Making a Better Biodegradable Pad

Each year, nearly 20 billion sanitary pads, tampons and applicators are dumped into North American landfills every year, and it takes centuries for them to biodegrade inside plastic bags, according to a 2016 Harvard Business School report. Additionally, it requires high amounts of fossil fuel energy to produce the plastic for these products, resulting in a large carbon footprint.

But a team of students led by University of Utah materials science and engineering assistant professor (lecturer) Jeff Bates has developed a new, 100-percent biodegradable feminine maxi pad that is made of all natural materials and is much thinner and more comfortable than other similar products.

The SHERO Pad uses a processed form of algae as its super-absorbent ingredient, which is then covered with cotton and the same material that makes up tea bags. The result is a maxi pad that is effective, comfortable to wear and can break down anywhere from 45 days to six months.

“This is novel in comparison to other biodegradable options out there for pads,” said Amber Barron, a University of Utah junior in materials science and engineering who is on the team of four students. “Most are really bulky because they don’t have a superabsorbent layer.”

The need for something like the SHERO Pad originally came from SHEVA, a nonprofit advocacy group for women and girls in Guatemala, which turned to Bates because it was looking for a sustainable solution for feminine hygiene waste. One of Bates’ area of research is in hydrogels, which are water-absorbing polymers.

“In Guatemala, there’s no public sanitation system. All the rivers are black because they are so polluted,” Bates says. “So there really is a genuine need for people in Guatemala to have biodegradable options.”

Part of Bates’ solution came one night while feeding his 5-year-old daughter.

“One day we were eating dinner with white rice, and my daughter spilled it all over the floor,” he says about that night two years ago. “The next morning, when I was cleaning it up, it was all dry and crusted. I drove to work and thought, ‘What was it about rice that does that?’”

That question of how rice hydrates and dehydrates began a two-year process of searching for the right natural materials for the feminine pad, which included testing with different leaves, such as banana leaves, and forms of cotton.

Bates, Barron and the rest of the team — which includes sophomore students, Sarai Patterson, Ashlea Patterson and Ali Dibble — ultimately developed the SHERO Pad, which is made up of four layers: An outer layer of raw cotton similar to a tea bag to repel liquid, a transfer layer of organic cotton to absorb the liquid and pull it from the outer layer, the super-absorbent layer made of agarose gel (a polymer from brown algae), and a final layer made of a corn-based material that keeps the moisture inside and prevents leakage.

While there are other similar sustainable feminine pads on the market today, they either use a hydrogel that is not 100 percent biodegradable or they use thicker layers of natural cotton that are uncomfortable to wear, Barron says. Another advantage to the SHERO Pad is that it can easily be manufactured in smaller villages using locally sourced materials and without sophisticated tools, just common presses and grinding stones, Bates says.

While the team originally developed the SHERO Pad for users in developing countries such as Guatemala, Bates and the students also will start selling the product in the U.S. for environmentally conscious women. A working prototype has been produced, and they have launched a startup company based in Bountiful, Utah. They hope to have products in Guatemala and on U.S. store shelves within a year.

U Top University for Commercializing Technology

The University of Utah is the top research university in the nation when it comes to commercializing technology innovations, according to the Milken Institute’s 2017 ranking of Best Universities for Technology Transfer.

The U has “quietly evolved into one of the most prestigious research universities in the United States with a strong emphasis on commercializing its research,” the institute said in the report released April 20. The U moved to the top spot after being ranked 14th in the institute’s inaugural report released in 2006.

The U was ranked above other top-tier research institutions, including Columbia University, the University of Florida, Brigham Young University and Stanford University.

“This recognition is due to the tremendous culture of innovation and entrepreneurship created by our faculty and the caliber of translational research here at the U,” said Keith Marmer, executive director and associate vice president of Technology & Venture Commercialization at the University of Utah. “The work our faculty is doing leads to knowledge and innovations that result in high-skill jobs and companies whose benefits are felt in Utah and beyond.”

