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ASU research makes real-life impact by expanding knowledge, problem-solving

December 27, 2006

ASU researchers have had a prosperous year, making significant research discoveries on a national level.

The discovery of a nearly intact, 3.3 million-year-old juvenile skeleton filled an important gap in understanding the evolution of a species thought to be among the earliest direct ancestors to humans.

William Kimbel, a paleoanthropologist with ASU's Institute of Human Origins is part of the team that studied the skeleton of an approximately 3-year-old female Australopithecus afarensis, the same species as the well-known “Lucy,” from Dikika, Ethiopia.

The researchers described their discovery and initial analysis of it in “A juvenile early hominin skeleton from Dikika, Ethiopia,” in the Sept. 21 issue of Nature. The skeleton was discovered by lead author Zeresenay Alemseged, director of the Dikika Research Project and a former postdoctoral researcher at ASU's Institute of Human Origins. Alemseged is at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, located in Leipzig, Germany.

The findings are expected to provide insights into the growth and development cycle of Australopithecus afarensis since the infant remains will be compared to Lucy, a remarkably complete adult female skeleton that was among the first Australopithecus afarensis to be discovered. Lucy dates back 3.18 million years and was discovered in 1974 in the Hadar region of Ethiopia by Donald Johanson, who directs ASU's Institute of Human Origins.

• An international team of astronomers that included ASU Regents' Professor of astronomy Sumner Starrfield reported on a discovery of a star exploding inside another star. The discovery is helping astronomers learn more about the structure of a red giant star, how shock waves move through a star, and how one type of binary star system goes through the end stages of its life, the astronomers report.

Speaking at the National Astronomy Meeting in Leicester , U.K. , the international team of 14 astronomers described what they saw as they monitored the explosion of RS Ophiuchi, a recurrent nova that lights up in the sky roughly every 20 years. RS Oph, as it is called, normally a very dim object in the sky, was found to be visible to the unaided eye Feb. 12 by Japanese amateur astronomers.

• Chemists at ASU's Biodesign Institute created a tiny hydrogen-gas generator that they say can be developed into a compact fuel cell package. This generator could then power portable electronic devices three to five times longer than conventional batteries of the same size and weight.

The generator uses a special solution containing borohydride, an alkaline compound that has an unusually high capacity for storing hydrogen, a key element that is used by fuel cells to generate electricity. In laboratory studies, prototype devices have been used to provide sustained power to light bulbs, a radio and a DVD player.

• Professor Joe Wang, director of the Center for Biosensors and Bioelectronics at the Biodesign Institute at ASU, developed a highly sensitive technology to rapidly detect liquid peroxide explosives in as little as 15 seconds. The results were published as a research communication online in the leading international analytical journal, the Analyst (

The technology can rapidly detect the two most common peroxide-based explosives, triacetone triperoxide (TATP) and hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD), in trace amounts down to the parts-per-billion level.

The approach, which is safe, irradiates these explosives with ultraviolet (UV) light, converting the TATP and HMTD into hydrogen peroxide. While a UV lamp system provides results in five minutes, the higher-intensity laser irradiation greatly reduces the time – all the way down to 15 seconds.

Though the final product may be down the road, Wang is working with the commercialization arm of ASU, Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE) to engage government and commercial partners to further develop the technology.

• The National Institutes of Health (NIH) program directors awarded a $438,970 grant over two years to ASU geochemist Lynda Williams and microbiologist Shelley Haydel for the study of clay mineral alternative treatment for Buruli ulcer, a flesh-eating bacterial disease found primarily in central and western Africa.

The ASU duo will examine the mechanisms that allow two clays mined in France to heal Buruli ulcer, which has been declared “an emerging public health threat” by the World Health Organization (WHO). Related to leprosy and tuberculosis, the Mycobacterium ulcerans produces a toxin and lesions, and it destroys the fatty tissues under the skin.