Georgia Tech Research Horizons
Winter 2004
Painless Drug & Vaccine Delivery
Payoffs from a College Degree in Georgia
Nanosprings Could be Actuators & Transducers
The Next Big Thing
Dogs on a Chip
Virtual Firefighting
Tracking Commuter Habits
China's Export Moratorium
New Technologies in the Spotlight
The Weakest Link

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Painless Drug and Vaccine Delivery
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have made significant progress in the development of microneedle arrays for delivering drugs and vaccines through the skin – without causing pain.
photo by Gary Meek

Mark Prausnitz, a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, holds an array of polymer microneedles that are approximately 1,000 microns tall.

The researchers are fabricating hollow and solid microneedles in a variety of sizes and shapes from metals, biodegradable polymers, silicon and glass – materials that have sufficient strength to reliably penetrate the skin without breakage, according to a paper published in November 2003 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper also reported on testing with cadaver skin and animals that demonstrates the ability of the micron-scale needles to deliver proteins, nanoparticles, and both small and large molecules through the skin.

“We’ve opened up the potential use of microneedles for delivering a broad range of therapeutics,” says Mark Prausnitz, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and principal investigator for the project.
courtesy of Shawn Davis

Microscope image shows an array of hollow microneedles – next to a hypodermic needle typical of those now used to inject drugs and vaccines.

“Fabricating both hollow and solid microneedles in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials allows us to deliver large molecules with significant therapeutic interest such as insulin, proteins produced by the biotechnology industry, and nanoparticles that could encapsulate a drug or demonstrate the ability to deliver a virus for vaccinations.”

Moving beyond the original – and complex – microelectronics-based fabrication techniques, the researchers have developed multiple manufacturing processes suitable for the mass production of microneedles from inexpensive metal and polymer materials.

The broad range of sizes, shapes and materials will permit production of microneedle arrays customized for the type and volume of drug to be delivered, the time period of use, and most importantly, minimizing pain.

Microneedles are expected to be less painful than conventional hypodermic needles because they are too small to significantly stimulate nerve endings, Prausnitz says. The safety and effectiveness of microneedles must still be proven in humans before they can receive Food & Drug Administration approval for clinical use.

Several companies are pursuing development of microneedles, including some that are conducting clinical trials. BioValve, a Massachusetts company, has licensed the Georgia Tech microneedle technology.

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Payoffs from a College Degree in Georgia
by Kay Lindsey

This map shows counties receiving more than $10 million in educational value from Georgia's University System. Click here for larger version.

A recent study of higher education in Georgia highlights the value of college education to both individuals and to the state.

Conducted by Georgia Tech, the study shows for recent graduates, a college degree from the University System of Georgia is worth an average of $14,000 a year in additional earnings. During a career, the average Georgia college graduate could expect to earn nearly $1 million more than a high school-educated neighbor, the researchers found.

Overall, increased earnings of the 90,000 University System graduates analyzed in the study added $1.25 billion to the state’s economy during 1998 – the most recent year for which information was available. These University System graduates had widespread impact on the state, bringing at least $1 million a year in additional economic impact to more than half of Georgia’s 159 counties.

“The economic value of college graduates is so massive, so widespread and so long-lasting that we tend to take it for granted,” says lead researcher Bill Drummond, a professor in Georgia Tech’s City and Regional Planning Program. “It is one of the huge, but hidden, drivers of Georgia’s rapid economic growth, which is the envy of most other states in the country.”

Sponsored by Georgia's Intellectual Capital Partnership Program (ICAPP), the report studied University System students who graduated between 1993 and 1997.

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Nanosprings Could be Actuators & Transducers
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new class of nanometer-scale structures that spontaneously form helical shapes from long, ribbon-like single crystals of zinc oxide (ZnO). Dubbed “nanosprings,” the new structures have piezoelectric and electrostatic polarization properties that could make them useful in small-scale sensing and micro-system applications.

Researchers Xiang Yang Kong, left, and Zhong Lin Wang with a model of their new "nanospring" structure.

