3 ASU professors named senior members of National Academy of Inventors

August 18, 2020

The National Academy of Inventors has named three Arizona State University faculty members to the August 2020 class of NAI senior members.

Senior member status within the international organization recognizes engineers, scientists and others whose work has produced significant innovations resulting in technologies with the potential to have widespread benefit to society. ASU sign Download Full Image

Professor Wim Vermaas and associate professors James Abbas and Cody Friesen join fellow NAI colleagues in the senior membership ranks who, along with their research accomplishments, have been successful in earning patents, acquiring licensing and commercializing technology they have developed.

Vermaas is on the faculty of ASU’s School of Life Sciences. Abbas and Friesen are faculty members in the ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“I’m incredibly proud to welcome Drs. Vermaas, Abbas and Friesen to the ranks of NAI Senior Membership,” said Neal Woodbury, interim executive vice president, chief science and technology officer, ASU Knowledge Enterprise. “This recognition demonstrates their collective commitment to advancing exceptional work in some of ASU’s most critical fields. They are each very deserving of this recognition, and I am pleased to see their achievements showcased in this prominent NAI cohort.”

“These rising stars also have proven success in patents, licensing and commercialization,” NAI President Paul R. Sanberg said. “We are grateful to our member institutions that support these elite inventors. It is their culture of creative exploration and discovery that ignites and inspires the innovators we recognize today.”

This 38 newest NAI senior members represent 24 research universities, governmental entities and nonprofit institutes around the world. They are named inventors on 397 issued U.S. patents.

Using cyanobacteria to power a carbon-neutral future

ASU Professor Wim Vermaas is a new NAI senior member

Vermaas is a Foundation Professor and associate director in the School of Life Sciences and a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation. He is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He specializes in the molecular biology of photosynthetic microbes called cyanobacteria.

He holds six patents, which focus on using cyanobacteria for solar-powered production of biofuels, biopolymers and other useful compounds. Besides using solar energy, the bacteria also use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, giving this process an environmental benefit.

“By introducing genes from other organisms and by deleting or overexpressing genes from the cyanobacterium itself, we have modified cyanobacteria to make and excrete a variety of products, including fatty acids and their derivatives,” Vermaas said. “If one uses carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for making fatty acids that are later burned as biofuels, the overall process essentially is carbon-neutral, whereas if CO2 in the atmosphere can be converted into products like plastics that have a longer lifetime and are not burned, then in the short term that would lead to carbon removal from the atmosphere.”

Right now, fossil fuels are too cheap for this process to be cost-competitive, but Vermaas believes that may not be the case forever, and that environmental concerns could make it an even more attractive alternative.

“With increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is good to have the technology developed and ready to go,” he said.

Vermaas is also dedicated to helping young scientists learn how to patent their own innovations. He teaches a capstone class for undergraduates majoring in biotechnology and the molecular biosciences that covers intellectual property, patents, regulations and strategies in biotechnology. In addition, he has mentored a great number of students at ASU, some of whom have gone on to file disclosures and obtain patents in their own careers.

Making strides in neural rehabilitation

ASU Associate Professor James Abbas is a new NAI senior member

Abbas, who directs the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems, teaches biomedical engineering in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Abbas leads work focusing on neural engineering applications in rehabilitation. His research group has developed technologies that interface with the nervous system to enable effective rehabilitation. Much of the work involves neural stimulation systems and interactive technologies for use in the clinic or at home.

His research has aided development of technology for use by people with spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease or amputations, and has led to rehabilitation technology startups and collaborations with international medical device manufacturers and research and development companies.

A recent research effort provides sensory feedback to people with amputation who use an upper-limb prosthesis. The work has produced a system that has received an Investigational Device Exemption from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is currently undergoing clinical trials. 

The system was developed in collaboration with Professor Ranu Jung at Florida International University, with support from the National Institutes of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, or NIBIB, part of the National Institutes of Health, and clinical trials have been supported by NIBIB, along with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and the Army Research Office.

In addition, a recently awarded grant from the Department of Defense is supporting a collaboration with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to provide technology to U.S. service members with amputations.

Abbas and his collaborators have been awarded six patents and have nine other patents or provisional patents filed. Several patents have been awarded for technology involved in these endeavors and other patents are pending.

“It is an honor to get this recognition from my highly accomplished peers for our contributions to the field of neural engineering,” Abbas said of his elevation to NAI senior member. “But this is especially meaningful because it also recognizes the work of ASU undergraduate biomedical engineering students I have mentored.”

Over the past few years, Abbas says, engineering capstone design projects by three groups of his students have produced intellectual property related to innovations now under consideration for patent protection.

Harvesting clean drinking water from air

Cody Friesen is a new National Academy of Inventors senior member

Cody Friesen, a materials science engineer who teaches in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools, directs research that has produced tech advances that are the foundations for his companies.

Zero Mass Water sprang from his efforts to produce renewable water and energy technologies that help fight climate change while providing valuable resources to underserved communities. One of his latest inventions is the SOURCE Hydropanel — a technology that uses solar energy to produce clean water by trapping water molecules from the air.

SOURCE Hydropanels have been deployed in more than 30 countries across six continents. The technology enables clean drinking water to be produced locally and affordably without being connected to larger infrastructure systems or requiring electricity.

Friesen is also known for creating a rechargeable zinc-air battery — for which he cofounded the startup Fluidic Energy to commercialize its design. The battery could potentially hold much more energy than conventional lithium-ion batteries at a much lower cost.

For this work, Friesen was named among the "TR35," the world’s leading innovators under age 35, by Technology Review magazine in 2009.

More recently, Friesen was awarded a $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Zero Mass Water venture. The award recognizes work in materials science leading to social, economic, and environmentally-sustaining inventions with worldwide impacts.

