Highlights from a year of excellence in research

Collage of Annual Report story images

Last month, the University of Minnesota’s annual State of Research report highlighted a research enterprise that continues to grow, driven by greater diversification of funding sources and enhanced public-private partnership.

The report, produced by the Office of the Vice President for Research, also highlighted several ongoing research projects that are advancing knowledge across a wide variety of fields. These efforts are shedding light on youth brain function, boosting computing technology, exploring new mining processes and improving transportation systems.

Below, Inquiry explores each of these projects and their potential to benefit society. Continue reading

Curbing animal diseases through scientific collaboration

Piglet with Vet

In Minnesota, animal diseases are a looming threat. A recent outbreak of avian flu has already cost the state an estimated $310 million, and future outbreaks of other diseases could jeopardize still more of the state’s livestock. At the end of 2012, livestock values totaled $3.78 billion across the state, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers are forming a new approach to curbing contagious animal diseases and the threat they pose to Minnesota’s economy. The project — referred to as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for Minnesota Advancement, or STEMMA — is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

The comprehensive approach of this project includes developing better technology for quickly and accurately diagnosing illnesses, better modeling to predict how the illnesses spread within and between herds of animals, and outreach efforts to educate the next generation of farmers, environmentalists and veterinary experts. The findings will inform policies that can help Minnesota react to and contain outbreaks faster, limiting the economic damage caused by these pathogens. Ultimately, researchers aim to develop a system for handling animal diseases that will promote the strength of Minnesota’s economy, protect its environment and meet the food supply needs of its people. Continue reading

A new spin on computer technology

Binary code

By Mike Lotti

Spintronic computers, featuring zero boot-up time, ultra-low energy use and high processing speeds, aren’t available to consumers yet. But the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces, and Novel Architectures (C-SPIN) has been guiding a national “dream team” of researchers since 2013 to accelerate progress toward spintronic computing.

Spintronic promise

Here’s an overview of how this breakthrough technology works. Your computer, tablet, smart phone, and even calculator are basically machines that encode and process ones and zeros in the form of electric current. But all those electrons moving around cause heat, and it’s getting harder and harder to make electric devices small enough to meet the ongoing demand for more computing power in less space. The spintronic solution is to rethink ones and zeros as the “up” or “down” orientation of electrons in ultra-small magnets. Want a one? Make two magnets point “up.” Want a zero? Make them point in opposite directions. No moving electrons, very little heat, lots of room to cram magnets together. What’s not to like?

While the theory behind spintronic computing is solid, the technology to carry out the theory is still being developed in the lab. For example, C-SPIN researchers are exploring topics such as “What materials are best for recording a magnetic one and zero?” “What’s the most energy-efficient way to switch a one to a zero and vice versa?” “How can spin-based information be easily transferred from one part of a computer to another?”

Continue reading

University startup develops fast, accurate early disease detection

Jian-Ping Wang

Any patient who has waited days for a blood test to come back knows it can be a nerve-wracking experience. Imagine if you had a device the size of a graphing calculator that could give you accurate results in 15 minutes?

Through University of Minnesota’s Jian-Ping Wang‘s work, this technology is closer to becoming a reality. The electrical and computer engineering professor in the U’s College of Science and Engineering invented a biosensing device that quickly and accurately measures even a tiny quantity of a disease or health condition in a human sample. In March, the U helped form a startup company called Zepto Life Technology, where Wang now works as chairman of the scientific advisory board to make his invention portable, inexpensive and available across the world.

“It could fundamentally change the way people are taking care of themselves,” Wang said. “An individual’s health can be monitored in a comprehensive, personalized way. Diseases can be detected much sooner, leading to better health outcomes and ultimately, longer, healthier lives.” Continue reading

Tech transfer brings cutting-edge research to market

Jian-Ping Wang, a prolific inventor and University of Minnesota engineering professor, has used his knowledge of nanomagnetics and spintronics to develop a system that detects the biological calling cards of diseases like HIV and cancer.

Nikos Papanikolopoulos, computer science and engineering professor, built a reconnaissance robot that could save lives by surveying hostile territory before soldiers or law enforcement enter the fray.