This is the second time the U has been ranked No. 1 this year in the commercialization of its research.

The University of Utah was also named the top college in the country for aspiring entrepreneurs, according to LendEdu, an online marketplace for student loans, student loan refinancing, credit cards, and personal loans.

In a survey of the top 50 colleges, the U came out on top based on entrepreneurship courses offered, tuition and fees and entrepreneurship resources available.

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The Milkin ranking is based on the University Technology Transfer and Commercialization Index, which uses four key indicators of technology transfer success, measured on a four-year average (2012-2015): patents issued, licenses granted, licensing income and start-ups formed. These were normalized based on a four-year average of research dollars received by each university, for a total of eight measures.

The index uses data collected by the Association of University Technology Managers in its Annual Licensing Activity Survey.

The U attracted $417.2 million in research spending in 2015, the institute noted, and consistently ranked high across all the indicators. It was propelled to the No. 1 position due to licensing income and start-ups, which received the highest weights in the overall index.

Between 2012 and 2015, the U generated $211.8 million in licensing income and recorded 69 start-ups, which the report noted was a “remarkable accomplishment” given its location in a smaller metropolitan area.

“Utah has a strong entrepreneurial culture and an incentive system that makes it attractive for research faculty and students alike,” the report said, praising the U’s Technology & Venture Commercialization as “among the best in the nation.”

It highlighted several research and entrepreneurial endeavors at the U: the Center for Medical Innovation; the Entrepreneurial Faculty Scholars program; the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute; and the Center for Engineering Innovation.

The institute noted that public and private universities are a source of competitive advantage because they create a skilled workforce and, through research and development and tech-transfer, help create new technologies and new industries.

“Research funding should be a top priority for enhancing American economic growth,” the institute stated in its report.

More Power to the People

Thanks to the discovery of a new material by University of Utah engineers, jewelry such as a ring and your body heat could generate enough electricity to power a body sensor, or a cooking pan could charge a cellphone in just a few hours.

The team, led by University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ashutosh Tiwari, has found that a combination of the chemical elements calcium, cobalt and terbium can create an efficient, inexpensive and bio-friendly material that can generate electricity through a thermoelectric process involving heat and cold air.

Their findings were published in a new paper March 20 in the latest issue of Scientific Reports. The first author on the paper is University of Utah materials science and engineering postdoctoral researcher, Shrikant Saini.

Thermoelectric effect is a process where the temperature difference in a material generates an electrical voltage. When one end of the material is hot and the other end is cold, charge carriers from the hot end move through the material to the cold end, generating an electrical voltage. The material needs less than a one-degree difference in temperature to produce a detectable voltage.

For years, researchers have been looking for the right kind of material that makes the process more efficient and produces more electricity yet is not toxic. There are other materials that can generate power this way, such as cadmium-, telluride- or mercury-based materials, but those are toxic to humans. The unique advantage to this new material by Tiwari’s team is that it is inexpensive to produce and, mostly importantly, bio-friendly and eco-friendly while still being efficient at generating electricity, Tiwari says. Therefore, it could be safe to use with humans.

“There are no toxic chemicals involved,” he says. “It’s very efficient and can be used for a lot of day-to-day applications.”

The applications for this new material are endless, Tiwari says. It could be built into jewelry that uses body heat to power implantable medical devices such as blood-glucose monitors or heart monitors. It could be used to charge mobile devices through cooking pans, or in cars where it draws from the heat of the engine. Airplanes could generate extra power by using heat from within the cabin versus the cold air outside. Power plants also could use the material to produce more electricity from the escaped heat the plant generates.

“In power plants, about 60 percent of energy is wasted,” postdoctoral researcher, Saini, says. “With this, you could reuse some of that 60 percent.”

Finally, Tiwari says it could be used in developing countries where electricity is scarce and the only source of energy is the fire in stoves.

