FY07 Awards Announcement
NSF’s ‘EFRI’ Pursues Emerging Frontiers in Engineering
A transformative systems approach can revolutionize how we approach
problems large—such as complexity in transportation networks—and
small—such as the molecular origins of disease.
If an unplanned event disrupts a city’s wireless communications
network, potentially causing unpredictable harm, can the network
quickly assess the damage and repair itself?
As airline travel increases along with fuel costs, can technology
help make the air traffic control system one that is robust, one
that minimizes fuel consumption and costs, one that adapts to unexpected
weather changes, and, at the same time, one that maintains high
Is it possible to regenerate some of the body’s most complex
tissues? Can we simulate, computationally model, and even predict
the growth of cancer cells? Can we understand the connection between
a cell’s basic functions and major diseases of the brain?
To answer these questions requires that experts from different
fields combine their knowledge. Some of today’s most important
science and technology questions lie at the frontiers of existing
knowledge and at the intersections between disciplines, says Sohi
Rastegar, director of a new office at the National Science Foundation
(NSF) created to fund high-risk, interdisciplinary and potentially
The Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) office
in the NSF Directorate for Engineering has announced its first 12
grants, which give a total of $23,801,172 over four years to 54
researchers representing 23 institutions.
The grants demonstrate the EFRI goal to inspire and enable experts
from different fields to work together in pushing the limits of
our knowledge and technology. The first set of awards funds research
that promises to both advance our basic understanding and control
of human-built systems, and also to achieve a foundational understanding
of biological systems with the potential to know how diseases form.
[Click here for summaries
of the 12 projects]
Systems that Modify Themselves
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, its effects were disastrous
and not planned for. Critical infrastructure—the power grid,
transportation, hospitals, and wireless communication—were
overwhelmed. What if these human-built systems had a mechanism,
somewhat like a human’s central nervous system, in place that
allowed them to fix themselves and continue functioning? What if
they could sense, diagnose, and change their structures to adapt?
Even under normal circumstances, could this same ability help the
system change continuously to function at its best?
Such a mechanism is called autonomous reconfigurability, and currently
researchers do not know exactly how to embed autonomous reconfigurability
into human-built systems and infrastructures that are increasingly
complex in size and function.
Five of the EFRI grants will fund unprecedented research to forge
a theoretical framework for embedding autonomous reconfigurability
into any type of complex system, including air traffic, wireless
communication networks, or a city’s transportation network.
A key tool is cyberinfrastructure, a collection of devices, networks,
software and ubiquitous computation.
One example comes from a team led by Daniela Rus of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, and including researchers from the University
of Washington (Eric Klavins), Cornell University (Hod Lipson) and
the University of Pennsylvania (Mark Yim). This project offers a
radical approach to creating autonomous reconfigurability based
on the team’s work with small robots. The Rus team proposes
a new kind of robotic system for construction in which available
materials and the final structure are not clearly known. The robots
sense changes and variables, diagnose them, adapt and, together,
successfully build themselves into a structure best suited for its
environment. Such a system could be a tool not only for future construction
challenges, but also for optimizing current construction practices.
How Cells Work: Uniting Engineering and Biology
Because most researchers approach a problem from a specific discipline
and focused expertise, our current understanding of the full complexity
of the cell is fragmented. Seven of the EFRI grants bring together
engineering and biology to work together on one question.
“How does a cell work in its totality?” Rastegar says.
“Most research focuses on a single phenomenon. The idea here
is to understand multiple interacting phenomena within and among
cells and their environments.” For example, instead of studying
how a cell responds to an electrical change in its environment,
researchers must understand the cell’s response holistically,
looking at biology in concert with electrical, mechanical, chemical
and thermal effects.
The hope is that the research will help us not only understand
the structure and functions of the cell, but also how the cell responds
to many different changes in its environment, and how it communicates
and interacts with that environment and with other cells. The aim
is to understand the cell from a systems perspective, the way engineers
must understand human-built systems.
Such a foundational understanding of how living systems function
could lead to major breakthroughs in applications ranging from drug
delivery systems, biomaterials, tissue regeneration, sensing technologies,
alternative energy sources, processes for detecting environmental
pollutants or bioterrorism agents, and new products yet to be discovered.
An example is from a University of Virginia team led by bioengineer
and surgeon Cato C. Laurencin, working with Edward A. Botchwey,
Yusef Khan, Lakshmi Nair, and Nathan S. Swami. With EFRI funding,
they propose to access several disciplines in order to successfully
regenerate tissues having complex structure. The team is focusing
on the anterior cruciate ligament, a stabilizing knee ligament that
connects the thigh bone to the leg bone and rarely heals naturally
when torn. The tissue would be constructed from the nanoscale—between
the size of an atom and hundreds of molecules. Our ability to manipulate
materials at the nanoscale is rapidly evolving, and to maximize
precision and control over the way the tissue takes shape, the researchers
will combine advances in polymer chemistry for synthesizing nanoscale
fibers, in using electric fields to group nanoscale fibers, and
in using ion beams to control surface chemistry at the nanoscale.
The goal is to realize a method for regenerating complex tissues,
one that mimics biology and builds the tissue with precision from
the nanoscale up. Meeting this goal will require an understanding
of biological, mechanical, chemical, thermal and electrical effects
on the tissue’s structure.
For more information, you may contact Sohi Rastegar:
Phone: (703) 292-5379
Press Release by Kristina Bartlett Brody, (703) 292-5355 firstname.lastname@example.org
August 28, 2007