With help from the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization, Wang, Papanikolopoulos and other dedicated U researchers are moving their inventions from the lab to the market. Check out a recent story in the National Journal to learn how OTC’s business-savvy staff guide researchers in disclosing their inventions and starting companies around new technology.

New leave program puts faculty on entrepreneurial path


The University of Minnesota’s new Entrepreneurial Leave Program, approved earlier this year, went into effect July 1 and is awaiting applicants.

The program is unlike any other offered by similar institutions around the country. The Board of Regents established the new policy to encourage university faculty to temporarily assist companies that are commercializing faculty-developed products or processes.

“We don’t know of another institution with a program like this,” says Russell Straate, Associate Director of the University of Minnesota Office for Technology Commercialization Venture Center. “We are setting the stage to help faculty members become more entrepreneurial. These inventors need to have a role in the early development of their research into products and services. The new leave program helps them move out of the university and into the company temporarily.”

Tenured and tenure-track faculty may apply for an entrepreneurial leave of twelve months, with an optional six-month extension. The leave typically will involve the development of university intellectual property, though leaves that relate to the public good may also be considered. The faculty member checks in monthly with the department head and Office for Technology Commercialization during the leave.

A unique feature is that the program allows faculty to keep their benefits while on leave. This helps overcome a barrier for faculty who otherwise could not be involved in translating research. “In the case of a startup company situation, most can pay a salary or commit equity, but they often they lack benefits. This leave program will make it easier for faculty to be involved in bringing their ideas to market,” says Straate.

Another benefit is that the faculty can aid the company without concerns over conflict of interest such as using a university lab for personal financial gain.

“It’s increasingly important for the university to aid in the successful translation and commercialization of faculty research. The leave program increases faculty knowledge and expertise, which benefits their students and future research. It also increases the university’s engagement with the general public and private industry,” explains Straate.

The leave program is so far untested. Straate says that a number of faculty have made inquiries, but that none have applied for a leave. “We expect two to three of these a year.”

The Entrepreneurial Leave Program is one of many programs aimed at helping faculty become more entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurism is growing at the U of M, which recently announced a record 14 startups launched in fiscal year 2013.

Straate’s office helps move technology developments with commercial potential out of the U labs and into the market, with goals of benefiting the public, making money for the university and for the inventor, and improving research and teaching. For example, recently the office helped U professor Jian-Ping Wang, Ph.D., College of Science and Engineering, work with a startup to commercialize a process that produces magnetic nanoparticles that attach to biomarkers in blood, saliva and urine to diagnose physical conditions. Straate’s office located a management team to help get the startup underway.

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

Originally published on Business @ the U of M.

Invention spotlight: magnetic recording media

JP Wang

With the exploding popularity of cloud storage, millions of users are uploading data and existing hard drive servers are nearing their limits. Tech giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft require veritable warehouses, containing rows upon rows of servers to house their users’ data. These state-of-the-art media can store up to 100 million bits of information per square inch. But as their capacity grows, these servers are becoming unwieldy by occupying space, generating heat, and consuming vast quantities of energy.

Distinguished McKnight professor Jian-Ping Wang was perplexed by the existing storage limits of hard disc media. So, he set out to increase storage capacity while shrinking the physical size of the medium. His team demonstrated the world’s first exchange-coupled composite disk media that doubled the storage capacity of magnetic media — from 500 gigabyte per square inch to one terabyte. And he doesn’t plan to stop there.

Wang and his students recently invented and experimentally demonstrated a nano-patterning process, which addresses the feasibility of fabricating a heat assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) media, targeting 5 terabyte per square inch areal density. The magnetic storage technology could change the face of the computer industry, from gaming, to 3D televisions, to cloud storage. Higher recording density could mean smaller storage media that consume less power.

“Because of the huge power consumption required to operate millions of hard disk drives, the server stations must be built near power plants,” says Wang. “If this technology could be implemented, imagine how much energy we could save.”

Since 2003, Wang has garnered more than $9 million in research funding as well as earned $2.1 million worth of industry-donated equipment to support his work on biomedical sensors, spintronics, and more.

Related links:
Miracle magnetic materials: Jian-Ping Wang

Post by Bridget Aymar

Originally published on Business @ the U of M.