Friesen’s companies have attracted significant investors and partners, and Zero Mass Water continues to establish pilot projects in locales in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East where water is scarce.

With more than 100 pending patents and 42 granted patents so far in his career, he joins an impressive lineage of inventors as an NAI senior member.

Friesen has said he is dedicated to finding technological solutions that provide resources to address some of biggest challenges to social and economic advancement in underserved communities.

“As inventors, we have a responsibility to ensure our technology serves all of humanity,” Friesen said.

Mikala Kass contributed to this article.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Mapping the road to more resilient metals

Highly sought-after Department of Defense grant will support ASU professor's materials research project

August 18, 2020

Biological organisms are made up of interconnected systems of tissues, liquids and similar substances continually at work maintaining vital functions — vastly different in nature from inanimate matter. But not entirely so.

On and beneath the surfaces of manufactured materials, for example, there are countless interactions in motion within their microstructures, many at the atomic level, that determine how effectively those materials will perform the functions for which they’re made. Fighter jet made with metal alloys With a multi-university team of colleagues, Arizona State Univesity Professor Karl Sieradzki is undertaking a five-year research effort aimed at enhancing the performance and durability of metal alloys like those used for military jets. Other kinds of aircraft, as well as ships, space flight technologies and automotive vehicles are made largely of alloys. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

Karl Sieradzki, a professor of materials science and engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, is beginning work with six colleagues in his field at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia and Northwestern University to get a deeper understanding of the workings of the fundamental structures and potential capabilities of metal alloys.

“We’re looking at the very smallest elements of what makes up these materials and how the environments they are exposed to impact them,” said Sieradzki, who teaches in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools.

One key objective is finding the right combinations of chemical components to mix into so-called multiprinciple element alloys — also known as high-entropy alloys — that would best resist high-temperature oxidation and aqueous corrosion

The research is supported by the U.S. Department of Defense Multi-University Research Initiative, or MURI, which funds research to facilitate advances in emerging technologies that will help to address national security and military challenges and potentially have applications in the commercial sector.

MURI bar is set high for research teams

Karl Sieradzki ASU professor or materials science and engineering

ASU Professor Karl Sieradzki’s expertise in materials science and engineering has earned him a place on his third research team to have won support from the U.S. Department of Defense Multi-University Research Initiative, or MURI. The program awards grants to fund high-priority science and engineering research considered essential to meeting the nation’s military and national defense challenges.

In the MURI project, supported through the Office of Naval Research, Sieradzki and his fellow research leaders aim to produce results that will improve alloys used in aircraft, ships and automotive vehicles, as well as space exploration technologies, Sieradzki said.

Research to date indicates high-entropy alloys can improve the tensile strength of materials and provide better resistance to fracture, but resistance to corrosion and high temperature oxidation remains a challenge the MURI project team will work to solve.

MURI projects often involve highly specialized areas of science and engineering. Researchers seeking funding must be able to show track records of progress in such demanding and multifaceted pursuits.

Sieradzki and his research team met that stringent requirement. The group’s proposal is one of only 26 projects to be selected for MURI awards from among 365 that underwent merit review by the Department of Defense for funding in the current 2020 fiscal year. The team will receive approximately $7.5 million over the next five years to support its members’ research. Sieradzki will be given $1 million of that total.

This is Sieradzki’s third MURI project, one in which he will drive work on some essential aspects of the research. His role will involve studies to expand the application of a process called passivation, involving the formation of protective oxide films on metal surfaces that can reduce the rate of corrosion and high-temperature oxidation.

That effort will include further development of the use of percolation theory, which involves “arranging the atomic elements of metals in a certain way that results in effective passivation,” he said.

Sieradzki will also conduct further examinations of high temperature oxidation, which causes materials to lose mechanical properties due to temperature increases and chemical reactions of metal with the environment.

“It’s a type of environment a jet engine would be exposed to, or that a spacecraft might be exposed to on reentry,” he said.

Project presents possibility of breakthroughs

Roger C. Newman, a professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto, said Sieradzki is a pioneer in methods to combat metals corrosion.

More than three decades ago, Sieradzki began delving into the complexities of percolation and produced valuable models of the outcomes that could be expected from emerging methods for that process, Newman says.

Recently, Sieradzki “has greatly expanded the content and reach of such approaches, and tested them using electrochemical methods,” Newman said. “Now he is ready to tackle pressing issues of alloy design for corrosion resistance, using his vast experience in the relevant physics and electrochemistry. Among other outcomes, his research will lead to important economies in the use of scarce metals.”

Such prominent achievements in the field led to Sieradzki’s recruitment for the new MURI project team by Mitra Taheri, a professor of materials science and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, who led work on the MURI proposal and is now the project’s principal investigator.

Taheri will lead the project’s work on reducing the time needed to determine what alloy combinations are viable for testing, using advanced microscopy to get live views of new alloys’ reactions to real-life extreme conditions.

Among those with highly specialized expertise who will be involved in the MURI project are Northwestern University Professor Christopher Wolverton and Associate Professor James Rondinelli. They will provide the computational materials science and physics Sieradzki and others will need to move forward on their parts of the research project.

Sieradzki is now also recruiting postdoctoral researchers to assist with work on the project to be done in his ASU lab, which focuses on electrochemical surface science. He also expects several graduate students to be involved over the next five years.

Sieradzki is looking forward to the outcomes of the MURI endeavor for several reasons. The work promises to lead to designs for new families of alloys, which in itself would be an important achievement, he says.

There is also the possibility of discovering more successful combinations of high-entropy alloys that would open a path toward more-resilient, high-performing materials for an array of devices, systems and processes.

Most intriguing from a larger perspective, Sieradzki said, “We’re going to try to expand some of the boundaries of where materials science and engineering can take us.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering