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2017 Spotlights

Within the past 20 years, portable devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers have become increasingly important parts of everyday life. The ability to carry such devices from place to place has revolutionized communication, academic study, project management, and more. That technology exists largely due to the transistor.

Transistors are essentially switches that turn on and off depending on the function being performed. Typically made with semiconductors, transistors are steadily becoming problematic as scientists approach the limit of how small they can be made while still maintaining effectiveness. This is where Veerle Keppens, director of the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials and head of the materials science and engineering department in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, and graduate student Amanda Haglund step in.

Graduate student Amanda Haglund examines some of the crystals grown for Dr. Keppens' project.“I’m trying to grow materials that were first discovered in the 1960s but have not received much attention since,” said Haglund. “They’re semiconductors and they’re magnetic at the same time. With these, if we can make magnetic-based transistors they could switch faster than the existing semiconductors.”

According to Keppens, these transistors would be more efficient and able to continue decreasing in size. In its second year, Keppens’s JDRD project has had some success growing crystals uncovered by Haglund’s research. For the remainder of the year, the team plans to continue pulling materials from the history books.

“I’m still trying to find new ones to grow. When you look at the elements in a compound, you see that you should be able to grow a new material by replacing some of its constituents with elements that have similar properties. But nobody’s done it yet, so there are a few that I’m trying to figure out how to get them to grow,” said Haglund.

Keppens’s goal is to close the final year of this JDRD project with a strong proof of concept she can then leverage to bring larger grants into the university.

“A lot of times NSF [the National Science Foundation] and DOD [the US Department of Defense] want some results, something that shows you can actually do what you’re saying you can do, that it’s something you have expertise in so you can expand on it with bigger federal funding grants,” said Keppens.

Keppens’s team is working in parallel with their ORNL partner, staff scientist Thomas Ward, in an emerging research area. According to Ward, the collaboration between these two projects has the potential to place UT and ORNL as leaders in the field as it continues to develop.

In 2010, over the course of seven months, an outbreak of Salmonella caused an estimated 1,939 cases of food poisoning across 11 states, including Tennessee. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) launched an investigation to trace the source of the infections, which was ultimately attributed to eggs from two distributors in Iowa.

The CDC investigation was successful due to DNA testing of the specific strains of Salmonella causing the epidemic. This testing allowed the CDC to locate the source of the infection and prevent further spread of the epidemic by encouraging a recall of the contaminated eggs. Such effective techniques, however, are not widely available for another source of foodborne illness, Campylobacter. Jeremiah Johnson, assistant professor of microbiology, and his JDRD team plan to change that.

Jeremiah Johnson, assistant professor of microbiologyCampylobacter recently became the most common cause of foodborne bacterial infection in the United States,” said Johnson. “It is thought that most people get it from eating contaminated undercooked chicken, because birds carry it within their digestive tract—Campylobacter is to chickens what E. coli is to cattle. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of data that chickens are the primary cause of Campylobacter infection in humans, and it remains mostly circumstantial.”

According to Johnson, this information gap for Campylobacter results from the use of older techniques, such as pulse-field gel electrophoresis, which can look only at coarse differences in the genomes of bacterial strains. This has been effective for studying E. coli and Salmonella transmission, but Campylobacter is unique in that its genome changes very rapidly, making it difficult to trace back to a source. To combat this challenge, state public health departments have received directives to start using whole-genome sequencing in an attempt to locate the sources of the infections.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the public health departments don’t have that know-how yet. They’re acquiring the sequencing machines, but they don’t have the bioinformatics expertise needed to analyze those genomes. That’s where we come in,” said Johnson.

Jeremiah Johnson and graduate student Brittni KelleyJohnson’s JDRD team is working with Campylobacter strains isolated across East Tennessee, including those collected by the US Food and Drug Administration and the Tennessee Department of Health, to conduct an in-depth analysis of the bacterium’s genome. Once the analysis is complete, Johnson hopes it will lead to a better understanding of the bacterium, as well as discovering why East Tennessee has the highest rate of Campylobacter infection in the state.

