Research Magazine Cover 2014 Image

Joshua Pearce's 3D metal printer in action.

3D printers let you make everything from orthotics to chess pieces. Will this new technology change the world?

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

3D Revolution

by Marcia Goodrich

Most people view the 3D printer as an interesting novelty. Joshua Pearce sees it as the prelude to revolution.

It’s not because making your own plastic soup ladle is an incendiary act, or even because some people might print arsenals of Uzis and take to the barricades (that hasn’t happened yet). It’s because 3D printers put the means of production into the hands of the masses.

If this sounds like the rhetoric of class struggle, it isn’t—not yet, anyway. Open-source 3D printing is a logical extension of the Internet Revolution, which liberated data that had once been tucked away in libraries, recipe boxes, and classified government files. Conceivably, 3D printing will move the Information Age a step ahead, by giving everyone access to free design files and inexpensive equipment to make most anything.

Pearce had his eureka 3D printing moment a couple years ago, when he needed a lab jack. He was shocked to see a quote for one that cost a thousand dollars. “All it does is move things up and down,” he says with unveiled . . .

Yoke Khin Yap

A transistor with quantum dots, nanotubes, and not a semiconductor in sight

Department of Physics

Beyond Silicon

by Marcia Goodrich

For decades, electronic devices have been getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. It’s now possible—even routine—to place millions of transistors on a single silicon chip.

But transistors based on semiconductors can only get so small. “At the rate the current technology is progressing, in a decade or two, they won’t be able to get any smaller,” said Michigan Tech physicist Yoke Khin Yap. “Also, semiconductors have another disadvantage: they waste a lot of energy in the form of heat.”

Scientists have experimented with different materials and designs for transistors to address these problems, always using semiconductors like silicon. Back in 2007, Yap wanted to try something different that might open the door to a new age of electronics.

“The idea was to make a transistor using a nanoscale . . .

Mo Rastgaar next to the prosthetic limb.

In this special section, we explore how four researchers in Michigan Tech’s College of Engineering are opening new frontiers in medicine.

Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, Department of Biomedical Engineering

The Future Human

More than ever, engineering is informing medicine. Breakthroughs that range from synthetic skin to artificial hands are restoring people to health and challenging the very concept of disability.

This special section features some of the work being done by Michigan Tech researchers at the junction of healing and engineering.

  • An artificial leg that mimics our innate gait
  • Cardiac vessels made from stem cells
  • A new nano-surface that could slash the failure rate of titanium implants, from hip replacements to new teeth

Science fiction is replete with cyborgs, seriously injured souls rebuilt to have amazing powers. Today’s scientists and engineers are accomplishing something more extraordinary: re-creating the natural intricacy of a healthy human body.

A UAV drone at the Michigan Tech Research Institute.

Drone technology developed for defense is making life better for everyone on the home front.

Michigan Tech Research Institute, Great Lakes Resource Center, School of Technology

The Friendly Drones of Michigan Tech

by Jennifer Donovan

Everyone knows what drones are, right? Drones are unmanned flying machines, and they’ve gained visibility—and notoriety—in military and spying operations. But they have a wide variety of friendlier and beneficial applications here at home.

Researchers at Michigan Tech are working with three different kinds of unmanned vehicles—aka drones—and not all of them fly through the air.

The Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) is looking into the use of drones in transportation. MTRI scientists and faculty from the main Michigan Tech campus are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to help the US Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovation Technology Administration (USDOT/RITA) and other agencies develop low-cost, highly-efficient ways to handle tasks that range from mapping the condition of unpaved roads to understanding traffic jams and evaluating the conditions inside culverts. The research will help transportation agencies save money and reduce risk to staff who would otherwise have to go on a roadway or bridge, or inside a confined space, to understand infrastructure conditions there.

Meanwhile, a graduate student in the School of Technology is developing a fixed-wing, autonomous aerial vehicle to take high-resolution digital images from heights of three hundred feet. And the Great Lakes Research Center . . .

Tiny spikes of ferrofluid,

A Michigan Tech scientist co-opts an unusual material used to treat liver cancer, transforming it into an engine for the tiniest spacecraft.

Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics

From Cancer Treatment to Ion Thruster

Nanosatellites are cellphone-sized spacecraft that can perform simple, yet valuable, space missions. Dozens of these little vehicles are now tirelessly orbiting the earth performing valuable functions for NASA, the Department of Defense, and even private companies.

Nanosatellites borrow many of their components from terrestrial gadgets: miniaturized cameras, wireless radios, and GPS receivers that have been perfected for hand-held devices are also perfect for spacecraft. However, says L. Brad King, nanosats require something you will probably never be able to download from an app store: “Even the best smartphones don’t have miniaturized rocket engines, so we need to develop them from scratch.”

Miniature rockets aren’t needed to launch a nanosatellite from Earth. The small vehicles can hitchhike with a regular rocket that is going that way anyway. But because they are hitchhikers, these nanosats don’t always get dropped off in their preferred location. Once in space, a nanosatellite often needs some type of propulsion to move it from its drop-off point into its desired orbit. Enter micro rocket engines.  

For the last few years, researchers around the world have been trying to build such rockets using microscopic hollow needles to electrically spray . . .

A Sámi herder in a winter reindeer corral near Jokkmokk, Sweden.

The Sámi people of Lappland are conveniently overlooked by a Swedish government eager for mineral development.

Department of Social Sciences

Pay Attention! We Live Here!

by Michael Agresta

Last year, when Michigan Tech professor Nancy Langston arrived in the mining city of Kiruna in far northern Sweden, it was just after Christmas—high season for tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus among the frozen reindeer pastures.The arctic sun sat just below the horizon for several hours each day, suffusing the snowy boreal forests with an otherworldly light. "It was the coldest I've ever been, but the most beautiful light and forest I'd ever seen," Langston says.

A visitor could be forgiven for assuming that the icy landscape beyond the city would be uninhabited. Indeed, this is how the Swedish tourism industry sells the region—as a pristine, empty landscape beyond the reach of humans. The truth, Langston found, is quite the opposite. The indigenous Sámi people have been living among and herding reindeer in the region for ten thousand years, at times suffering brutal repression from governments based in southern Scandinavia. "The kinds of ideas that they're now selling, of 'Come see this empty world,' denies these humans," Langston says.