$18.5 million NSF grant to develop self-monitoring health devices

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State, North Carolina State University, the University of Virginia and Florida International University will collaborate on a national nanotechnology research effort to create self-powered devices to help people monitor their health and understand how the surrounding environment affects it, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced Sept. 6.

The NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST), to be headquartered on NC State's Centennial Campus, also includes five affiliated universities and about 30 industry partners in its global research consortium. ASSIST will be funded by an initial five-year $18.5 million grant from the NSF.

ASSIST researchers will use nanomaterials and nanostructures — a nanowire is thousands of times thinner than a human hair — to develop self-powered health monitoring sensors and devices that operate on small amounts of energy. ASSIST researchers will make devices from thermoelectric and piezoelectric materials that use body heat and motion, respectively, as power sources.

"The ASSIST program offers an opportunity to utilize core Penn State strengths in materials, nanofabrication, low power circuits and biobehavioral health to advance human health. This is an extremely exciting opportunity for the researchers involved," said Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Penn State professor of materials science and engineering. 

"Currently there are many devices out there that monitor health in different ways," said Veena Misra, the center's director and professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State. "What's unique about our technologies is the fact that they are powered by the human body, so they don't require battery charging."

These devices could transform health care by improving the way doctors, patients and researchers gather and interpret important health data. Armed with uninterrupted streams of heart rate readings, respiration rates and other health indicators, sick people could better manage chronic diseases, the elderly could be monitored from a distance and healthy people could make better decisions to keep themselves fit.

For example, personalized exposure data for environmental pollutants such as ozone and carbon monoxide could help a child suffering from asthma avoid an environmental trigger for an attack.  Miniaturized devices the size of a pen or wristwatch will make compliance simpler and therefore more likely, resulting in better health outcomes and reduced health costs to society. 

The center's partner institutions will play important research roles. At Penn State, researchers will create new piezoelectric materials and devices; energy-efficient transistors; extremely low-power sensors; and help understand the correlations between environmental exposure and human health. The Penn State team includes faculty from the Colleges of Engineering, Earth and Mineral Sciences, Education, and Health and Human Development, with Tom Jackson, Penn State professor of electrical engineering, serving as the center's research director.

The team from the University of Virginia will develop ways to make the systems work on very small amounts of power, while the group from Florida International University will create sensors that gather biochemical signals from the body, such as stress levels.

The results of that work, coupled with low-power radios developed by the University of Michigan, will be used to process and transmit health data gathered by the sensors to computers and consumer devices, such as cell phones, so patients, doctors and researchers can easily digest it. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will provide ASSIST with medical guidance and arrange testing of the center's technology.

"We have assembled a comprehensive team that works together closely under a systems-driven approach to tackle this challenging set of global health problems," Misra said.

ASSIST will draw on the expertise of industry partners to help guide the center’s work to the marketplace. These partners include companies and agencies involved in nanomaterials and nanodevices, integrated chip manufacturing, software development, bioengineering and health care. ASSIST also has foreign partnerships with the University of Adelaide, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

The five-year NSF grant for ASSIST is renewable for an additional five years and follows a two-year selection process by the federal agency. The grant is among a new group of Engineering Research Center awards that invest in nanosystems.

Participants from the College of Engineering are Suman Datta (EE), Renata Engel (ESM), Tom Jackson (EE), Theresa Mayer (EE), Vijay Narayanan (CSE), Chris Rahn (ME) and Doug Werner (EE). Participants from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences are Clive Randall (MatSE) and Susan Trolier-McKinstry (MatSE). Also participating are Annmarie Ward from the College of Education, Shedra Amy Snipes from the College of Health and Human Development, and Suzanne Adair from the Graduate School.

Contacts: 
Last Updated February 21, 2013