College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Research updates

In the past few months, College of Engineering researchers on three projects—one on novel nanovaccines, one on new wind turbine structures, and another on energy and transportation infrastructure planning—have reached key milestones in their research. Here are some highlights:

Making one-dose, needle-free nanovaccines for infectious diseases

Can you imagine a world where diseases such as HIV, anthrax, avian and swine flu, pneumonia, and the pneumonic plague are eradicated? Balaji Narasimhan and his interdisciplinary research team can. They are making remarkable progress in biodegradable polymer nanoparticles (aka nanovaccine) research funded by the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Army, Office of Naval Research, and the National Science Foundation.

Narasimhan—who is the associate dean for research, Vlasta Klima Balloun Professor of Engineering, and professor of chemical and biological engineering—and his team are designing the vehicles that carry an antigen (the protein associated with a particular disease) to cells of the immune system. Their nanovaccines are needle-free and provide immunity after only a single dose.

Photomicrograph of plague nanovaccine formulation.

Narasimhan and his colleagues’ work has generated exciting results that could open the door to a whole new class of vaccines. In particular, they have designed biodegradable nanoparticle carriers that mimic pathogens, which Narasimhan says has significant implications for preventing respiratory infectious diseases such as pneumonic plague, anthrax, influenza, and pneumonia, as well as cancer, asthma, and even central nervous system disorders. They also have started working on a vaccine for HIV.

“We are now trying to understand the mechanisms by which these pathogen-mimicking nanovaccines function and expect to have some major findings in the next one to two years,” he says.

Narasimhan and his team also recently have shown that a single-dose intranasal nanovaccine resulted in complete protection from lethal challenge by the bacterium that causes the pneumonic plague. The study, performed on mice, showed that all mice that received one dose of the nanovaccine six months prior to being exposed to the bacterium that causes pneumonic plague survived the infection. In the control group that didn’t receive the nanovaccine, the mice died within two to four days of infection.

“Pneumonic plague is a particularly insidious disease with a death rate of almost 100 percent within a few days. We are now working on a study that extends the six months to one year. So essentially we are testing if the mice that received one dose of our vaccine a year before they are infected can survive the infection. If these studies pan out, we will have shown that our nanovaccine effectively induces long-term memory—meaning the nanovaccine would have taught the body to ‘remember’ the pathogen and create antibodies that recognize the infection and neutralize it,” Narasimhan explains.

Having single-dose vaccines like the ones Narasimhan and his research team are developing could help eradicate certain diseases worldwide. They have the potential to especially help prevent disease in developing countries and other places where children often don’t get the booster shots they need after getting an initial vaccine. It also benefits military personnel, who currently receive five intramuscular shots that need to be taken every year to protect against anthrax. It’s possible, too, to create combination vaccines that could prevent more than one disease, such as both plague and anthrax, in one needle-free dose.


Concrete wind turbine towers to replace steel towers

If you’ve driven down Highway 30 or I-80 in Iowa lately, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the wind farms sprouting up across the countryside and seen oversized semi-truckloads carrying wind turbine blades. Currently, most of the towers that hold up the wind turbines and blades are constructed from steel. Sri Sritharan, Wilson Engineering Professor in civil, construction, and environmental engineering, is looking to change that. He would like to see the turbine towers made from pre-cast or prefabricated concrete so the towers can be made taller, as well as improve quality of construction, and reduce onsite labor, construction, and transportation costs.

After doing some preliminary research on conceptual designs and speaking with the Iowa Department of Economic Development, Sritharan and his graduate student Tom Lewin developed a few feasible design solutions for the new turbine towers. In August, he received funding and other support from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, California-based Clipper Windpower, Inc., Iowa Prestressed Concrete of Des Moines, and Virginia-based Lafarge North America to begin testing his designs.

Sritharan says he has designs of 100 m (more than 300 feet) tall towers that use high to ultrahigh strength concrete and modular construction. And in addition to the improved quality and reduced costs, the new tower concept based on concrete could create local jobs, provide longer life for the towers, allow the towers to be assembled and disassembled at new locations if necessary, and increase energy production.

“Taller towers will facilitate operation of turbines at higher wind speed, which will increase energy production,” Sritharan explains. “Wind condition will be more steady at an elevated high, which will increase harvesting time (or increase operation time). Turbine companies are working on high capacity turbines, which will need taller towers and longer blades for them to produce wind energy efficiently.”

The current project is slated to be completed by May 2012.

Choosing the best resources for energy and transportation infrastructures: James McCalley, the Harpole Professor in Electrical Engineering, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers are making strides in developing a tool to help engineers, researchers, energy planners, transportation planners, and policymakers determine the best mix of resources for the United States’ energy and transportation infrastructures in terms of cost, sustainability, and reliability. The team started developing the tool in 2008, when they received nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation.

The NETSCORE team.

Last year, McCalley’s team completed the first version of their software tool, NETPLAN. According to McCalley, NETPLAN identifies areas the United States should invest in by identifying the good solutions in terms of being low-cost, reliable, and having minimal environmental impact. This is the first such tool that accounts for resources in both the energy and transportation sectors.

“We hope our tool will be useful to guide policy at the national level,” McCalley says. “There could be directions that are surprising and contrary to what many people have thought for a long time. Our tool gives you the basis to discuss and test in an objective way whether certain energy and transportation policy decisions are wise or not.”

More recently, McCalley’s team members have tested their tool on a small set of data and are in the process of completing the testing of a larger, more realistic U.S. data set.

“Now that we have a working software and will soon have a data set of reasonable fidelity, the fun begins,” McCalley says. “We will refine and extend the software simultaneously with improving our data set while we conduct studies of different ‘futures’ in order to illustrate how our work will contribute towards identifying ‘good’ energy and transportation investment plan for the next 40 years.”

To learn more about McCalley’s project—the 21st Century National Energy and Transportation Infrastructure Balancing Sustainability, Costs, and Resiliency project (NETSCORE-21 for short), see the NETSCORE-21 website or NETSCORE-21 YouTube channel.

College creates venture fund for research

The College of Engineering has set a goal of doubling its level of research in five years. To help achieve that goal, the college recently established the Venture Fund for Interdisciplinary Research Centers of Excellence, a proactive effort aimed at significantly growing the college’s research portfolio by supporting faculty-led efforts to create large, research centers (similar in size and scope of ISU’s National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals) and enabling new opportunities for faculty to partner with colleagues at Iowa State, other universities, federal agencies, and industry.

The new fund will cultivate a transformative culture of interdisciplinary research and technological innovation leading to national and global prominence. All faculty were invited in August to submit white papers and a few teams of faculty will be selected to submit full proposals. The college will then award $500,000 each over a three-year period to two teams of faculty to concentrate on collaborating and preparing winning proposals that will lead to the creation of a new interdisciplinary center or institute with high impact. The college anticipates announcing the first Venture Fund award winners in February 2011.