Local 3D printing hubs bring manufacturing back to U.S.

Imaginestics is a start-up out of West Lafayette, Indiana, founded by Nainesh Rathod. At the Smart America Expo in June, Rathod was part of a team that demonstrated the potential impact of what they are calling “Smart Shape Technology.”

The system Rathod and his collaborators developed lets you can take a picture of a part of a larger device with a mobile phone, and then identify a local retailer where this part can be found or instantly print it at a local neighborhood 3D printing service provider.

The demonstration showed how Smart Shape Technology — using novel shape search, active label, smart hubs and 3D printing technologies — can create local jobs and increase local skills.

"This technology doesn’t have to be locked up in big business," Rathod said. "To make it available at our fingertips is within reach."

Rathod was twice a recipient of NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research grants, which helped to turn his radical idea into a business with several hundred employees.

"NSF to us has been a big risk-taker," Rathod said. "When we went to them and said we’re thinking about this, they didn’t throw us out the door. They basically said: great idea, here’s some money, see what you can do. They played, I think, a foundational role for us. Without that kind of a beginning, we wouldn’t be where we are."

Watch a video about Smart Shape Technology to learn more.


Crystal of the Week: Wurtzite Boron Nitride!

This past week has been a stimulating one for chemists as the American Chemical Society held its National Meeting in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, crystal-talk was pretty easy to find there, and ACS released a great new video that celebrates and explains crystallography in this International Year of Crystallography.  So, in honor of a great ACS meeting and their informative video, we opted for a crystal their video highlights:  wurtzite boron nitride.

Wurtzite boron nitride’s claim to fame is that it is in fact the “hardest” crystal in the world – even tougher than diamonds.  Reportedly, it is 58% harder than diamonds.  But amazingly, wurtzite boron nitride is far rarer than diamonds, so in fact, initially, there wasn’t much interest in the stuff.

These days, it can be man-made, and reason for doing so is that as it turns out, wurtzite boron nitride offers something else diamonds do not:  it remains stable at higher temperatures.  So, those tips of drills and other tools that work at high temperatures might work even better with this new improved crystal tip.  The same is true for corrosion-resistant films on a space vehicle’s surface.

And some researchers believe this material can be made even stronger because of observations they’ve made when it is stressed and atoms reorient themselves.

NSF-funds many scientists who will likely take this crystal research to the next level.  NSF’s Materials Research Division supports researchers like Yoke Khin Yap at Michigan Technological University who is working on synthesizing, characterizing, and functionalizing boron nitride nanotubes and boron nitride nanoribbons by catalytic chemical vapor deposition to create new electronic and optical materials with tunable properties.

Photo credit: Yoke Khin Yap (Super hydrophobic boron nitride films)


Crystal of the Week (redux): Calcium Carbonate!


This week, NSF and Popular Science launched their new partnership as co-sponsors of the foundation’s long-running Visualization Challenge, now called The Vizzies.The competition, which runs through Sept. 30, 2014, aims to recognize some of the most beautiful visualizations from the worlds of science and engineering. Because this competition has garnered some of the most amazing science pictures — including those of crystals — it was hard to resist this pic, featuring microscopic crystals from a sea urchin’s tooth. So, in celebration of the International Year of Crystallography, we bring you this week’s #CrystaloftheWeek, which we acknowledge has had that honor previously: calcium carbonate.

These fantastical structures amazingly make up a sea urchin’s tooth. Each shade of blue, aqua, green, and purple — superimposed with Photoshop on a scanning electron micrograph (SEM )— highlights an individual crystal of calcite, the abundant carbonate mineral found in limestone, marble, and shells. (And yes, thank you, Pupa U. P. A. Gilbert and Christopher E. Killian from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for creating such a mesmerizing work of art!)

The curved surfaces of the crystals look nothing like normal calcite crystal faces. Instead of flat sides and sharp edges, the sea urchin produces “incredibly complex, intertwined” curved plates and fibers that interlock and fill space in the tooth as they grow. Though made of a substance normally as soft as chalk, the teeth are hard enough to grind rock, gnawing holes where the sea urchins take shelter from rough seas and predators.

For more information about the Vizzies, check out NSF’s Visualization Challenge Web site.


Cyber-equipped dogs lead the way in search-and-rescue

At the Smart America Expo in June, researchers from North Carolina State University (NCSU) showed off pioneering work demonstrating the potential of technologies that allow dogs to gather information, and stay safe, during search and rescue operations.