Just 10 to 60 nanometers wide and 5 to 20 nanometers thick – but up to several millimeters long – the new structures are similar to but smaller than the “nanobelts” first reported by Georgia Tech scientists two years ago. The new structures and their potential applications were described in the journal Nano Letters. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

“These structures are very different from our original nanobelts and are a major step toward a new system of nanostructures,” says Zhong L. Wang, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and a professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering. “Piezoelectric and polar-surface-dominated smart materials based on zinc oxide are important because they could be the transducers and actuators for future generations of nanoscale devices.”

The piezoelectric properties of the new structures could make them useful in detecting and measuring very small fluid flows, tiny strain/stress forces, high-frequency acoustical waves and even air flows that would otherwise be imperceptible. When deflected by the flow of air or fluids, the nanosprings would produce small but measurable electrical voltages.

The piezoelectric properties could also make the structures useful as actuators in micro-systems and nanosystems, where applying voltage would induce strains. The new structures display unusual electrostatic polarization, with positively and negatively charged surfaces across the thickness of the nanoribbon. This electrical charge could be used to attract specific molecules, potentially allowing the nanosprings to be used as biosensors to detect single molecules or cells. Ultimately, Wang hopes the new structures could prove useful in implanted biomedical monitoring applications.

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The Next Big Thing
Georgia Tech’s initiative in nanotechnology got a big boost from two recent developments. In October 2003, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue announced plans for constructing on the Georgia Tech campus one of the nation’s most advanced facilities for nanotechnology research and development. In December, the National Science Foundation included Georgia Tech in its new National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN).
photo by Stanley Leary

The new National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network will include a $4 million electron beam nanolithography system being installed at Georgia Tech, says James Meindl, director of Georgia Tech's Microelectronics Research Center.

Nanotechnology allows scientists to manipulate individual atoms and molecules, making it possible to build complex machines so small they can be seen only with high-powered microscopes. The ability to create structures whose size is measured in the billionths of meters could be the basis for a broad range of new products and processes. Perdue announced that an anonymous donor had contributed $36 million for the 160,000-square-foot Nanotechnology Research Center, which will be the first of its kind in the Southeast. The donation will be matched with up to $45 million in state support during the next several years. The facility would include 30,000 square feet of clean-room space.

“This puts Georgia Tech on the national map for nanotechnology,” says Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough. “Through a unique public-private partnership, we will serve as a center for innovation in the Southeast and throughout the world.”

Meanwhile, inclusion in the NNIN will allow Georgia Tech researchers to share nanotechnology research facilities and specialized instrumentation operated by a dozen other universities. The $70 million network, based at Cornell University, will also help train a future generation of engineers to work in the new field.

“Georgia Tech brings to the network strengths in engineering education and outreach, and we anticipate close collaboration with our sister sites on such key issues as diversity and minority education,” adds James Meindl, director of Georgia Tech’s Microelectronics Research Center.

Georgia Tech’s new electron-beam nanolithography system will be part of the network. “This critical tool, funded by the Georgia Research Alliance, will facilitate advances in bio-electronics, nanotechnology and advanced microelectronics,” Meindl says.

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Police dogs across the country could soon be replaced by an electronic “dog-on-a-chip” that sniffs out cocaine and other narcotics. Scientists at Georgia Tech have created a new detection tool that is portable, inexpensive, and doesn’t require feeding or grooming.
photo by Nicole Cappello

Professor of Electrical Engineering William Hunt, standing, and Desmond Stubbs, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, calibrated their sensor device in a laboratory setting and then put it to the test in the field.

“Our technology provides a hand-held sensing device capable of real-time detection, reducing the time between drug seizure and laboratory analysis,” says graduate student Desmond Stubbs, who is developing the device with Professor William Hunt in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. They recently published their research in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

The sensor, which performed well in lab and field tests, is “an elegant fusion of biotechnology and microelectronics” that makes it superior to previous “electronic noses,” Hunt says.

Police dogs are an important tool in the war on drugs because their highly developed olfactory systems can detect small molecules in the part-per-billion range. But using dogs requires expensive handlers, and seized drugs must still undergo lab analysis. Plus, scientists don’t know what chemicals the dogs are sensing, allowing for significant variations from one dog to the next. And dogs have trouble detecting specific drugs in the presence of other odors, such as coffee grounds.

