Published: Oct. 28, 2019

With more than $630 million in new research funding last year, our faculty are on the forefront of technological advancements with the potential to solve some of today’s most pressing challenges. Here’s a brief look at just a few of their projects.

Tam Vu's 'earable' computersHealth monitoring in an ‘earable’ package

Tam Vu
Computer Science

Vu founded and directs the Mobile and Networked Systems lab, where his team is developing new wireless and mobile devices called earable computers. These small devices are worn on, in or near a user’s ears and can be used for unobtrusive monitoring of health conditions, such as sleep quality, or hands-free control of computers for people with disabilities. Most existing head-based sensing and stimulation methods are cumbersome, intrusive and expensive — suitable only for stationary and short-term use in clinics or hospitals. Placing these devices on the ear in a small package would make them significantly easier for users to fold into their daily lives. Vu recently received an NSF CAREER award to support this research, and preliminary work was supported by NSF and a Google Faculty Award.

Evan Thomas' Rwanda cookstovesFilters, cookstoves are making a difference

Evan Thomas
Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering

A recent study found that a large-scale program to deliver water filters and portable biomass-burning cookstoves to Rwandan homes reduced the prevalence of reported diarrhea and acute respiratory infection in children under 5 by 29% and 25%, respectively. The results suggest that similar programs can provide an interim solution for rural populations that lack access to safe drinking water and rely on traditional fires for cooking. “Until now, there has been limited evidence of the effects when these products are delivered at scale,” said Thomas, a co-author on the study and director of the Mortenson Center for Global Engineering. “The study demonstrates the viability of bringing water filters and cookstoves to vulnerable households and will help inform future national initiatives.”

Charles Musgrave and Sean Shaheen superconductivityBreaking the limits on superconductivity

Charles Musgrave
Chemical and Biological Engineering
Sean Shaheen
Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering 

Engineering faculty are beginning interdisciplinary research that could one day bring lossless power transmission lines, quantum computing and levitating trains closer to reality in everyday life. Those advancements can be achieved through superconductivity, which today is only possible through extremely cold temperatures and high pressures. Those aspects limit potential applications due to cost and logistics, but Musgrave and Shaheen — along with Daniel Dessau in physics — are working to develop organic, solid-state materials that exhibit superconductivity at conditions closer to room temperature and standard pressure. The research is being funded through a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Orit PelegUsing plants to study social networks

Orit Peleg
Computer Science  

Humans interact in social networks every day around the office coffee pot or online with Facebook. The structure and connections within these networks shape how information is shared. That in turn defines much of our modern life and collective behavior, though little is known about how or why these processes work. That’s because it’s difficult to study how these systems, with so many inputs and variables, actually work. Peleg is leading an international team of researchers trying to untangle this question by studying social systems in sunflowers. That plant is ideally suited because it adjusts its flowers and leaves to earn maximum sun exposure, throwing shade on nearby plants, which also adjust — creating a network. Peleg’s team is in charge of computer modeling for the project, which could also have agricultural implications related to maximizing planting space.

Lucy PaoWind turbines that mimic nature

Lucy Pao
Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering 

Pao is overseeing testing on a new “morphing,” two-bladed wind turbine at the National Renewable Energy Lab. The new blades are much lighter and more flexible than traditional versions and bend like palm trees in the wind, making them ideal for offshore use. The rotors are also positioned downwind, meaning they bend away from the structure. This allows them to be built larger without risking damage should a strong wind push them into the tower. Finally, the two-blade design means less total material needed in construction.

Anushree ChatterjeeSuper ‘FAST’ response to disease outbreaks

Anushree Chatterjee
Chemical and Biological Engineering

When outbreaks happen, response time is crucial. Unfortunately, developing custom therapies as countermeasures through traditional channels is often a slow and arduous process. But with Chatterjee’s Facile Accelerated Specific Therapeutic (FAST) platform, the process of drug discovery to synthesis and creation of a new therapy can be completed in less than a week. The platform can produce therapies for any system or disease — from highly adaptive microbial super bugs to radiation poisoning in astronauts — by targeting genes and gene expression.

Carson Bruns' tattoosTattoos to prevent skin cancer

Carson Bruns
Mechanical Engineering, ATLAS

Bruns is developing tattoos that are both beautiful and functional. In his recent TEDxMileHigh talk, he said, “Tattoos will soon be able to give us information about what’s going on inside our bodies.” Bruns is experimenting with loading microcapsules with UV-sensitive, heat-sensitive and conductive dyes. With UV-sensitive dyes, he has been able to create and test what he refers to as “solar freckles,” small tattooed spots that appear when exposed to the sun. He hopes they will help protect against the 5 million preventable cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year. Beyond sun exposure, Bruns sees a future where tattoos measure body temperature, blood sugar levels and blood alcohol content; make skin less likely to wrinkle; and help the skin of burn victims protect internal organs from being more severely damaged.

Jianliang Xiao e-skinSelf-healing, fully recyclable e-skin 

Jianliang Xiao
Mechanical Engineering

Xiao and Wei Zhang of chemistry are developing a new kind of material for electronic skins that may also have the ability to shapeshift. Their completely recyclable, self-healing and flexible e-skin has applications in human health, robotics, prosthetics and beyond. Xiao’s focus has been on improving the e-skin’s mechanical performance. He and his research group are developing an antenna that can change shape, enabling an autonomous change in characteristics. When exposed to a stimulus, the material transforms. When the stimulus is removed, the elasticity of the device leads it to morph back into its original shape. This technology may also be used as a way to monitor a person’s vital signs, improve robotic interactions with human environments and increase capabilities for prosthetic devices.

Christoph Keplinger soft roboticsThe softer side of robotics

Christoph Keplinger
Mechanical Engineering

For many decades, people have dreamed of robotic solutions for a variety of tasks. While progress has been made in robot brains, their bodies have seen few advancements. Because they are typically made with rigid materials like metal and traditional rigid electric motors, robot capabilities are limited. The materials also make human interactions with robots less safe and make it difficult for robots to adapt to unpredictable challenges. “Soft robotics will enable a new generation of more lifelike prosthetics for people who have lost parts of their bodies,” Keplinger said. “With soft robotics, we will also be able to enhance and restore agility and dexterity, and thereby help older people maintain autonomy longer.” Drawing inspiration from soft and deformable materials found in nature, like muscle and skin, Keplinger is researching and building artificial muscles or soft actuators, which will advance what robots can do.

Juliet Gopinath and Victor BrightMini-microscope for deep brain imaging

Juliet Gopinath
Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering
Victor Bright
Mechanical Engineering

A team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Colorado Anschutz have demonstrated a microscope that fits on the head of a freely behaving mouse and can peer deeply inside the brain.

The microscope, known as the 2P-FCM, uses an electrowetting lens being developed by Bright and Gopinath. The scope is mounted on the head of a freely moving mouse, where a high-powered, fiber optic light can view and control neural activity as it happens. The lens is liquid and can change shape when electricity is applied. The device enables deep brain imaging and better understanding of animal behaviors, such as spatial navigation, sleep and social interactions.