The Technology & Venture Commercialization Office of the University of Utah has filed a U.S. patent for the material, and the team will initially develop it for use in cars and for biosensors, Tiwari says.

In addition to Tiwari and Saini, co-authors on the paper include graduate students Haritha Sree Yaddanapudi, Kun Tian, Yinong Yin and David Magginetti.

 

This news release and photos may be downloaded from:

http://unews.utah.edu

All Brawn AND Brains

You may know Taylor Sparks as a University of Utah materials science and engineering assistant professor. But earlier this month, he was Taylor Sparks, reality TV guest star.

Sparks appeared in an episode of the Discovery Channel television show, “Diesel Brothers,” a popular reality program based on his brother’s successful truck modification shop, DieselSellerz, in Woods Cross.

In the latest episode, which aired March 13, his burly, bearded brother, Dave “Heavy D” Sparks, wants to modify a Ford truck so it can perform a somersault, a feat that has eluded him before. So Dave enlists his brother Taylor to come up with the necessary physics to make it happen.

Based on some equations, Taylor, who earned a doctorate in applied physics from Harvard University, deduces that his brother’s crew has to find the center of gravity, build a round roll cage, and use hydraulics and extra weight to force the truck to roll forward.

“We’re fighting physics,” Dave Sparks says in the episode. “Luckily, we’ve got a scientist on our side.”

Click on the video below to see if they make it (they try the stunt in front of Taylor’s engineering class).

Click here to watch the full episode (cable subscription required).

Utah’s Need for Engineers

Utah’s growth in the technology sector continues to skyrocket, and engineering colleges around the state are doing everything they can to meet the high demand for engineers.

In the first six months of 2016, Utah had the greatest percentage increase of technology-related jobs in the U.S. with a growth of 7.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number of tech-sector jobs in Utah grew from about 46,000 to 70,000 from 2005 to 2015, according to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (see graphic above).

Meanwhile on the front end, the number of students seeking engineering degrees has grown even more rapidly. At the University of Utah, for example, the number of first-year students enrolled in the College of Engineering has grown 178 percent in the last 10 years, according to the College.

“In some areas of the state it’s just massive growth,” Val Hale, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said about the growing number of technology companies in Utah. “There’s no doubt that technology is playing a key role in our economy moving forward.”

As a result, 81 Utah companies led by the Utah Technology Council have endorsed Utah Rep. Val Peterson’s, R-Orem, $5-million Request for Appropriation to aid the state’s engineering and computer science programs in dealing with escalating student demand. These additional ongoing funds would add capacity to the statewide system and expand the workforce needed by high-tech companies. Since 2014, the number of engineering and computer science degrees awarded by the statewide system have increased by 29 percent thanks to prior state investments.

“Fortunately, the number of qualified Utah students who want to study engineering and computer science is growing as fast as the demand for graduates. In 2005, 7 percent of the U’s freshman class wanted to go into the College of Engineering — this year, it was 19 percent,” said Richard B. Brown, dean of the U’s College of Engineering. “We need to grow the capacity so that we can educate them for these exciting, creative jobs of the 21st century.”

Being able to tap into a bigger pool of qualified graduating engineers from the state would certainly help Starr Fowler. The senior vice president for human resources at Provo-based smart-home services company, Vivint, said they are desperately looking for new engineers to accommodate their massive growth.

“We are growing a lot,” she said. “We have double-digit revenue growth year over year.”

Currently, Vivint has some 35 job openings for software and hardware engineers — not to replace employees who are leaving, but to fill new slots for the company’s expansion. Fowler said they are looking for qualified people ranging from software developers to mechanical engineers who help design their home security and smart-home devices. She also said Vivint is not the only company along the Salt Lake Valley with an appetite for more engineers.

“It’s huge,” she said of the expanding technology sector from Ogden to Provo, known as “Silicon Slopes.” “All you have to do is drive down I-15 to the Point of the Mountain and the other side and just see. Every other week there’s a new building up or a new sign with a new company. The growth is substantial.”