“The Department of Health suspects that it’s not entirely linked to chicken consumption. They don’t really know where it’s coming from. Because of our experience with whole-genome sequencing, they’re thinking that we can take our expertise, the expertise at ORNL, and try to find out where some of these infections are coming from,” said Johnson.

Dan Jacobson, Johnson’s ORNL partner and a computational biologist, will use the information generated by the JDRD team to conduct a broad analysis of the Campylobacter genome. Given the rate at which Campylobacter’s genome changes, this evolutionary view should aid in tracing strains back to their origination point.


In the 1920s Arthur Eddington proposed that the process of fusing small nuclei together, or fusion, released large amounts of energy and was in fact what powered the stars. Since that time fusion power has been an important area of study, but despite nearly 100 years of research, controlled fusion remains elusive.

In recent years, the plasma-wall interaction within fusion devices has become an increasingly important area of research. To date, an ideal material for the interior walls of fusion devices has not yet been found—but the work of Zhili Zhang, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering, may help change that.

Zhili Zhang, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering“Controlled fusion has some problems. Basically you have to create a very hot gas, so you generate ionized gases called plasmas,” said Zhang. “The plasmas will bombard a metal wall and the wall will be etched. The goal is to find a material to hold the plasma, so now the big research problem is the plasma-wall interaction.”

Zhang’s JDRD project proposes to provide more accurate measurements of plasma-wall interactions in the new ORNL Proto-MPEX, an experimental facility designed to help test materials for their fusion containment capabilities. Zhang’s team will contribute to this goal by providing real-time measurement data for the testing materials.

“You know the material will be impacted by the plasma. It’s a very fast process. Plasma will etch the wall within almost a millisecond, so how can you provide in situ measurements of the plasma-wall interactions?” said Zhang.

Theodore Biewer, Zhang’s partner and a senior research scientist at ORNL, will be investigating this problem by taking surface measurements while his team takes gas phase measurements.

“We also propose to use photoacoustics,” said Zhang. “So the laser will hit the wall and some of the energy will be absorbed, which will increase the local temperature on the surface. That will generate a pressure increase, which will lead to an acoustic wave, so you can hear it. This is a good way to do nondestructive detection on the surface.”

Zhang’s team has constructed a much smaller version of the facility in his lab in order to test their ideas before moving to the Proto-MPEX. He hopes this will allow for improved efficiency in the testing process, which he believes will generate scientifically significant information.

The LDRD team has submitted a proposal to the US Department of Energy based on the preliminary research and design of the project. The proposal, which if funded could also benefit Zhang’s work, has passed through the first round of eliminations and is under consideration for approval.

Biofuel is not a new product. When the first diesel engine was presented at the World Exhibition of Paris in 1900, it ran on peanut oil. Henry Ford’s Model T was designed to use hemp-derived biofuel, and even ethanol was in use during World Wars I and II. The past 20 years have seen a resurgence in interest and research pertaining to biofuels as scientists venture beyond corn-based ethanol.

Christopher Baker, assistant professor of chemistry

Christopher Baker

“Most gasoline is about 10 percent ethanol,” said Christopher Baker, assistant professor of chemistry. “The problem is that to produce ethanol we have to feed other types of cells—yeast for example—these refined sugars. The effort it takes to produce that sugar is more energy than we get back out when we produce the ethanol.”

Baker’s JDRD project is an early step toward finding alternatives to this expensive fuel-making process by studying fungi. Fungi have evolved over millions of years to survive in challenging environments, in part through their ability to find nutrients where other types of cells cannot. One of the ways they do this is by secreting a chemical that helps digest otherwise indigestible substances.

Fungi can often be seen growing on tree bark—but how are they surviving there? Tree bark is generally composed of lignocellulose, a polymer network of sugar molecules. Because they are linked, these sugars can’t be used as nutrients. This is where the fungi come in. They produce an enzyme called laccase that pulls the lignocellulose apart, breaking it down into its base sugars. Those sugars can then be used to make fuel.

“Once you can take these materials that are otherwise not nutrients and turn them into nutrients, you can feed those nutrients to something like a yeast cell and the yeast cell will turn that sugar into alcohol. That’s a vital, important step for producing biofuels,” said Baker.

