Early-career engineers honored

Posted on 21. Jun, 2011 by in Chemical and Biological Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Energy Independence, People, Research

The National Science Foundation has recognized three promising young faculty members with prestigious CAREER awards. Funding from the awards supports their leading-edge research in communications technology, chip optimization, and bacterial engineering.

Insect hearing inspires new approach to small antennas
Ormia ochracea is a small parasitic fly best known for its strong sense of directional hearing. Such acute hearing in a tiny body has inspired Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Nader Behdad as he studies new designs for very small, powerful antennas—a challenge that has thwarted electromagnetic researchers for more than a half century.

For a structure like an antenna to effectively transmit or receive an electromagnetic wave at a given frequency, its size must be comparable to the wavelength at that frequency. Making the structure’s aperture size physically smaller than a wavelength becomes a critical performance issue. These small antennas aren’t as efficient and don’t work well beyond a narrow band of frequencies. “Designing small, directional antennas is one of those things we tell students can’t happen,” Behdad says. “But the question is, what if it can be done?”

He has designed a proof-of-concept antenna based on Ormia’s hearing. If successful, the antennas could increase wireless bandwidth, improve cell phone reception and be applied in a variety of consumer electronics and imaging systems.

A matter of timing: New strategies for debugging electronics
Timing errors are a category of complex electronic bugs that can occur after a chip is fabricated. These errors can cause components to slow down and take longer to execute operations.

Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Azadeh Davoodi is one of the first people to look at solutions for timing errors, which significantly increase the time it takes to send new products to market.
The validation process can take months and involves manually opening up a chip and examining billions of transistors. Timing errors often are interdependent and emerge only when certain operations are performed
together. This means testing for timing errors requires predicting the chip’s behavior during a vast number ofpossible combinations of operations.

Davoodi’s team will develop special sensor components that can be added to a chip’s design, as well as methods to analyze measurements from the components. The new components will provide custom timing information for a particular chip design, allowing developers to predict, detect and even solve errors more quickly.

Doing more with less: Efficient experiments for bacterial engineering
Shewanella oneidensis is a bacterium known for its ability to break down heavy metals. If scientists could engineer the organism in certain ways, it could be used in a variety of environmental and biofuel applications, such as microbial fuel cells or ethanol. However, like many bacteria that are fairly recent discoveries, Shewanella’s metabolic behaviors are not well understood, and establishing this information via traditional experimental approaches would take a very long time.

Chemical and Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Jennifer Reed will design and conduct new experiments that will more quickly reveal answers about the metabolism of organisms like Shewanella. Her approach will allow researchers to test multiple options and combinations of options at once. “We’re trying to essentially do more with less,” she says. “We want to do fewer experiments and get more information out of the experiments we do.”

Reed will develop experiments to test model predictions of how the organism’s cells regulate metabolic enzyme expression. She then will study how to automate the process of refining the models by evaluating discrepancies found between model predictions and experiments.

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