And Utah is not starving for just software developers, GOED’s Hale said. An expanding manufacturing sector, including in areas such as composite materials, has created a need for mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers among others.

“Manufacturing continues to grow in our state, and it’s very engineering-dependent,” he said. “We’ve experienced significant growth, and manufacturing is involved in almost all of our clusters from life sciences to aerospace. They all rely heavily on manufacturing, which relies heavily on engineering.”

Hale added that Utah continues to be an attractive target for business startups thanks to the valley’s proximity to outdoor recreation, the state’s quality of life and low cost of living. Consequently, that has made these companies more competitive when it comes to filling their workforce, and median salaries for technology jobs have risen. The average salary for a software engineer in Utah, for example, is more than $95,000, according to Glassdoor.com.

“When a lot of the companies reach maturity and are purchased, they stay here, like Omniture. Those jobs stay here instead of migrating elsewhere, and that creates an ecosystem that thrives,” Hale said. “It’s a good place for businesses to come and take root and grow.”

Sparks Receives NSF Award

Materials science and engineering assistant professor Taylor Sparks received a five-year NSF CAREER Award. The award is for his project of developing tools to more safely and effectively discover new materials that could be used to harvest wasted energy.

Typically, about 60 percent of energy used from things such as a laptop computer, cell phone or even power lines is wasted in the form of heat. “If you can recover even small amounts of that, there is tremendous potential for energy,” Sparks said.

So he and his team have partnered with a software development company to develop tools that can take huge amounts of data about all known materials and suggest the best sustainable thermoelectric compounds that can extract this wasted energy. The software company will develop the programs, while Taylor and his team will provide the database of materials and validate the software’s results.

“In essence it works like Netflix. If you watch season after season of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ or give it five stars, then it can suggest with high probability that you might also like ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’” he said about how the software would work. “Instead of picking random compositions out of a hat to discover new materials, we rely on computationally inexpensive statistical probabilities of thermoelectric performance to predict what new materials might be great performers, and then we go make them.”

By successfully coming up with compound materials that can absorb the heat and convert it to energy, these materials could be key to increasing the energy efficiency for any powered device.

Sparks earned his bachelor’s in materials science and engineering from the U in 2007, a master’s in materials from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a doctorate in applied physics from Harvard University.

Anil Virkar Named NAI Fellow

University of Utah materials science and engineering Distinguished Professor Anil Virkar, who has been with the U for more than 43 years, can add yet another honor to his list — he has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).

“I’m extremely honored to be named to NAI. Having worked at Utah for 43 years with people like Prof. Ron Gordon and Prof. Ivan Cutler helped me get off the ground,” he said. “I’m also proud of the opportunities I have had here in Utah and the innovative research that is done here. Utah has been ahead of other states in the commercialization of research, which has helped me a lot as well.”

Virkar is one of 175 Fellows named to the academy from more than 135 institutions, according to an NAI announcement Tuesday, Dec. 13. He is the only one from the University of Utah to be named in this year’s group.

Selection to the academy is accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated “a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society,” according to NAI. The 2016 Fellows will be inducted April 6 as part of the Sixth Annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston.

Virkar received his undergraduate degree at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in 1973. Shortly after, he arrived at the University of Utah first as a post-doctoral fellow and then became professor where he has remained his entire career.

During his time here, Virkar has co-founded several companies, including Colorado-based Versa Power Systems and Materials and Systems Research, Inc., in Salt Lake City. Most recently, he co-founded Nano-Oxides, Inc., for the synthesis of nanosize oxide powders. His main research is focused on fuel cells, batteries, multi-species transport and the fabrication of ceramics.

Virkar also was elected to be Fellow of ASM International, the world’s largest association of materials-centric engineers and scientists, and he was recently named for the H. Kent Bowen Endowed Professorship in Materials Science and Engineering.

