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October 14, 2004

At Engineering’s Swanson Institute Necessity is the Mother Invention

Imagine a silicon chip talking to a receiver in a human eyelid. The chip tells the eyelid to blink and it does. Such technology could move more than an eyelid, perhaps a leg. This invention in progress at the Swanson Institute for Technical Excellence in the School of Engineering was hatched by a medical researcher and a School of Engineering professor.

Medical school doctors and researchers literally walk across the street to Benedum Hall, home of the Swanson Institute, looking for engineers to develop new technology not cure but to alleviate symptoms of difficult medical conditions.

Such is the case of an ophthalmologist approaching Marlin Mickle, Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor and executive director of the Swanson Center for Product Innovation. The medical researcher wanted to find a way to help people afflicted with Bell’s Palsy, a condition causing partial facial paralysis.

Mickle gathered some faculty and graduate students to work on a device, developing the Blink Right Project. With Bell’s Palsy, nerve damage prevents an eye from blinking and artificial tears and other measures keep an eye from drying out. The research team came up with a proof of concept: Implant a tiny silicon chip in the lid of the good eye and another chip with a receiver in the lid of the bad eye with two other chips imbedded in the frames of a pair of eyeglasses. Essentially, all four chips communicate with one another and when the good eye blinks, it sends a signal to the chip in bad eye to blink as well.

The proof of concept stirred interest nationally: Mickle and graduate students Doreen Jacob and Steven Hackworth were invited to show the project, one of eight selected nationally, at the Lemelson Foundation 2004 Symposium for Biotechnology at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 23.

Blink Right is causing a buzz now in the Swanson Institute because of its potential for a medical breakthrough as well as the cross-pollination of academic expertise. It seems more than likely that other medical researchers will join the Blink Right Project down the road. (The project is among more than 12-medical related research subjects at Swanson during the last two years.) And involvement by engineering faculty will expand when those involved in micro technology work to shrink this device so it can be implanted in a human body someday.

“There’s tremendous potential in the medical field,” said Tom Cain, executive director of the Swanson Center for Micro and Nano Systems and professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. The technology could branch out to help with spinal cord injuries, other nerve problems, perhaps even Parkinson’s disease, according to researchers. “Research like that could affect the lives of an awful lot of people,” he said.

Blink Right is one of about 30 projects on the drawing board at the Swanson Institute, which is divided between the Product Innovation Center and the Micro and Nano Systems Center. Both centers concentrates on applied research with real-life projects taking place in 17 laboratories. The institute and its centers were created from a string of donations totaling about $5 million from Pitt engineering alumnus John Swanson, creator of simulation software. Founder of ANSYS, Inc., headquartered in Canonsburg, Swanson developed engineering software and technologies used for a number of applications including simulation of an earthquake and its impact on buildings.

Many of the Swanson Institute’s projects are proposed by businesses in western Pennsylvania – the University is focusing on becoming a stronger partner for local industry. For instance, a company that manufactures crystal figurines, St. George Crystal of Jeannette, for Wal-Mart, came to Swanson to find a more affordable way to build prototypes, which typically cost the company about $20,000 per mold. Faculty and students at Swanson used a silicone mold, which was low-cost and came up with a prototype for a snowman figurine coming in at couple of thousand dollars, according to Camilla Hick, business manager at the Swanson Institute. “It’s as real world as you can get without the job,” she said.

The center also does more traditional applied research such as a NASA project with Gnostic Communications of Pittsburgh on sensors to read the temperature of the tiles on the space shuttle.

The Swanson Institute attracted attention recently for its work with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags for pricing retail products. Radio frequency technology, a major focus of Mickle’s and Cain’s work, explores energy harvesting, “taking energy right out of the air.”

Mickle is a pioneer in the field, holding a patent on shrinking and flattening an antenna. Small, flat antennas can go to places they’ve never been before – like in a silicone chip that’s 1/10 of an inch X 1/10 of an inch. No wires are needed: antennas send signals via radio waves. Mickle applied the technology to retail merchandising, coming up with an alternative to bar codes. The advantage of the technology is that when products are labeled with RFID tags instead of bar codes, a host of information about the product can be transmitted. And because an item doesn’t have to be manually scanned, as in bar code technology, a cartload of retail merchandise can be scanned simultaneously within a few seconds. Mickle continues to whittle down the price of the tags. The engineering school just announced a partnership between Swanson and ADCUS Inc. of Wexford to produce affordable RFID tags for medium and small-size business.

As the Swanson Institute heads into its second year, Mickle and Cain are focused on their research and look at the future as a mixed bag of funding and opportunities, since government and private industry support the centers. But these men seem used to the ride: Collectively with 80-plus years of experience, they have seen surges and dips in research money and changing priorities. What hasn’t changed, however, is the role of the students to come up with ideas and work on the details, Cain said.

“What we do depends on where the interesting problems are and in working with funding for our graduate students,” Cain said. “Since everybody knows that it’s the graduate students who do the work. We’re not a pure research outfit. We’re teaching students how to do research.”

And, according to Mickle, the graduate students have more to offer than they think. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching for Mickle is to get the students to understand how clever they are. “A lot of people have capabilities that they really don’t imagine. The education tells you whether you can make the ideas work.”

Both men, natives of Pennsylvania, say one of their most pressing challenges is meshing their work with local industry. “There is a difficulty in any university these days of trying to decide where the line is on working on research – whether it’s for the government, which is easy, versus trying to help industry,” Mickle said. “That’s a difficult thing, I’m sure that University administrators work with that all the time because, depending on what group of people you are talking to, that line is different. For some people, they just want to do one kind of research and don’t bother with industry. In reality, it’s somewhere in between. And where the University is going, I really don’t know. It’s depends on what the pressures are and what happens with major problems in the country in the next couple of years.”

Cain added, “Certainly, if I can do things to help the Pittsburgh region, that’s great. Across the University, our two centers in particular, have research funded by the federal government – federal money tends to extend for longer periods of time, providing stabile money to support our graduate students. You scramble more with industrial funding, but it’s good to get the students introduced to the industrial side of things. National reputations come on total funding. As the chancellor stated, the whole spectrum is important. Marlin was saying the funding focus shifts back and forth – it will continue to. Both types of funding research are going to be important for us a nation and for us as a region.”

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 4

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