University of Michigan Engineers Develop Nano-Fibers Inspired by Polar Bear Fur, Gecko Feet

By Nozomi ItoNovember 20th, 2018

Animal fur and gecko feet inspire new high-tech sticky and insulating surfaces.

By Harry Pettit for MAILONLINE

Published: 14:00 EST, 15 November 2018

High-tech carpets inspired by polar bear fur and gecko feet could lead to new sticky or insulating surfaces. Engineers have developed a cutting edge way to make arrays of nano-fibres inspired by materials found in nature. They could bring us coatings that are sticky, repellent, insulating or even light emitting.

Study senior author Joerg Lahann, Professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, said: ‘This is so removed from anything I’ve ever seen that I would have thought it was impossible.’

Researchers discovered almost by chance a new method for making arrays of fibres that are hundreds of times thinner than a human hair.

Polar bear hairs are structured to let light in while keeping heat from escaping. Water-repelling lotus leaves are coated with arrays of microscopic waxy tubules.

And the nanoscale hairs on the bottoms of gravity-defying gecko feet get so close to other surfaces that atomic forces of attraction come into play.

Researchers looking to mimic such ‘superpowers’ and more have needed a way to create the minuscule arrays that do the work.

Prof Lahann said: ‘Fundamentally, this is a completely different way of making nano-fibre arrays.’

The researchers have shown that their nano-fibres repelled water just like lotus leaves.

They grew straight and curved fibres and tested how they stuck together like Velcro -finding that clockwise and counterclockwise twisted fibres knitted together more tightly than two arrays of straight fibres.

They also experimented with optical properties, making a material that glowed.

The team believe it will be possible to make a structure that works like polar bear fur, with individual fibres structured to channel light.

But molecular carpets weren’t the original plan.

Prof Lahann’s group was working with that of Nicholas Abbott, at the time a Professor of chemical engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison, to put thin films of chain-like molecules, called polymers, on top of liquid crystals.

Liquid crystals are best known for their use in displays such as televisions and computer screens.

They were trying to make sensors that could detect single molecules.

Prof Lahann provided the expertise in producing thin films while Prof Abbott led the design and production of the liquid crystals.

In typical experiments, Prof Lahann’s group evaporates single links in the chain and coaxes them to condense onto surfaces.

But the thin polymer films sometimes didn’t materialise as expected.

Prof Abbott said: ‘The discovery reinforces my view that the best advances in science and engineering occur when things don’t go as planned.

‘You just have to be alert and view failed experiments as opportunities.’

Instead of coating the top of the liquid crystal, the links slipped into the fluid and connected with each other on the glass slide. The liquid crystal then guided the shapes of the nanofibers growing up from the bottom, creating nanoscale carpets.

Prof Abbott said: ‘A liquid crystal is a relatively disordered fluid, yet it can template the formation of nanofibers with remarkably well-defined lengths and diameters.’

And they didn’t only make straight strands. Depending on the liquid crystal, they could generate curved fibres, like microscopic bananas or staircases.

Prof Lahann added: ‘We have a lot of control over the chemistry, the type of fibres, the architecture of the fibres and how we deposit them.

‘This really adds a lot of complexity to the way we can engineer surfaces now; not just with thin two-dimensional films but in three dimensions.’

The findings were published in the journal Science.

Professor Christopher Chen Receives 2019 BMES Pritzker Award

By Nozomi ItoNovember 2nd, 2018

Professor Christopher Chen, Deputy Director of the CELL-MET Engineering Research Center and the founding director of Biological Design Center at Boston University, has been announced as the 2019 winner of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) Robert A. Pritzker Distinguished Lecture Award.

The BMES has chosen Professor Chen for “his seminal contributions to biomedical engineering” as “one of the leading scientists in the field of mechano-biology”. The Society cites his “research in human mesenchymal stem cells that revealed the role of RhoA as the critical signaling pathway regulating mechanical force responsive stem cell differentiation” and “Google Scholar h-index of 92 with nearly 40,000 citations”, among other achievements. Congratulations to Professor Chen on this great recognition!

Professor Chen will receive the award and deliver a plenary lecture during the 2019 BMES Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in October 2019.

As a new Pritzker Award recipient, Professor Chen joins another CELL-MET member, Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Columbia University, who is the 2017 winner of the award.

The Pritzker Award is the premier award of the Biomedical Engineering Society to recognize individuals for their accomplishments, significant contributions and service to the Society and the field of biomedical engineering.

Bishop Elected to Rank of NAI Fellow

By Cheryl R StewartDecember 12th, 2017

Professor David J. Bishop (ECE, Physics, MSE, ME, BME)
Professor David J. Bishop, Boston University

David J. Bishop, Director of the CELL-MET Engineering Research Center and Head of the Boston University Division of Materials Science & Engineering, has been elected to the rank of National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellow. The NAI Fellows Selection Committee has chosen Bishop for induction as he has “demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that has made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.” Congratulations to Professor Bishop on this great achievement and recognition as a truly prolific academic inventor!

Bishop will be inducted into the NAI at the Fellows Induction Ceremony on April 5, 2018 at The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

As a new NAI Fellow, Bishop joins the ranks of three other CELL-MET professors: Professor Steven Forrest, University of Michigan; Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Columbia University; and Professor Mark Grinstaff, Boston University. 

The NAI was founded in 2010 to recognize and encourage inventors with patents issued from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.

