Spot News Roundup

Nov 11 2019 | By Jesse Adams

Particle Robots

Today’s robots are primarily self-contained units of interdependent subcomponents—if one part fails, the whole system fails. That’s even true in cutting-edge robotic swarms, where each machine must still function independently.

But a team under Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering, has created a new kind of machine composed of many simple components capable of operating collectively in “sticky” clusters.

“We think it will be possible one day to make these kinds of robots from millions of tiny particles that respond to sound or light or chemical gradient,” Lipson says.

Such robots could be used for toxic cleanups or to explore unknown terrains or structures.


Robotic swarms moving towards a light source.

Sounding Out Parkinson’s

While numerous drugs treat brain diseases like depression and schizophrenia, none can penetrate the blood-brain barrier to deliver therapeutics for neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

A novel technique from researchers under Elisa Konofagou, Robert and Margaret Hariri Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology, promises to use focused ultrasound and intravenously injected microbubbles to temporarily bridge the barrier and facilitate targeted treatments to the brain.

“We expect our study will open new therapeutic avenues for the early treatment of central nervous system diseases,” Konofagou says.


Graphic representation of the dopaminergic pathway.

Excellence Acclaimed

Columbia Engineering faculty continue to rack up some of the most prestigious honors in their fields.

Kathleen McKeown, the Henry and Gertrude Rothschild Professor of Computer Science, and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, University Professor and The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medical Sciences, were among this year’s inductees into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Michal Lipson, Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering and professor of applied physics, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Plus, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Kristin Myers received a Presidential Early Career Award from the U.S. government, and a record 10 faculty members earned the NSF’s prestigious Early Career Award.


Portraits of professors McKeown, Vunjak-Novakovic, Myers and Lipson.

Better Batteries

Ordinary lithium ion batteries face fundamental limitations of charge and duration, but novel replacements using lithium metal rather than graphite anodes promise to deliver almost 10 times the energy capacity—as long as engineers can prevent dangerous short circuits arising from the frequent formation of crystalline dendrites.

A team led by Yuan Yang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, has developed a new method adding a protective nanocoating of boron nitride to stabilize solid electrolytes for more reliable and higher-performing solid-state batteries.


Graphic representation of the nanocoating of boron nitride improving lithium ion battery performances.

Navigating Old Age

Mobility impairments affect 4% of people aged 18 to 49; that number rises to 35% by age 80. The result is diminishing self-sufficiency, independence, and quality of life.

Thus, a team led by Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering, created CANINE, an autonomous robot that “walks” alongside someone to provide light-touch support.

The device improves proprioception, which in turn improves stability and balance.

As the global population continues to age, the need for such support will only increase. “This is one technology that has the potential to fill the gap in care fairly inexpensively,” Agrawal says.


A researcher walking with the CANINE robotic cane.

Reviving Lungs

Despite immense demand for lung transplants, up to 80% of donor lungs are currently rejected by doctors as too damaged to use.

A multidisciplinary team led by Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic and Matthew Bacchetta, a professor at Vanderbilt and adjunct professor at Columbia Engineering, has managed to regenerate severely degraded lungs to meet transplantation criteria.

Their advanced cross-circulation platform acts as a support system that sustains donor lungs for up to 56 hours and recovers functionality of injured tissues to make them suitable for transplant.

The researchers hope to soon regenerate other damaged organs, including hearts and livers.


Lungs regenerated ex vivo.

Disruptive Desalination

Some of the dirtiest water in the world consists of hypersaline brines generated voluminously by oil and gas production, landfills, and conventional desalination processes.

Finding a cheap and easy means to desalinate this industrial by-product at scale could render vast quantities of water available for a range of uses, including even human consumption.

Researchers under Ngai Yin Yip, assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering, may have done just that.

Their radical new desalination approach—temperature swing solvent extraction—removes salts from brines with up to seven times the saline concentration of seawater.


5 sample tubes containing amine solvents extracting water from hypersaline brines.

Diagnosing Lyme

Some 300,000 people in the US are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year. If left untreated, the disease can cause serious neurologic, cardiac, and/or rheumatologic complications.

Current testing for Lyme disease involves running two complex assays to detect antibodies against the bacterium— and requires experienced personnel in a lab and hours to carry out and interpret them.

A team led by Sam Sia, professor of biomedical engineering, just developed a rapid microfluidic test that can detect Lyme disease in only 15 minutes.

“Our findings are the first to demonstrate that Lyme disease diagnosis can be carried out in a microfluidic format that can provide rapid quantitative results,” he says.


Zoomed photo of fluid moving through a small channel in the microfluidic chip.

Tiny Biocompatible Lasers

At just 50–150 nanometers thick, this laser can fit and function inside living cells and tissues, with the potential to sense disease biomarkers or perhaps treat deep-brain neurological disorders.

It can also operate in extremely confined spaces, including quantum circuits and microprocessors, for ultrafast and powerful electronics. The key? A novel platform premised on photon upconversion. The result: a powerful laser that is thinner than the wavelength of light.

P. James Schuck, associate professor of mechanical engineering, led the Columbia Engineering team that partnered with researchers at Northwestern University on the project.

“Excitingly, our tiny lasers operate at powers that are orders of magnitude smaller than observed in any existing multiphoton lasers,” he says.


Microscopy image showing the edge of a nanolaser device.

Ultraclean Transistors

As transistors get ever smaller, even the slightest bit of damage or speck of dust can disrupt systems.

Newly discovered 2D materials promise major advances in computing and data transmission, so long as engineers can perfect superclean fabrication processes for building tiny transistors out of 2D material stacks.

Utilizing the Columbia Nano Initiative’s state-of-the-art clean room, researchers under Professors James Teherani and James Hone have managed to manufacture nearly ideal transistors, with a semiconducting layer only two atoms thick, potentially enabling more stable and higher-performing devices in the near future.


Enhanced optical microscope image of a Hall-bar structure.