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2021 Spotlights

Contact with contaminated surfaces is one of the most common ways for illness to spread. A person carrying a pathogen touches something, like a doorknob, then another person touches that object and they can be infected by that pathogen. In between these contacts, the pathogen has to survive on the object, and in a large enough quantity to infect another person. Dustin Gilbert, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, wants to make it impossible, or at least unlikely, for pathogens to survive on a surface.

“If you come into contact with a surface containing pathogens, you could get sick from it, so it’s important to have surfaces that are inhospitable environments for pathogens so they just die quickly rather than being picked up and infecting another person,” said Gilbert.

Most commonly used surfaces are not good at killing pathogens. Pathogens on stainless steel, for example, can take up to five days to die on the surface; on cloth surfaces the timeframe is closer to weeks. However, there are a variety of metals that do a great job killing pathogens. Historically, colloidal silver and brass have both been used for their anti-pathogenic properties. Gilbert’s team wants to leverage the naturally occurring anti-pathogenic properties of these metals to create a more thoroughly inhospitable surface.

“Our idea was to take several of these bioactive metals and put them together into an alloy so effective that whatever pathogen lands on the surface will be attacked my multiple modes of action thanks to the properties of the individual metals,” said Gilbert. “Our goal is to protect against a broader spectrum of pathogens and kill them faster.“

Traditionally, testing these alloys would be a lengthy, laborious process in which each composition is fabricated one piece at a time and tested individually. To overcome this issue Gilbert leveraged his experience in nanotechnology to develop a nanoscale film, enabling him to test thousands of compositions in a single sample.

His team collaborated with Thomas Denes, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at UTIA, and Anne Murray, a postdoc in Ecology and Environmental Biology, to conduct pathogen testing on the various alloy compositions. Once complete, the team came together to develop an understanding of the ways in which materials science and biology can work together to address pathogens. The results have been promising and the teams have a joint publication in progress.

Gilbert has also worked with his ORNL collaborators, Ying Yang and Easo George in the Alloy Behavior and Design Group, to develop a better understanding of high entropy alloys like those used in his project. Next, he wants to determine which of the alloys that most effectively kill pathogens can be manufactured in bulk. Additionally, Gilbert is generating a proposal for NSF based on the preliminary findings from this work.

Subhadeep ChakrabortyDriver inattention is the leading cause of traffic accidents in the U.S., resulting in thousands of deaths per year. Inattention can be the result of driver fatigue, texting, loud music, or even daydreaming. Whatever the cause, when a driver’s focus strays, lives are put at risk. Associate Professor of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering Subhadeep Chakraborty’s work with biometric sensing could help minimize that risk. 

Biometric sensing is the process of gathering information about a human, in this case the driver of a vehicle, such as where they are looking or their heartrate. Data gathered from a driver can subsequently be cross referenced with information about the vehicle itself and its surroundings to assess the situation and determine if the driver is behaving normally.  

“Our physiological responses are tied to what the vehicle is doing and what is going on around the vehicle at the same time,” said Chakraborty. “Looking at these three things simultaneously will allow us to determine if a driver’s behavior is normal or something that could become dangerous. We can then act upon that by sounding an alarm for a sleepy driver or vibrating the steering wheel to return a distracted driver’s attention to the road.”  

He cautions that for this technology to be effective, it must be accurate enough to avoid regular false alarms. Chakraborty’s team has developed a headmount containing a series of sensors capable of collecting biometric data as well as information about a driver’s gaze. The next step is to integrate that headmount with a driving simulator and begin building a data set, which will use both UT and ORNL equipment. 

“Our lab setup is drawn from high-end gaming systems and uses a head mounted display. We can control the environment and get immediate data from the simulations. We can use this to gather driving data and safely simulate distractions by asking participants to solve puzzles or play memory games,” said Chakraborty.  

From there, his team hopes to also gather data via a state-of-the-art simulator located in ORNL’s Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Environment (CAVE) Laboratory. This simulator mimics the experience of driving by removing a vehicle’s wheels and mounting the hub directly to four dynamometers. The full steering capability with torque feedback based on the current simulated vehicle dynamics make the simulation feel more realistic. This could translate to more accurate biometric data and fewer false alarms for potentially distracted drivers.  

Chakraborty was previously the recipient of Science Alliance funding for his work on connected vehicle technology. That work involved several cross-disciplinary collaborations on campus that now, in addition to being applied to his StART project, have created opportunities for approaching his work from a holistic perspective.  

“I don’t think these kinds of projects have any boundaries anymore. It’s a mechanical engineering topic, it’s a computer science topic, it’s a civil engineering topic,” said Chakraborty. “Ultimately, we are trying to address a safety issue, and that issue is multi-dimensional and needs to be looked at from a variety of perspectives. Fortunately, we have built a community capable of doing that.”