News & Events


A Swiss Army Knife for Genomic Data


A good way to find out what a cell is doing—whether it is growing out of control as in cancers, or is under the control of an invading virus, or is simply going about the routine business of a healthy cell—is to look at its gene expression. Lior Pachter, Bren Professor of Computational Biology and Computing and Mathematical Sciences, has developed a complex software tool that enables the processing of large sets of genomic data in about 30 minutes, using the computing power of an average laptop. Like a Swiss Army knife, the tool can be used in myriad ways for different biological needs, and will help ensure the reproducibility of scientific studies. "The interdisciplinarity of our team was crucial to conceiving of and executing this project," says Pachter. "There are people in the lab who are computer scientists, biologists, engineers. Sina Booeshaghi is in the mechanical engineering department and brings the perspective of his design background and engineering." [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights MCE CMS Lior Pachter Sina Booeshaghi

Untangling the Heat Paradox Along Major Faults


Nadia Lapusta, Lawrence A. Hanson, Jr., Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Geophysics, and graduate student Valère Lambert, seek to explain the size of the forces acting on "mature faults"—long-lived faults along major plate boundaries like the San Andreas Fault in California—in an effort to better understand the physics that drive the major earthquakes that occur along them. Understanding the physics that govern major earthquakes on different types of faults will help generate more accurate forecasts for earthquake threats. "We have a lot of data from large earthquakes along subduction zones, but the last really major earthquakes along the San Andreas were the magnitude-7.9 Fort Tejon quake in 1857 and the magnitude-7.9 San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, both of them before the age of modern seismic networks," Lapusta says. [Nature article] [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights MCE Nadia Lapusta Valère Lambert

Student-Led Moon Dust Shield Team Named Finalist in NASA Competition


As astronauts walk across the moon, land spacecraft on its surface, drive lunar rovers around, or complete other astronaut tasks, they kick up the dust, and that is a problem because it can cause premature wear on mechanical parts, damage to seals, and may pose a health risk for the people breathing it in. "The sun is shining directly on these particles and giving them an electric charge," says third-year Caltech undergraduate student Luis Pabon. "This causes it to stick to the astronaut's suit or to any sensors or cameras that you put out on the moon." The Caltech team's invention, named Habitat Orientable & Modular Electrodynamic Shield (HOMES), tackles the problem of moon dust entering a potential lunar habitat and wreaking havoc within. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT MCE Luis Pabon

Titanium Atom That Exists in Two Places at Once in Crystal to Blame for Unusual Phenomenon


Crystals are usually good at conducting heat. By definition, their atomic structure is highly organized, which allows atomic vibrations—heat—to flow through them as a wave. Austin Minnich, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics, has discovered why a perfect crystal is not good at conducting heat, although it seemingly should be. "We have found that quantum mechanical effects can play a huge role in setting the thermal transport properties of materials even under familiar conditions like room temperature," says Austin Minnich. [Caltech story]

Tags: APhMS research highlights MCE KNI Austin Minnich

Robotics Engineers Take on COVID-19


Methods that were originally created to help robots to walk and autonomous cars to drive safely can also help epidemiologists predict the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aaron Ames, Bren Professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering and Control and Dynamical Systems, and colleagues took these tools and applied them to the development of an epidemiological methodology that accounts for human interventions (like mask mandates and stay-at-home orders). By utilizing the U.S. COVID-19 data from March through May, they were able to predict the infection wave during the summer to high accuracy. "This is the greatest health challenge to face our society in a generation at least. We all need to pitch in and help in any way we can," Ames says. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights MCE CMS IST Aaron Ames CDS Andrew Singletary

Lab-Grown Earthquakes Reveal the Frictional Forces Acting Beneath Our Feet


Simulating an earthquake on a miniature scale in a laboratory known unofficially as the "seismological wind tunnel," engineers and seismologists have produced the most comprehensive look to date at the complex physics of friction driving destructive thrust-fault earthquakes. "Simulating earthquakes in a lab lets us observe how these brief and violent events grow and evolve by ‘slowing down' their motion through high-speed photography and optics," says Ares Rosakis, the Theodore von Karman Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT MCE Ares Rosakis

A Pathway to Longer-Lasting Lithium Batteries


The energy density of batteries have been a major challenge for consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and renewable energy sources. Julia R. Greer, Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering; Fletcher Jones Foundation Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute, has made a discovery that could lead to lithium-ion batteries that are both safer and more powerful. Findings provide guidance for how lithium-ion batteries, one of the most common kinds of rechargeable batteries, can safely hold up to 50 percent more energy. "Every power-requiring application would benefit from batteries with lithium instead of graphite anodes because they can power so much more," says Greer. "Lithium is lightweight, it doesn't occupy much space, and it's tremendously energy dense." [Caltech story]

Tags: APhMS research highlights MCE Julia Greer KNI

Ari Rosner Develops Tool That Configures Socially-Distanced Students In Classrooms


Mechanical engineering student Ari Rosner, has developed an interactive Excel worksheet powered by advanced algorithms to help schools with social distancing in classrooms. Schools can plug a room’s dimensions and social distancing parameters into the worksheet, and the most efficient configuration of students for a designated classroom would automatically be mapped out. Rosner’s model situates students in rows or in a hexagonal pattern, depending on a room’s shape, in order to safely maximize space. "I cried when I saw how this worked," said Rachael Burton, the development director at a small private school in Brooklyn, New York. "I knew Ari’s mathematical chart could save our lives." [Forbes story]

Tags: research highlights MCE Ari Rosner

Microstructures Self-Assemble into New Materials


A new process developed at Caltech makes it possible for the first time to manufacture large quantities of materials whose structure is designed at a nanometer scale—the size of DNA's double helix. Pioneered by Julia R. Greer, Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering; Fletcher Jones Foundation Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute, "nanoarchitected materials" exhibit unusual, often surprising properties—for example, exceptionally lightweight ceramics that spring back to their original shape, like a sponge, after being compressed. Now, a team of engineers at Caltech and ETH Zurich have developed a material that is designed at the nanoscale but assembles itself—with no need for the precision laser assembly. "We couldn't 3-D print this much nanoarchitected material even in a month; instead we're able to grow it in a matter of hours," says Carlos M. Portela, Postdoctoral Scholar. "It is exciting to see our computationally designed optimal nanoscale architectures being realized experimentally in the lab," says Dennis M. Kochmann, Visiting Associate. [Caltech story]

Tags: APhMS research highlights GALCIT MedE MCE Julia Greer KNI Dennis Kochmann postdocs Carlos Portela

Team CoSTAR Takes First Place in Underground Robot Competition


A team including Caltech researchers and JPL earned top honors in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge. Whether robots are exploring caves on other planets or disaster areas here on Earth, they need to be able to navigate a location and seek out objects of interest without access to GPS or human guidance. The Subterranean Challenge tests this kind of cutting-edge technology. "One of the two courses we had to run had multiple levels, so it was great that the Boston Dynamics robots were fantastic on stairs," says Joel Burdick, the Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering and JPL research scientist, and the leader of the Caltech campus section of the CoSTAR team. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights MedE MCE Joel Burdick CNS