BU Wins $20 Million for NSF Engineering Research Center

By Cheryl R StewartSeptember 19th, 2017

Goal is personalized heart tissue for clinical use

A cardiac patch. The ERC’s ultimate goal is to advance nano-bio-manufacturing methods that could lead to large-scale fabrication of functional heart tissue, which could replace diseased or damaged muscle after a heart attack. Illustration courtesy of Jeroen Eyckmans

By Barbara Moran, BU Research

Boston University has won a $20 million, five-year award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a multi-institution Engineering Research Center (ERC), with the goal of synthesizing personalized heart tissue for clinical use. The grant, which is renewable for a total of 10 years and $40 million, is designed to accelerate an area of engineering research—in this case, bioengineering functional heart tissue—that is likely to spur societal change and economic growth within a decade.

“The goal is moving from the basic research capability to a technology that could be disruptive,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of the College of Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering, who notes that the ERC program is designed to stimulate translation of research to practice by facilitating worldwide corporate, clinical, and institutional partnerships. “The center will transform cardiovascular care by synthesizing breakthroughs in nanotechnology and manufacturing with tissue engineering and regenerative medicine,” he says.

ERC grants are extremely competitive. Of more than 200 applicants, only 4—Boston University, Purdue University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Texas A&M University—received awards in 2017. “The awarding of the NSF ERC is outstanding recognition of the quality and creativity of our faculty team from across the College of Engineering,” says Robert A. Brown, president of BU. “Their efforts will help make the creation of personalized human tissue for cardiac applications a reality.”

The Engineering Research Center will be housed at Boston University, the lead institution on the grant. The award hits a “sweet spot” at the intersection of BU’s strengths in biomedical engineering, photonics, and nanotechnology, says Lutchen. David Bishop, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics, and head of ENG’s Division of Materials Science & Engineering, will direct the center. Working with him will be four leaders in specific areas—or “thrusts”—of technical expertise: Thomas Bifano, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering and materials science & engineering, and director of the Photonics Center, will direct imaging; Alice White, an ENG professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department, and professor of materials science & engineering, will direct nanomechanics; Christopher Chen, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and materials science & engineering, will direct cellular engineering; and Stephen Forrest, a University of Michigan professor of materials science and engineering, will direct nanotechnology. Arvind Agarwal, a Florida International University (FIU) professor of mechanical and materials engineering, will work with White’s team to advance nanomechanics methods, and will also lead FIU’s involvement in the ERC, with a crucial role in education and outreach.

David Bishop, BU professor of electrical and computer engineering
David Bishop, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering, a CAS professor of physics, and head of the Division of Materials Science & Engineering, will direct the ERC. Photo by Cydney Scott

The ERC will also develop areas of expertise in education, diversity, administration, and outreach. Helen Fawcett, an ENG research assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will lead the diversity team. Stormy Attaway (GRS’84,’88), an ENG assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will colead the workforce development and education team with Sarah Hokanson (CAS’05), Professional Development & Postdoctoral Affairs program director. The administration team will be led by Robert Schaejbe, Photonics Center assistant director of operations and financial administration. Thomas Dudley, Photonics Center assistant director of technical programs, will lead the Innovation Ecosystem team, a group of companies and research consortia that will serve as advisors and work with the ERC to commercialize the technologies it creates.

Two partner institutions—the University of Michigan and Florida International University—as well as six affiliate institutions—Harvard Medical School, Columbia University, the Wyss Institute at Harvard, Argonne National Laboratory, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and the Centro Atómico Bariloche/Instituto Balseiro in Argentina—will offer additional expertise in bioengineering, nanotechnology, and other areas.

“We have assembled a very competitive team from world-class institutions with a compelling vision,” says Bishop, noting that the grant is designed to move research from the lab into industry, while also creating education, job training, and employment opportunities. “This grant gives us the opportunity to define a societal problem, and then create the industry to solve it. Heart disease is one of the biggest problems we face. This may allow us to solve it, not make incremental progress.”

Heart disease—including coronary heart disease, hypertension, and stroke—is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. About 790,000 people in the United States have heart attacks each year, about one every 40 seconds. Of those, about 114,000 will die. Statistics like these, and the fact that cardiovascular disease is relatively advanced in terms of regenerative medicine, led the team to target heart disease in their ERC proposal.

Scientists and engineers have been struggling to build or grow artificial organs for decades. But aside from simple, nonmoving parts, like artificial windpipes, the field has not lived up to its early promise. This is partly because organs, with their multiple cell types, have proved difficult to synthesize, and also because researchers have learned that the body’s dynamic stresses—beating hearts, stretching lungs—play a larger role in how tissues grow and perform than originally thought.

The ERC plans to accomplish four goals with the cellular metamaterials it intends to build: fabricate responsive heart tissue containing muscle cells and blood vessels; understand and control the tissue using optical technologies; scale the process up to easily create multiple copies of the tissue; and personalize the product, so it can be tailored to individual patients. The first goal will be to create “functionalized heart tissue on a chip,” says Lutchen, tissue that could be built with a specific patient’s cells and used to test new drugs and therapies. The ultimate goal is to fabricate heart tissue that could replace diseased or damaged muscle after a heart attack.

“It’s humbling to have the opportunity to work on something that could really be a game changer,” says Bishop. “If we succeed, we’ll save a lot of lives and add meaningful years for many people.”

This story originally appeared on BU Today