Baker’s JDRD team is building a sensor platform designed to study laccase secretion. His platform will allow for the rapid high-throughput study of the effect of a variety of reagents on fungal cells with reference to enzyme production. Once the platform is complete, Baker’s team will hand off the device to their collaborator at ORNL, Jessy Labbé. Labbé’s team has become proficient in producing and sustaining fungal cells in a lab, a major achievement in the arena of mycology. They will use Baker’s device to work toward encouraging the best laccase production in their fungal cells.

“They have this unique ability to genetically engineer fungi,” said Baker. “Our technology will allow them to make many genetic modifications, screen them all in this high-density platform, and be able to see which is producing the most of this enzyme.”

Baker’s project not only will improve biofuel production, but also—because fungi are important in medicine, agriculture, and basic biological research—has the potential to affect a number of vital research areas.


Ten researchers were given Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) awards for 2017 as part of the Science Alliance—a Tennessee Center of Excellence managed by the Office of Research and Engagement. The JDRD program was conceived to provide faculty members an opportunity to work collaboratively with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

JDRD awards are given to faculty across a wide range of disciplines and departments with the directive to collaborate with an ORNL Laboratory Directed Research Development (LDRD) project, an ORNL Seed Project, or a project that meets one of several strategic objectives. Awarded projects focus on a variety of research areas including advanced manufacturing, big data management, and climate change and adaptation.

“This year’s solicitation attracted 34 new proposals, half of which were submitted by assistant professors,” said Louise Nuttle, director of faculty development for ORE. “While the opportunity is available to all UT faculty, the high number of meritorious proposals received from junior faculty resulted in the funding of nine new collaborations, including eight from assistant professors.”

The 2017 list of awards is comprised of nine first-year proposals and one second-year project, including the following faculty members:

Christopher Baker, Department of ChemistryA Microfluidic droplet array sensor for the discovery of high value bioproducts in fungal cell cultures

Jeremiah Johnson, Department of MicrobiologyEpidemiological study of human campylobateriosis with the development of a microbial source-tracking database

Veerle Keppens, Department of Materials Science and EngineeringElectronic and magnetic phase control of complex materials using ionic liquid gating

Maik Lang, Department of Nuclear EngineeringUnrevealing short-range order in SiO2 glass under extreme conditions using the ORNL Integrated Computational Environmental-Modeling & Analysis for Neutrons (ICE-MAN)

Eric Lukosi, Department of Nuclear EngineeringMicrofluidic spectrometry for biomedical applications

Sharani Roy, Department of ChemistryUnderstanding complexity at reactive interfaces through theory and experiments

Seungha Shin, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace , and Biomedical EngineeringAtomistic investigation of interfacial transport in aluminum alloys

Oleg Shylo, Department of Industrial and Systems EngineeringScalable communication models for parallel optimization

Haixuan Xu, Department of Materials Science and EngineeringRadiation effects and defect properties in low-dimensional materials

Zhili Zhang, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical EngineeringReal-time nonintrusive tomographic imaging of plasma facing components surface and subsurface erosions

The majority of the funded projects represent first-time ORNL collaborations.

The LDRD program at ORNL is funded by the US Department of Energy and encourages multiprogram DOE laboratories to select a limited number of projects with the potential to position the lab for scientific and technical leadership in future national initiatives.

The ORNL Seed Money Fund provides a source of funding for innovative ideas that have the potential to enhance the laboratory’s core scientific and technical competencies. The JDRD program identifies and supports corresponding areas of research at UT.

Proposals submitted to the JDRD program are evaluated on a range of criteria including whether they will include graduate and undergraduate students in the research. In 2016 alone, Science Alliance programs, including the JDRD program, provided funding and research opportunities for more than 120 graduate and undergraduate students across the university.

JDRD-awarded projects can be funded for up to two years with a progress assessment at the end of year one to determine if second-year funding will be given. Second-year funding is based on the development of the partnership and the research progress thus far.

Established in 1984, the Science Alliance mission is to expand cooperative ventures in research with ORNL and enhance science and engineering research programs at the UT. The center also provides support to several joint institutes, including the recently renamed Shull Wollan Center–A Joint Institute for Neutron Sciences.