Research News

Not Quite Frankenstein

UConn Today

Where can you watch a group of inanimate objects come together, form a cohesive structure, and start displaying what looks very much like organic behavior?

You might say this sounds like a modern-day Frankenstein.

But for a real-life example, you could visit the laboratory of psychologist James Dixon in Storrs, Conn.

Dixon and his colleagues at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action (CESPA) are building a research program around the idea that a lot can be learned about perception and action in living things from observing inanimate objects.

“Our observations suggest that matter that has become life has found some physical principle that we don’t quite understand yet,” says Dixon, associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

He calls the concept “radical,” “way out there,” and “potentially transformative.” Continue reading

Bloodless sensors monitor diabetes patients

The Daily Campus

According to the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 25.8 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. This statistic includes both Type I and Type II diabetes. Diabetes is a serious, life-changing disease that requires blood sugar levels to be monitored many times a day. However, here at the university a group of research professors are developing an implantable, wireless biosensor that holds the potential of changing the face of this disease.

The research is being conducted by the laboratory teams of Board of Trustees distinguished professor of pharmaceutics Diane Burgess, chemistry professor Fotios Papadimitrakopoulos and engineering professor Faquir Jain. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a small, wireless and completely implantable biosensor that will monitor diabetic patients’ blood sugar levels. This device will eliminate the use of a lancing device to extract a blood sample in order to check the blood sugar levels in a meter. Continue reading

Terrestrial Climate & Carbon Dioxide

UConn Today

Nearly 3Michael Hren4 million years ago, the Earth underwent a transformation from a warm, high-carbon dioxide “greenhouse” state to a lower-CO2, variable climate similar to the modern “icehouse” world. Massive ice sheets grew across the Antarctic continent, major animal groups shifted, and ocean temperatures decreased by as much as 5 degrees.

But studies of how this drastic change affected temperatures on land have had mixed results. Some show no appreciable terrestrial climate change; others find cooling of up to 8 degrees and large changes in seasonality.

Now a group of American and British scientists have used a new chemical technique to measure the change in terrestrial temperature associated with this shift in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Their results suggest a drop of as much as 10 degrees for fresh water during the warm season and 6 degrees for the atmosphere in the North Atlantic, giving further evidence that the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and Earth’s surface temperature are inextricably linked. Continue reading

Boosting Biofuel Production

A new $1.8 million project with the Department of Energy (DOE)—led by chemistry professor Steven Suib—will develop new biofuel sources, catalysts, and reactors that would be suitable for the Northeast.

The goal of the interdisciplinary project is to develop the technology to the stage where it could be transferred to small biofuel businesses that would use locally available resources for fuel.

This would eliminate one major cost associated with biofuels: transporting the raw biomaterial to the site of the plant. By developing new catalysts that can be used with different types of biofuels, and by testing pilot plants (specifically a new fuel source of rapid-growth poplar trees would thrive in this climate), the UConn researchers will demonstrate how bioenergy technology could be important in the Northeast region of the U.S. Continue reading

A Better Way to Photo Gray

Greg Sotzing, professor of chemistry and a member of UConn’s Polymer Program, recently perfected a method for creating quick-changing, variable colors in films and displays, such as sunglasses. Sotzing and his colleagues have made these materials less expensive and less wasteful to manufacture than any previous method. And aside from creating vanity glasses, the technology is in high demand by the U.S. military. “This is the next big thing for transition lenses,” Sotzing says. The typical material behind a transition lens is what’s called a photochromic film, or a sheet of polymers that change color when light hits them. Sotzing’s new technology does things slightly differently– his electrochromic lenses are controlled by an electric current passing through them when triggered by a stimulus, such as light. The electric current allows the lens to change colors virtually instantaneously. This process could be very useful for the military, Sotzing says. For example, if a person emerges from a dark passageway and into the bright sunlight of the desert, a lens that would alter its color instantly to complement the surroundings could mean life or death for some soldiers. Currently, soldiers have to physically change the lenses in their goggles. In November 2010, partially based on work supported by the Center for Science and Technology Commercialization’s Prototype Fund, the UConn R&D Corp. started a company, called Alphachromics Inc., with Sotzing and colleague Michael Invernale—now a post-doctoral researcher at MIT—as founders. The University has a patent pending for this new technology, which is under option to the company. Alphachromics is also testing applications of these polymer systems for energy-saving windows and custom fabrics. Sotzing and Alphachromics are currently in talks with sunglass manufacturers. -Article adapted from UConn Today

Clean, Green Chemistry

chemistry textbooksNicholas Leadbeater has a reputation. People call him a “microwave chemist,” because he–you guessed it– is a chemist who uses microwaves in his laboratory. But even though these humble machines have enabled him to develop chemical techniques that are faster, cleaner, and “greener” than many similar methods before them, the associate professor of chemistry doesn’t give them too much credit. “There’s nothing magical to microwaves,” he says. “We use microwaves to facilitate what we do, and that’s chemistry– chemistry with a purpose and a use.” Using two of the chemical reactions that earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry earlier this month, Leadbeater has over the past decade discovered techniques for making natural products, pharmaceuticals, polymers, and other advanced materials with a fraction of the waste, in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the cost. The techniques he has developed allow scientists to quickly and easily create products, such as potential new medicines, to be tested for use in the marketplace. “Our work builds on what these famous Nobel Prize winners [Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi, and Akira Suzuki] did: we’re developing new ways to build new molecules,” says Leadbeater. Continue reading