemicals production. Characterization and optimization of product-export systems will help increase the production metrics of microbial processes and eventually enhance economic viability for microbial production of renewable chemicals. The goal of this project is to provide a systematic understanding of export and efflux systems in Escherichia coli for renewable chemicals, including short-chain mono- and dicarboxylic acids, as well as small aromatics.

Wenlong Zhang, assistant professor, Polytechnic School, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

This project addresses the challenges of physical human-robot interaction. The application is that of a powered knee exoskeleton used for gait rehabilitation. The goal of the project is to develop novel algorithms for the robot to estimate the user’s intent and signal its own strategy when physically interacting with the user. A key to this project is the creation of a framework that leverages models of human cognitive and motor dynamics such that an intelligent robot can dynamically adjust its behavior to simultaneously facilitate human learning and provide physical assistance when needed.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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Solving the water crisis drop by drop

March 30, 2020

Startup’s award-winning technology creates sustainable drinking water

The bead of an idea hit Cody Friesen as a teenager hiking mountain trails in Arizona’s sunbaked Sonoran Desert.

He grew up in the hot, arid region but near an area of lush cotton fields and citrus orchards fed by irrigation canals Native Americans built thousands of years ago.

He was keenly aware of the incongruous reality — how inhospitable that same desert can be to the landscape and wildlife within it. “Here we lived in this very water abundant area, yet, really, we’re in the middle of the desert,” he said.

A similar juxtaposition struck Friesen years later when visiting countries with abundant annual rainfall, “and yet there’s nothing to drink.”

The experiences became the engine for his award-winning technology that absorbs moisture from thin air and converts it into clean drinking water.

The founder of Scottsdale-based Zero Mass Water and an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Arizona State University, Friesen developed SOURCE Hydropanels to address one of the globe’s most pressing challenges: water scarcity.

The creation contributed to Friesen earning the 2019 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest cash prize for invention in the U.S. It honors outstanding inventors who translate their ideas into technological inventions that have been adopted and bring significant value to society.

“Cody Friesen embodies what it means to be an impact inventor,” said Carol Dahl, executive director at the Lemelson Foundation. “His inventions are truly improving lives, take into account environmental considerations and have become the basis for companies that impact millions of people around the world each year.”

Friesen donated the prize to a Zero Mass Water project with Conservation International to provide Hydropanels to the Bahía Hondita community in Colombia.

“Cody’s inventive spirit, fueled by his strong desire to help improve the lives of people everywhere, is an inspiring role model for future generations,” said Michael Cima, faculty director for the Lemelson-MIT Program.

Cody Friesen

Fulton Schools Associate Professor Cody Friesen’s company Zero Mass Water now employs 91 people. Photo: Zero Mass Water

A global problem

SOURCE Hydropanels are essentially solar panels that produce water instead of electricity and require no additional power source to do it. Hydrophilic membranes inside the panels trap water vapor from air blown across them by a solar-powered fan.

The vapor-turned-water then flows through mineral cartridges, giving the water an ideal taste. Even in arid desert regions like Arizona and soggy, overcast areas like the Pacific Northwest, each Hydropanel can reliably deliver an average of 5 liters of water a day.

Five years after Friesen launched Zero Mass Water, his Hydropanels have been installed in more than 35 countries and across dozens of applications in hospitals, farms and homes — including two at Friesen’s home in Scottsdale. They provide the family of four humans and two dogs with water for drinking and cooking.   

The Hydropanels also can be found in aboriginal communities in Australia and an orphanage for Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon; in desert regions in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where concerns over a global water shortage grow more intense; and someday in Flint, Michigan, where residents are still grappling with a five-year-old water crisis.

“Those are not vacation hotspots, but rather places where there’s a tremendous amount of human capacity limited by all the challenges that we know exist,” Friesen said. “So whether we’re talking about Flint, Michigan, 194 schools in Arizona with lead in their pipes, the 750 water main breaks a day across the United States, the one person who dies every 10 seconds from waterborne illness — this is a truly global problem.”

Water, the essence of life, covers more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface, but barely 3% of it is drinkable. Nearly 1.7 billion people — one-quarter of the world’s population — currently live in areas of high water stress, including Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico.