"What we’re hoping to do here is to begin the field of canine-computer interaction," said David Roberts, professor of computer science at NCSU. "When we start to think about canines interacting with computers, the range of possibilities is essentially endless."

Among the applications they’re testing are computer-assisted training, remote communication with dogs in the field and tools to help people with guide dogs better understand what their dogs are doing.

They accomplish these tasks by equipping dogs with video, audio and gas sensors (in the case of emergency response), as well as inertial measurement units that provide information in real time about the dogs posture and physiological monitors. Together, this information provides a detailed picture of what the dog is doing and enables handlers to characterize their emotional state.

The last type of capabilities that they are working on enables handlers to communicate with dogs from afar. Using audio cues and haptic inputs (like the vibration on a phone), they are training dogs to respond to different commands in the field or around the house.

Watch the video.


Crystal of the Week: Sodium Chloride!

Whether jumping in the ocean’s waves or noshing on some salty chips at a family picnic, during the dog days of summer, it’s pretty easy to appreciate this week’s #CrystaloftheWeek in celebration of International Year of Crystallography. Yes, this week we revel in the wonders of possibly the most valuable crystal in the world – so valuable that at times, it has even been used as currency!  We’re talking about sodium chloride. And those not in a chemistry lab probably know it better as table salt.

Yes, sodium chloride seems to be everywhere, but that hasn’t always been the case. People have mined it and found ways to evaporate ocean water to create sea salt “farms.”  And while it was the first “seasoning” to flavor bland foods, it also has been used to keep foods safe for long periods with its use in pickling, canning, curing and even drying meats and fish to prolong storage, especially prior to the invention of refrigeration. And, this practice continues today in many cultures, where it’s still customary to cook with salted cod rather than fresh fish to create certain stews and other meals.

For crystallographers, sodium chloride crystals represent the simplest crystal design: translucent and a perfect cube. And according to the Morton Salt company, salt has an estimated 14,000 specific industrial uses. “Several hundred of these are direct uses such as food seasoning, curing of animal hides or the preparation of saline solutions for intravenous injection. However, the greatest number of applications is indirect through the use of thousands of chemicals derived from a dozen or so basic chemicals produced from salt. Salt also plays important roles in the manufacture of steel, aluminum components, lubricants, rubber tires, seat covers, vinyl tops, paint removers, soap, textiles, ceramics, inks and dyes to name a few.” In fact, less than 10 percent of the salt that is manufactured is used in food. 

One of the most interesting aspects of salt water is the buoyancy it brings to a swimming experience. In extreme places such as the Dead Sea or even some mineral baths like one at the Königliche Kristall -Therme am Kurpark in Schwangau, Germany, one finds it nearly impossible to sink in the briny fluid with approximately 31 percent and 12 percent salt concentrations, respectively. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.


Professor Marjorie Skubic from the University of Missouri has created a suite of health care technologies that identify when an individual falls in their home or when their physical behavior changes over time. 

However, how does a physician at a hospital know about and use information gathered by devices like those designed by Skubic for the home? And likewise, how does information about a patient’s condition in the hospital get incorporated into technologies like Skubic’s when they return to their home? 

As part of the Smart America Closed Loop Healthcare team, Skubic worked to connect the technologies she’s created with those developed by other teams with similar health care goals. The team’s ultimate aim is to “close the loop” of health care coverage so devices, data and doctors’ diagnoses can be integrated for the good of the patient.


Meet Russell - a humanoid robot developed by mechanical and computer engineer Nilanjan Sarkar and psychologist Zachary Warren of Vanderbilt University. His purpose is to work with autistic children on their ability to imitate others. Read more.


Drones for disaster relief

At the Smart America Expo in June, Yan Wan from the University of North Texas exhibited unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) she developed that are capable of providing wireless communications to storm-ravaged areas where telephone access is out.

Typical wireless communications have a range limit of only a hundred meters, or about the length of a football field. However, using technology Wan and her colleagues developed, Wan was able to extend the Wi-Fi reach of drones to five kilometers, or a little more than three miles. The secret is designing directional antennas that can rotate and adjust automatically to assure a strong connection.

"This technology would be very useful in disaster scenarios when the cell towers are down and there’s no communication infrastructure," Wan said. "However, in order to enable the information dissemination between the rescue teams and control centers, we need to have a structure available to make this happen. And this is what we’re trying to provide."

In a grant from NSF, Wan is applying similar technology to next-generation aviation systems. One day, Wan’s research will enable drone-to-drone and flight-to-flight communications, improving air traffic safety, coordination and efficiency.

The Smart America Expo brought together leaders from academia, industry and government to demonstrate the ways that smarter cyber-physical systems (CPS)—sometimes called the Internet of Things—can lead to improvements in healthcare, transportation, energy and emergency response, and other critical areas.


Engineers and co-founders Matt Silver and Justin Buck are bringing their research from the lab to the market. Their system, called EcoVolt, generates methane gas from wastewater by leveraging what is called “electromethanogenesis.” Read more.


How Weird Water-Phobic Materials May Help Save The Earth

Engineers can now create materials that repel liquids so well they’re called superhydrophobic, i.e. they have a serious water phobia. With funding from the National Science Foundation, this booming area of research has the potential to benefit society in a big way. (Plus, it makes for amazing visuals.)

Pluck fresh drinking water from the air


Image credit: James Anderson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A beetle in the Namib Desert of Africa uses its textured back to gather drinking water from the fog-filled morning wind. If researchers can perform some beetle biomimicry, that would mean a new source for water in dry areas.

Quickly test for tainted water


Image credit: Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Thomas M. Schutzius, Constantine M. Megaridis, “Wettability patterning for high-rate, pumpless fluid transport on open, non-planar microfluidic platforms,” Lab Chip 14, 1538-1550 (2014) — Reproduced by permission of The Roya

Plastic strips with superhydrophilic (a.k.a. water-loving) centers and superhydrophobic surroundings can combine or separate fluids and have the potential to serve as platforms for new diagnostic tests. Doctors could use the disposable strips to field-test water samples for E. coli, for example.

More efficient cooling for power plants


Image credit: Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

Superhydrophobic coatings speed up the rate at which water vapor can condense on a surface, which could save energy and water by making cooling equipment used in power plants more efficient.

Reduce possible medical contamination


Image credit: Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Thomas M. Schutzius, Constantine M. Megaridis, “Wettability patterning for high-rate, pumpless fluid transport on open, non-planar microfluidic platforms,” Lab Chip 14, 1538-1550 (2014) — Reproduced by permission of The Roya

As superhydrophobic materials become cheaper, their potential as disposable medical devices grows. Tiny amounts of fluid, such as blood, can be mixed and measured on a paper strip, and then discarded.

Laugh in the face of gravity


Image credit: Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

At the micro-scale, who needs a pump? Surface tension causes liquids to travel uphill on the path of least resistance.

Make airplane wings impervious to ice


Image credit: James C. Bird, Rajeev Dhiman, Hyuk-Min Kwon and Kripa K. Varanasi

Engineers are looking to nature to learn how to reduce the time it takes for a water droplet to bounce away from a surface. The less time water spends in contact with a cold surface like an airplane wing, the less likely it is to freeze and ice over.

Reduce corrosion


Image credit: James C. Bird, Rajeev Dhiman, Hyuk-Min Kwon and Kripa K. Varanasi

Less contact time also means less opportunity for water or toxins within the water to degrade or dirty surfaces. This could mean longer-lasting roofs and solar panels.

Lead to even weirder, bigger ideas

Image credit: Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

Humans have been experimenting with water for thousands of years and we’re still finding new ways to use this most essential resource. Know of some other ways engineers are making water work for us? Tell us about them!


Hurricane Sandy was the deadliest of the 2012 hurricane season and is the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history. University of Washington civil engineer Dorothy Reed and her team are studying how Hurricane Sandy affected the New York metropolitan area’s infrastructure in order to find a way to make communities less vulnerable to such a storm. Read more.


The evolutionary history of penguins and how they made the transition from land to sea is not as well known as that of many of its marine counterparts, such as whales.

Researchers like Daniel Ksepka of North Carolina State University are mining rich fossil deposits from ancient coastal areas in New Zealand and South America to fill in the missing pieces in the history of these popular birds. They’ve already discovered two new species of penguin from fossils. Read more

Meanwhile, new research has shown that emperor penguins are in danger of dramatic declines by the end of the century due to climate change and will soon qualify for endangered status. Read more

Caption: A line of emperor penguins in Antarctica.
Credit: Glenn Grant, NSF