Meanwhile, the new device can sense cocaine at a few trillionths of a gram using surface acoustic wave (SAW) electronics, which detects a chemical by measuring the disturbance it causes in sound waves across a tiny quartz crystal. But the new chip goes a step further to detect specific drugs by incorporating monoclonal antibodies – cloned copies of proteins called antibodies that the immune system produces to fight foreign invaders. The researchers use anti-benzoylecgonine (anti-BZE) in the device because it differs only slightly in structure from cocaine, allowing it to bind preferentially to that molecule.

The SAW sensor is coated with a thin layer of anti-BZE. When a vapor sample passes through, cocaine molecules attach to anti-BZE molecules, causing a disturbance in the sound waves on the quartz crystal that is detected as an electrical signal.

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Virtual Firefighting
photo by Nicole Cappello

College of Computing senior research scientist Chris Shaw leads the virtual firefighting project.

Collaborating with the Atlanta Fire Department, Georgia Tech researchers are refining a training application using virtual environment technology – immersive computer-generated experiences – to better train fire commanders directing teams of firefighters.

The application simulates the progress of a fire in a single-family home and responds to the orders made by the fire commander on the scene. The virtual environment allows the user to navigate around the fire scene and view a house on fire from any angle; to direct firefighters and watch them execute commands; and see realistic fire and smoke behavior reacting to changes in the environment, such as the opening of windows.

“The world that firefighters work in is incredibly complex.
courtesy of Chris Shaw

Responding to a command in the virtual reality training application, an animated firefighter climbs a ladder to the roof of the house.

Every fire and every situation is different, so a virtual environment, which can be changed fairly easily, is a good fit for this type of training,” says Chris Shaw, a senior research scientist in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing.

In the prototype application, Shaw and his team of students created a virtual environment with a one-story house with a garage, a fire truck, firefighters, tools and fire hydrant. The user, the fire company officer, sees the house on fire on a computer screen or a head-mounted display and gives verbal commands as he would in a real fire.

The system operator types the officer’s commands into the computer system via code – rather than incorporating a voice recognition system to translate the voice commands because of their unreliability for multiple users. Also, having an operator input the commands rather than the user allows the user to concentrate on evaluating the situation and making decisions. This arrangement also allows the operator to set up mistakes or traps for the user, again creating a more realistic experience.

The officer then sees animated firefighters reacting to his commands, such as laying hoses or climbing onto the roof to cut a hole over the fire. Also, every 15 seconds the visuals of the smoke and fire change in reaction to the officer’s commands.

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Tracking Commuting Habits
Transportation researchers at Georgia Tech are examining the commuting habits of 500 drivers in the metro area in a study that’s become the largest of its kind ever conducted on vehicle travel patterns.
photo by Stanley Leary

Researchers are tracking data such as speed, position and acceleration as drivers go about their daily routines.

Drivers who volunteered to take part in the study allowed researchers to install a small, electronic box called the “GT Trip Data Collector” in their vehicles. About the size of a car CD player, the device uses global positioning systems to record the movement of vehicles and various engine data, as well as where, when and under what conditions people drive in the Atlanta area.

The research team, led by Randall Guensler, a transportation professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says the data could be used to help city planners decide such matters as what streets are in need of stoplights, which are prone to bottleneck traffic and which have become heavily-used shortcuts.

“We can use this information about how people travel in Atlanta to better plan the future of our regional transportation system,” Guensler says. “The data will provide a wealth of information for possible use in congestion mitigation, signal timing improvement and roadway design improvement.”

Called “Commute Atlanta,” the project is sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, the Georgia Department of Transportation and Georgia Tech. The research team recruited 275 households to participate in the study. So far they have already collected data from more than 100,000 trips.

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China’s Export Momentum
China has moved higher into the hierarchy of technology exporters, according to a new Georgia Tech study.
graphic by John Toon

This chart depicts technological standing measured for three countries over a 10-year period.

“China’s upsurge was a surprise in 1999, and it’s still coming on strong,” says Alan Porter, co-director of Georgia Tech’s Technology Policy and Assessment Center (TPAC), which periodically conducts the study, “Indicators of Technology-Based Competitiveness,” with funding from the National Science Foundation.