Miracle magnetic materials: Jian-Ping Wang

Jianping Wang

What do disease early detection, rare-earth-free magnets and massive information storage and processing all have in common? Magnetic materials could be instrumental in a new wave of solutions in these areas.

Distinguished McKnight Professor Jian-Ping Wang is experimenting with magnetic materials for all these innovations, and more. Evident in his varied and monumental research endeavors, Wang’s approach to discovery is to pursue the impossible.

Early detection

In 1998, Wang’s father — a former air force man, taller and stronger than his scientist son — was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Although he battled the disease for ten years, he eventually succumbed to the ravaging effects of surgeries and harsh treatments.

“I thought to myself, there must be some way a doctor can find the disease at an early stage, not wait until it’s too late,” says Wang. “If physicians find the cancer at an early stage, they can prescribe prevention therapy and bypass harsh treatments. I asked myself, why is there no such way?”

Wang’s group set out to forge a solution, and were the first in the world to demonstrate a nano magnetic and spintronic sensing system for detecting cancer marker proteins at low concentrations using unprocessed human serum and urine samples. The resulting invention could detect biomarkers for ovarian and breast cancers, HIV, HPV and others, at early stages.

The holy grail

For more than forty years, scientists have tried repeatedly to produce what is known as “the holy grail of magnetic materials.” The compound, Fe16N2, was described by early researchers as having superior magnetic performance that couldn’t be explained by existing physics theories. But after decades of failed attempts to reproduce the early results, researchers had all but given up on the mythical compound.

Wang had a nagging feeling his fellow researchers had relented prematurely. After nearly a decade of study, his team presented a new theory that explained his predecessors’ early mistakes, and were able to reproduce the compound. Furthermore, unlike the original discovery, later researchers were able to replicate his results.

“There was a lot of doubt around this compound, but that didn’t sway us,” says Wang. “Now we have world attention on this topic. There were many opinions, but we turned out to be right.”

Wang is leading a joint team comprised of researchers from the U of M and Oak Ridge National Lab under a $2.6 million Department of Energy grant to pursue the material for a next-generation, environmentally friendly magnet. Rare-earth metals are used in large quantities for magnets in electric vehicles and windmill electricity generators; one small windmill needs about 600 pounds of these magnets. High-power magnets of this new composition, which are abundant on Earth and don’t involve rare-earth metals, could address this huge demand.

Jianping Wang

Spintronics applications

The rapid advancements in everyday technology have awed and amazed users in recent years. But Wang points out one area of development that’s stunted: laptop computing processors have reached the limits of their performance. The semiconductor/transistor combination that has powered personal computing since its inception has fundamental limits: You cannot make it smaller unless you expend more energy, which could cause overheat and power leakage.

“I thought: Why should we be limited by that rule? There must be some new approach, we must explore it,” he says. “We proposed and experimentally demonstrated, using spintronics devices with strong magnetic performance, you can not only store the information but also process the information, which cuts down the power consumption tremendously.”

Electrons have two functions: charge and spin. As leader in spintronics research, Wang is at the cutting edge of a new wave of technology that makes use of the oft-ignored “spin” property. Spintronics describes innovations enabled by the “spin” of electrons to code and process data, while older computers use the “charge” of the electron. Spintronics could give us low-power devices with massive storage capacity. Imagine a computer that turns on instantly, and processes data long after it’s powered down.

Now that the scientific and business community has taken notice of the potential for spintronics, professor Wang’s team is working out the kinks in the lab in an effort to prove that the technology could be manufactured for mass consumption.

Wide-ranging pursuits

Wang’s research portfolio is a reflection of his probing curiosity. Lauded by his peers as one of the most brilliant and productive scientists in his field, he hopes he can continue the momentum he’s experienced in his research.

“Sometimes I have no choice; these things just come to my mind and I can’t help but pursue them,” he says. “Sometimes I worry that I do too much, but I want to work hard when I still can. Maybe five years from now, I won’t be so productive in science anymore.”

Maybe. But if Wang’s recent pursuits are any indication, don’t count on it.

Related links:
Invention spotlight: magnetic recording media

Post by Bridget Aymar; Photos by Richard Anderson

Originally published on Research @ the U of M.