A look back at UB engineering and applied science research in 2022

Homero F. Carrión Cabrera, wearing a yellow hardhat, crouches under a bridge specimen in UB's Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory.

PhD student Homero F. Carrión Cabrera prepares a bridge specimen for testing in UB's Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory. The research has led to a low-cost bridge design that could prevent closures and repairs following earthquakes. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

By Tom Dinki

Published January 6, 2023

Making hydrogen fuel cells less expensive to produce. Preparing neurosurgeons with 3-D-printed models of their patients’ anatomy. Finding warning signs of COVID-19 spikes in wastewater. Keeping bridges operational after earthquakes. 

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2022 marked another year of research accomplishments for the University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), as faculty and students continued to tackle some of society’s toughest challenges.

And thanks to grants secured throughout the last year, they’re poised to do even more in 2023, including track space debris and help older adults spot online scams and disinformation.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights of 2022.  

Making hydrogen fuel less expensive

A car is plugged into a hydrogen charging station.

Fuel cell electric vehicles are one of the benefits of hydrogen fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells could be the key to fighting climate change. Yet producing them is more expensive than traditional sources of renewable energy and even fossil fuels because it requires catalysts like platinum to speed up important cell reactions. 

Now, SEAS researchers are moving us closer to an inexpensive way of producing hydrogen fuel cells. 

A compound commonly used in motorcycle engine lubricant – when combined with two additional compounds – could serve as a cheaper alternative to platinum, according to a study published in April by researchers in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Department of Materials Design and Innovation.

And in a study published in Nature Energy in July, researchers in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering combined iron with nitrogen and carbon to produce another inexpensive catalyst.

“We believe this is a significant breakthrough that will eventually help unleash the tremendous potential of hydrogen fuel cells,” says that study’s lead author, Gang Wu, professor of chemical and biological engineering.

Monitoring battery life with magnetism

Yulong Huang (right) holds a lithium-ion battery with a cathode made from magneto-ionic material. Huang and Zheng Li (left), both UB postdoctoral researchers in mechanical and aerospace engineering, are among authors of a new study on the magneto-ionic material.

Postdoctoral researcher Yulong Huang (right), one of the authors of the study, holds a lithium-ion battery. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Rechargeable batteries can be damaged if over-discharged. For this reason, manufacturers recommend recharging them when about 70% of their capacity has been used.

A SEAS study published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has found a new way to better monitor the amount of charge left in a rechargeable battery.

A team including researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Department of Materials Design and Innovation built a lithium-ion battery whose level of charge is measured via magnetism

As lithium-ion batteries charge and discharge, lithium ions flow from one side of the battery to the other. This new battery uses a special compound whose magnetism changes as lithium ions enter or leave it, making it possible to measure the batter’s charge.

“We believe this is a new way to provide an accurate, fast, responsive sensing of state of charge,” says Shenqiang Ren, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and of chemistry.

Using 3D printing to improve neurosurgery

A brain scan image showing that the patient's veins are open and visible.

Following the innovative procedure by UB neurosuregons, all of the patient's veins (shown in pink and red) are open and visible. Credit: UB Neurosurgery

The human circulatory system is a complex network of blood vessels. Navigating inside these vessels – and the bones and organs that surround them – can be difficult, to say the least. 

So what if neurosurgeons could not only learn but practice on a patient’s unique autonomy before heading into the operating room?

SEAS researchers in the Canon Stroke and Vascular Research Center are making that possible with 3D printing. Led by Ciprian N. “Chip” Ionita, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the center uses MRIs and CT scans to create 3D printed models of patients’ circulatory system and heart. 

Last summer, the modeling helped Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences neurosurgeons conduct an innovative procedure to pull blood clots out of the brain of a young, otherwise healthy individual who had recently been infected with COVID-19.

“There are these very tortuous pathways that have to be navigated all the way to where the clot is. You need to optimize the techniques in order to pull out those clots,” says Ionita, who directs the Canon Stroke and Vascular Research Center’s Endovascular Devices and Imaging lab.

Detecting COVID-19 in wastewater

Professors Yinyin Ye and Ian Bradley, wearing masks and white lab coats, stand together in the lab.

Assistant professors Yinyin Ye and Ian Bradley are examining wastewater for COVID-19. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

The end of mass testing sites and many testing requirements, as well as the availability of home tests, has made tracking COVID-19 infection rates all the more challenging for public health officials.

So the best information may come from wastewater, something SEAS has been monitoring for COVID since the early days of the pandemic. 