During the past decade, China has more than doubled its score on “technological standing” (TS) – a key benchmark that gauges current global competitiveness. In 2003, China received a 49.3 rating, compared to 20.7 in 1993, 22.5 in 1996, and 44.2 in 1999.

In 1993, China’s closest neighbors on the TS scale were Spain and South Africa, whereas the 2003 study shows China slightly above the Netherlands and just below Singapore. “That’s quite a change in company,” Porter says, adding that if China continues at this pace, it might soon surpass both Germany and the United Kingdom.

What’s more, China also has increased dramatically on an average of four “input indicators” – national orientation, socioeconomic infrastructure, technological infrastructure (TI) and productive capacity (PC) – the study uses to predict future exports.

Since 1999, China has made particular strides in the last two categories, increasing 8.6 points on PC and 8.7 points on TI – the largest increases of the 33 countries in the study. “These changes suggest continued strength for China,” says Porter, noting that PC and TI are most closely linked to future technological standing.

China’s progress stems partially from the number of companies that are establishing manufacturing facilities in China, reports Liu Zuoyi, an officer with the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). The reform of economic institutions has also benefited China’s technology exports, and human capital is a third factor, he adds.

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New Technologies in the Spotlight
Investors got a look at the hottest new technologies emerging from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s research labs during Technology Day 2003 in December.
photo by Gary Meek

Focal Point Microsystems is a VentureLab company that has developed a platform microfabrication system based on proprietary two-photon absorbing materials and methods. Professors Joseph Perry, left, and Seth Marder in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry started the company.

The half-day event showcased eight of Georgia Tech’s top technologies expected to have significant market potential. Briefings highlighted applications, market analyses, value propositions and business models, and management teams associated with the technologies were available for discussions.

For some innovations, companies have already been formed, products built and significant revenue opportunities identified. For other technologies, markets have been identified and pre-production prototypes exist.

“Georgia Tech’s $300 million research program generates a broad range of technology innovations that can provide the foundation for successful new ventures,” says Steve Derezinski, director of Georgia Tech’s VentureLab, which organized the December event. “Technology Day 2003 offered a chance for investors to get an early look at those technologies, talk with the people who are developing them, and learn more about Georgia Tech’s commercialization opportunities.”

VentureLab helps faculty and students commercialize the technology they develop. Since its formation in 2001, the organization has evaluated 135 technologies, recommended 22 for further development and helped form seven new companies.

VentureLab provides a clear pathway from the laboratory to the commercial marketplace, helping evaluate the commercial potential for innovations and providing assistance with forming new companies. As part of its assistance, VentureLab connects faculty members with experienced entrepreneurs who have the track record necessary to manage start-up companies and attract outside funding.

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The Weakest Link
Supply-chain malfunctions – such as a shortage of parts or production and supply problems that delay production and shipping – can take a big bite from a company’s bottom line, according to a new study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Western Ontario.
graphic by John Toon

In the year leading to the announcement of a supply-chain disruption, average operating income of companies dropped 107 percent, return on sales plummeted 114 percent and return on assets dropped 93 percent, according to a recent study.

“Although it seems obvious that a supply-chain glitch would affect profitability, little has been done to measure the fallout,” says Vinod Singhal, a professor of operations management at Georgia Tech.

In an earlier study, the researchers discovered that announcements of supply-chain failures corresponded with a 10 percent decrease in stock-market prices. The researchers wondered if this price deterioration stemmed from a stock-market overreaction or represented a true reflection of fallout from supply-chain disruptions.

So they studied 885 public companies that announced supply-chain problems during an eight-year period (1992 to 1999), examining those firms’ operating performance one year before the announcement and two years after.

In the year leading to the announcement of a supply-chain disruption, average operating income of companies dropped 107 percent, return on sales plummeted 114 percent and return on assets dropped 93 percent. The study also revealed that companies with supply-chain problems averaged about 7 percent lower sales growth, 11 percent higher costs and a 14 percent increase in inventories.

To control for economic and industry influences, the researchers benchmarked the results of affected companies with firms of similar size that hadn’t suffered supply-chain problems. The verdict: The supply-chain glitches were, indeed, responsible for atrophy in earnings.

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Last updated: April 7, 2004