He joins University of Utah College of Engineering Dean Richard B. Brown and electrical and computer engineering professor Cynthia Furse, who also is the U’s associate vice president for research, as faculty from the College who have been named NAI Fellows.

With the election of the 2016 class there are now 757 NAI Fellows, representing 229 research universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes.

Lundgren and Stephanz Named MSE Outstanding Seniors

FT. DOUGLAS OFFICER’S CLUB, SALT LAKE CITY — On the evening of Thursday, April 7th, 2016, the Materials Science & Engineering Department assembled for the 16th annual MSE Senior Banquet & Poster Presentations at the Ft. Douglas Officer’s Club on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The poster presentation portion of the evening is the fulfillment of the 18 graduating senior’s requirements for MSE 5098/5099. Over the past year students were broken up into eight groups and worked with faculty advisors to formulate their senior research and design projects. They reported their research and findings during the evenings festivities. 

The top three poster presentations were recoginized by the departments — first place was won by Jason Dalton and Garrett Meeks; second place was Carl Luft, Kyle Campbell and Zixiao Liu; and, third place was Brandon Day and Kristina Lundgren (see bar on left for project title information). All senior posters will be on display in the MSE Department for the following year. 

The program spent the evening honoring both Kristina Lundgren (BS ’16) and Megan Stephanz (BS/MS ’17) as the Outstanding Graduating Seniors of 2016. Typically the department honors one graduating senior, but the caliber of graduating seniors made it difficult to chose just one student to honor.

The 2017 Materials Science & Engineering Senior Banquet & Poster Presentation is slated for Friday, April 7, 2017, location TBA.

Dr. Zang Group helps sniff out a dangerous vapor

Alkane fuel is a key ingredient in combustible material such as gasoline, airplane fuel, oil — even a homemade bomb. Yet it’s difficult to detect and there are no portable scanners available that can sniff out the odorless and colorless vapor.

But University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of fiber material for a handheld scanner that can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapor, a valuable advancement that could be an early-warning signal for leaks in an oil pipeline, an airliner, or for locating a terrorist’s explosive.

Their discovery was published online Friday, March 25, in the American Chemical Society’s journal, ACS Sensors. The team is led by University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang, who also is a faculty member with the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) economic development initiative.

Currently, there are no small, portable chemical sensors to detect alkane fuel vapor because it is not chemically reactive. The conventional way to detect it is with a large oven-sized instrument in a lab.

“It’s not mobile and very heavy,” Zang says of the larger instrument. “There’s no way it can be used in the field. Imagine trying to detect the leak from a gas valve or on the pipelines. You ought to have something portable.”

So Zang’s team developed a type of fiber composite that involves two nanofibers transferring electrons from one to the other.

“These are two materials that interact well together by having electrons transferring from one to another,” says Ben Bunes, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Utah’s materials science and engineering department. “When an alkane is present, it sticks in between the two materials, blocking the electron transfer between the two nanofibers.”

That kind of interaction would then signal the detector that the alkane vapor is present.

Read the full press release at the U News Center.

Copeland wins GELS award

SALT LAKE CITY — Materials Science & Engineering student, Jeffrey Copeland (B.S., ’17) was awarded a Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars (GELS) award from the state of Utah. Copeland is a student in the Professor Taylor Sparks research group. 

Copeland will use his award to work along with group members — Max Gallant, Carina Hahn and Nic Flinner who founded Electrochrome LLC., to develop inexpensive films that can be applied to windows (see left bar for more information). 

One potential application for this technology are “smart windows” in residential and commercial buildings that can be programmed to reflect more sunlight to keep the interior cooler during hot times of the day. 

This is the third student that Dr. Sparks advises who has recieved this award. Leila Ghadbiega (Ph.D. candidate) and Matthew Judge (B.S., ’16) were receipents of the award for the 2014-15 academic year.

Congratulations Jeffrey and the Prof. Sparks research group!