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ENG/EFRI FY07 Awards Announcement


NSF’s ‘EFRI’ Pursues Emerging Frontiers in Engineering Research:
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 safety standards?

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 transformational research.

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

Program Directors:

Press Release by Kristina Bartlett Brody, (703) 292-5355
August 28, 2007