Harnessing People Power

Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) are one of the National Science Foundation’s flagship programs. They are complex enterprises, typically with a 10-year timeframe, a $37 million budget and a multifaceted agenda built around a game-changing project. In addition to maintaining an ambitious but carefully orchestrated research program, ERCs actively collaborate with scientists in complementary fields, recruit industry and government members to help translate prototypes into products and foster educational opportunities for graduate, undergraduate, high school and middle school students.

Being tapped to partner in an ERC is both an honor and a challenge. The level of expectation is high, but so is the exposure to some of the world’s foremost researchers. That’s why the Engineering School’s participation in a Nanosystems ERC (NERC) dedicated to developing wearable, self-powered health and environmental monitoring devices is such a milestone. “ERCs are prestigious, highly visible enterprises,” says Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor John Lach, one of the leaders of the Engineering School’s contribution to this effort. “They can bring hundreds of researchers and organizations together, while enabling participants to have an impact that is more difficult to achieve with smaller-scale projects.”

The extended and continuous data produced by these monitors will enable patients, doctors and scientists to assess the impact of environmental toxins on health, leading to better prevention, management and treatment of chronic diseases. Dubbed ASSIST (for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies), the NERC is developing the underlying nanotechnologies necessary for energy harvesting, battery-free energy storage and ultra-low-power computation and communication, all integrated with physiological and ambient nanosensors. North Carolina State University, with its expertise in energy harvesting and sensors, is the lead institution.

N.C. State’s Veena Misra, principal investigator and center director, asked Lach and Professor Benton Calhoun, both members of the Charles L. Brown Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, to join the center. Lach is focusing on systems and applications and serves as the center’s associate director for translational research, while Calhoun is leading the ultra-low circuit design initiative. “Veena saw that our work complemented the expertise at N.C. State,” Lach says. “We are providing the brains for the system and helping develop the wellness and exposure tracking testbeds used to assess the real-world integration of the underlying technologies.”

U.Va. is also playing a key role in educational outreach. Carolyn Vallas, director of the School’s Center for Diversity in Engineering, is in charge of the outreach to high school and middle schools from U.Va. and oversees the NSF’s research experience for undergraduates (REU) participants.

The center became operational in September 2012 with an initial five-year, $18.5 million grant and has made dramatic progress since then. Among other recent achievements, center researchers have developed nanocomposites of bismuth telluride that provided heat-harvested power levels much higher than commercially available counterparts. Researchers have also made significant breakthroughs in supercapacitors with low leakage properties to store harvested energy. In addition, the center has made considerable progress developing the two testbeds, now known as the Health and Environmental Tracker and the Self-Powered Adaptive Platform.

This past May, the NSF conducted a comprehensive review of the center’s work to date, gave it a “unanimous and unconditional renewal” and extended funding through years six through eight. “This was a tremendous vote of confidence in our progress,” Lach says. “We believe that another seven years of concentrated work will yield remarkable results that will make themselves felt not only in health care but in other fields as well.”