The United Nations projects that by 2050 more than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages due to climate change, increased demand and polluted supplies.

students fill their water bottles

“The most valuable water on the planet is the water you put inside your body.” — Cody Friesen Photo: Jared Opperman/ASU

Friesen loves to talk about big solutions to these kinds of global problems. His voice grows excited as he describes the “leapfrog” technology that allows people in developing countries with access to smartphones to easily connect via the internet to the rest of the world. And about how solar energy is generating electricity in many of those areas without the need for bulky, expensive infrastructure.

“If we could do for water what solar does for electricity,” he said, “we could fundamentally shift the axis of the planet and improve the human condition with respect to water.” 

‘Perfect water’ for schools

Across the U.S., SOURCE Hydropanels have been installed in schools where aging pipes have leached unsafe levels of lead into drinking water, forcing administrators to shut off water fountains. A July 2018 report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that 43% of schools test for lead in drinking water and 37% of those that tested showed elevated lead levels, a known neurotoxin particularly harmful to young children.

It’s a major focus for Friesen and his company. “We want to ensure that the kids have perfect water — independent of whatever their surroundings are,” he said. “And that’s been a big, big thing for us as we continue to scale the business. It’s probably one of the most impactful spaces that we operate in — education.”

In Phoenix, for example, the Pendergast Elementary School District’s partnership with Zero Mass Water is part of the district’s commitment to sustainability programs as well as expansion of a robust science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) curriculum.

At Copper King Elementary School, where about 10 panels were installed two years ago, students use their own reusable containers to get water from a SOURCE-fed dispenser outside the STEAM lab.

Zero Mass Water dispenser

At Copper King Elementary School in Phoenix, an array of SOURCE Hydropanels delivers quality drinking water to students. Photo: Zero Mass Water

Principal Janine Ambrose says students get to see real-world engineering up close through the partnership. They get a kick knowing their water is being drawn from thin air — a new source of fascination with each new school year’s cohort of students.

“It’s definitely a learning experience for our kids here, who get to learn about and see these panels work,” Ambrose said. “We’re always looking for ways to expand the curriculum and how we can educate our kids about the environment and the sustainability of the environment, especially here in Arizona with water.”

The Hydropanels are all connected to the cloud allowing the Zero Mass Water team to monitor their performance. A typical two-panel array, which costs $4,500 including installation, will produce about 10 liters of water a day. But hundreds or even thousands of them have the capacity to supply drinking water for entire communities — much like an array of solar panels can produce enough electricity to power a city.

Culture of innovation

Friesen developed the technology with the backing of an 11-member team of researchers at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He lauds a culture that continues to build and flourish under ASU President Michael M. Crow, advancing high-impact translatable research, taking what engineers and innovators imagine, and creating and developing “from the lab bench to the marketplace” to engender global change.

It’s the reason Friesen returned to ASU 15 years ago, after earning his BS in engineering and materials science there in 2000 and a PhD in the same discipline from MIT in 2004. It’s also, he says, why he stays.

With one of the largest engineering schools in the country, ASU is the No. 1 school for innovation in America according to U.S. News & World Report, with an environment that inspires inventions like his. Within that nurturing culture, Friesen developed the world’s first rechargeable metal-air battery, able to withstand almost limitless discharges. He sold the company, Fluidic Energy Inc., in 2018.

“Most universities think about how great they are because of who they exclude,” Friesen said, borrowing a line from Crow. “ASU is very focused on how they create greatness and prominence by who they include.”

It’s similar, Friesen says, to how he’s developing technologies in his research group, focused “not on how to create a technology for the elite, but rather, how do you take creative technology that is inclusive of broader humanity, and use it to solve fundamental problems?”

The next step, what he calls Renewables 2.0, must involve developing and deploying technology for the cause of social equity across the globe. That, he says, “is the fundamental underpinning of why I founded this company.”

Written by Lornet Turnbull. This story originally appeared in the spring 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

Top photo: An X-ray view of Zero Mass Water’s SOURCE Hydropanel, which emerged from research at ASU and uses solar power and a small battery to generate drinking water from sunlight and air. Photo credit: Zero Mass Water