This effort by environmental engineering faculty Ian Bradley and Yinyin Ye expanded to four additional Western New York counties in 2022, serving as an early warning sign for new waves of the virus. 

And detecting pharmaceuticals in wastewater may serve as an even earlier warning sign. A study co-authored by Bradley and Ye found spikes in acetaminophen – an active ingredient in over-the-counter cold medicines – preceded spikes in the virus.

“We can pull out information from wastewater, but there are still a lot of unknowns about how to interpret the data for public health," Ye says. "We want to test not just biological markers, but also chemical markers and all sorts of different layers of information.”

Keeping bridges open after earthquakes

Researchers Michel Bruneau and Homero F. Carrion Cabrera stand on top of a shake table in the SEESL lab.

Researchers Michel Bruneau and Homero F. Carrion Cabrera stand on top of a shake table in the SEESL lab. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act began dispersing billions of dollars for roads, bridges and highways over the last year, including $400 million to make San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge more resilient against earthquakes.

SEAS is doing its part to make bridges safer, creating a new, low-cost design that could prevent closures and repairs following earthquakes.

Working in the university’s Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory during this past spring semester, civil engineering researchers used inexpensive braces that can absorb the damage caused by earthquakes. This way, the bridge’s columns and superstructure are protected, and it can remain operational even in the event that the braces need to be replaced.

“Beyond becoming a concept for new bridges, the solution can also be used to retrofit existing bridges,” says SUNY Distinguished Professor Michel Bruneau, the lead investigator of the project. 

The results are expected to be incorporated into design guidelines by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and state departments of transportation.

Developing earbuds that spot ear infections

An illustration showing how EarHealth works. A cartoon elderly man wears headphones and uses a smart phone that displays whether his ear is normal or has an infection.

An illustration showing how EarHealth works. Credit: University at Buffalo.

Earbuds play our favorite songs, amplify sound for the hard of hearing, and, thanks to SEAS research, may soon detect ear infections.

The EarHealth system, developed by researchers in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, creates a profile of an individual’s ear canal by sending a chirp through their Bluetooth earbuds. Subsequent chirps can show changes in the canal. A paired smartphone equipped with a deep-learning platform can then determine whether the change was caused by earwax blockage, ruptured ear drums or otitis media, a common ear infection.

The process was detailed in a study published in June. 

“With people worldwide living longer, and the prevalence of headphones, it is more important than ever to monitor one’s ear health,” says the study’s lead author, Zhanpeng Jin, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

Upgrading point-of-care tests with tiny sensor tech

A graphic demontration of how the medical test works.

A demontration of how thhe medical test works. Credit: University at Buffalo

Whether it’s at-home blood glucose meters or COVID-19 rapid tests, point-of-care testing may be more common than ever. 

While the small size of these sensors makes it easier to detect chemical and biological molecules, it also makes it difficult to guide the molecules to the correct area of the sensor. 

SEAS is tackling this problem head on. Researchers in the Department of Electrical Engineering created a new sensor, described in a study published in January 2022, that funnels molecules into the correct cavities, while also absorbing enough infrared light to analyze the samples.

“The structure of our sensor makes it suitable for point-of-care applications that can be implemented by a nurse on a patient, or even outside the hospital in a patient’s home,” says Peter Q. Liu, assistant professor of electrical engineering who authored the study with two PhD students. 

Looking ahead to 2023

A groiup of eight University at Buffalo professors pose together on a staricase.

Researchers from multiple departments, including in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, will play a key role in the new $7.5 million semiconductor project. Photo: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

SEAS researchers also received a number of grants in 2022 that promise to bring about more exciting research in 2023. Here are the highlights:

Researchers, including those from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, will develop new concepts for precision testing of semiconductor chips, a crucial cog in electronic products.

Researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering will develop tools to analyze space domain data, thereby improving the nation’s ability to monitor spacecraft and other objects such as debris and meteoroids,

.Researchers, including those from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, will create digital tools that help older adults better recognize and protect themselves from online deceptions and other forms of disinformation

Led by Amit Goyal, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, the center will expand the patersnip between UB and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that focuses on reducing plastic waste, while also fighting climate change in New York and beyond.

Researchers from the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Department of Computer Science and Engineering will aim to help an array of industries – from semiconductor manufacturing to 3D printing – improve quality and efficiency via artificial intelligence and other technologies.

Researchers, including those from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, and Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, will develop eco-friendly insulation materials that can transform buildings into net carbon storage structures.