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McCormick News


Solar Panels Installed on Ford Building

Solar panels

The Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, opened in 2005, was the first LEED-certified building at Northwestern. Now, thanks to some industrious students, it has burnished its green credentials: A solar photovoltaic array covering nearly the entire available roof of the Ford Building was installed last summer and has been connected to the building’s electric grid, making it the University’s first on-site renewable energy source.

Students from the campus groups Engineers for a Sustainable World and the Northwestern Sustainability Fund worked for two years to make the “solar system” a reality. Named the Centennial Solar Panel System, it honors the centennial of the McCormick School, which celebrated 100 years of engineering in 2009. The two groups raised more than $117,000 from on- and off-campus sponsors.

The 16.8-kilowatt panel display is expected to generate about 20,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year—enough to power a computer lab in the Ford Building.

Researchers Use Carbon Nanotubes to Make Solar Cells Affordable, Flexible

Mark Hersam  Tobin Marks

Researchers have developed a solar cell material made of carbon nanotubes that provides an alternative to current technology, which is mechanically brittle and reliant on a relatively rare mineral. Solar cells comprise several layers, including a transparent conductor layer that allows light to pass into the cell and electricity to pass out; both of these actions require a conductor that is both electrically conductive and optically transparent. Currently, indium tin oxide is the dominant material used in such applications, but it is brittle and rare.

Mark C. Hersam, professor of materials science and engineering and of chemistry, and Tobin J. Marks, Vladimir N. Ipatieff Professor of Catalytic Chemistry and professor of materials science and engineering, have created an alternative using single-walled carbon nanotubes: tiny, hollow cylinders of carbon just one nanometer in diameter. They’ve also determined the type of nanotube that is most effective in transparent conductors. Metallic nanotubes, the researchers found, are 50 times more effective than semi-conducting ones when used as transparent conductors in organic solar cells. The technology could pave the way for flexible solar cells that could be used by the military or incorporated into wearable electronics.

New Facility Named for Willenses

Ronald and JoAnne Willens have made a significant gift to Northwestern, enabling it to advance its leadership in the field of nanotechnology. In recognition of the unrestricted gift, the top three floors of the addition to the north side of the Technological Institute will be named the Willens Engineering Life Sciences Wing. The addition is expected to be completed in fall 2012.

The facility will house chemists and engineers whose work emphasizes the life sciences and their relation to engineering. Faculty research will advance biomedicine in areas such as neural engineering, bionanotechnology, and biomaterials.

Ron Willens is cofounder of the technology company Livingston Enterprises, which Lucent Technologies bought in 1997. The company made remote-access equipment and software that allowed hundreds of users to dial into large corporate networks or Internet service providers. JoAnne Willens is a retired technical illustrator.

McCormick Travels to Singapore

Last summer University president Morton Schapiro and Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School, traveled to Singapore with a group of Northwestern officials. McCormick hosted an event in Singapore on July 1, welcoming more than 60 alumni and friends.

During the trip Dean Ottino and colleagues met with the president, provost, and other leaders from Singapore’s Nan-yang Technological University to discuss potential collaborations in nanotechnology, biomedical engineering, and materials science. They also met with the president of the National University of Singapore and executive management from A*STAR and the Economic Development Board. 

The trip was part of Northwestern’s continuing efforts to increase its global outreach, attract international students, and involve alumni who live outside of the United States. See a slideshow of photos from the Singapore event.

Dean Ottino in Singapore Shapiro in Singapore

Rometty Named CEO of IBM, Offers Lessons to Northwestern Community


McCormick alumna Ginni Rometty (computer science ’79) was named president and CEO of IBM on October 25. She will step into her new role January 1, becoming the first female CEO in the company’s 100-year history. She most recently served as IBM’s senior vice president and group executive for sales, marketing, and strategy.

Rometty was at Northwestern last March to give the IBM Centennial lecture to a packed room of students, faculty, and alumni. It was the first of six lectures she gave at universities around the world. She selected Northwestern—the only US university on her tour—because she is an alumna and because, when she was here in the late 1970s studying computer science, she learned an important lesson that has guided her throughout her 30 years at IBM. “What I took away was how to think,” she said.

In the lecture Rometty shared three lessons she’s learned throughout her career: how to stay alive, how to make big bets, and how to create a corporate culture that becomes a competitive advantage.

IBM started in the meat-and-cheese-slicer business, but when it was taken over by Thomas J. Watson Sr. in 1914, he said, “We must never think what we have today will satisfy demand 10 years from now.” And, indeed, IBM has stayed alive (Rometty’s first lesson) by continually reinventing itself over the last century. What began as a hardware company eventually shifted to a service company when, in 2002, Rometty led the successful acquisition and integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting into IBM.

Acquiring a business of mostly human capital was risky, but Rometty says that when you take big bets (her second lesson), you must believe in what you’re doing.

So what does IBM believe in? Globalization and integrating and innovating through technology, Rometty said.  This belief led the company to launch what may be a new golden age of computing through Watson, a computer system capable of understanding and learning the nuances of language.

“The greatest measure” of any idea, she said, “is the impact it has.”

Nanostructure Promotes Growth of New Blood Vessels


Tissue deprived of oxygen (ischemia) is a serious health condition that can lead to damaged heart tissue following a heart attack and—in the case of peripheral arterial disease in limbs—amputation, particularly in diabetic patients. Northwestern researchers have developed a novel nanostructure that promotes the growth of new blood vessels and shows promise as a therapy for conditions where increased blood flow is needed to supply oxygen to tissue.

Samuel I. Stupp, Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science and Engineering, and Medicine and director of Northwestern’s Institute for Bionanotechnology in Medicine, and his team have designed an artificial structure that can trigger a cascade of complex events that promote the growth of new blood vessels. The nanostructure mimics a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)—and in some ways surpasses it. Unlike VEGF, the nanostructure is easily injected as a liquid into the tissue, is relatively inexpensive to produce, and remains in the tissue for a longer period.

Stupp and his team created the nanostructure in the form of a fiber with a high density of peptides—potentially hundreds of thousands per fiber. The peptides mimic the biological effect of VEGF, initiating the signaling process in cells that leads to blood vessel growth. The large number of active peptides results in a very potent therapeutic agent, and the size and stability of the nanofiber ensure the structure is retained in the tissue after injection.

Could a Computer One Day Rewire Itself?


Scientists at Northwestern have developed a new nano-material that can “steer” electrical currents. The development could lead to a computer that can simply reconfigure its internal wiring and become an entirely different device based on changing needs.

As electronic devices are built smaller and smaller, the materials from which the circuits are constructed begin to lose their properties and begin to be controlled by quantum mechanical phenomena. Reaching this physical barrier, many scientists have begun building circuits in multiple dimensions, such as stacking components on top of one another.

The Northwestern team has taken a fundamentally different approach. It has made reconfigurable electronic materials—materials that can rearrange themselves to meet different computational needs at different times. “Our new steering technology allows us to direct current flow through a piece of continuous material,” says Bartosz A. Grzybowski, who led the research. “Like redirecting a river, streams of electrons can be steered in multiple directions through a block of the material—even multiple streams flowing in opposing directions at the same time.” Grzybowski is professor of chemical and biological engineering at McCormick and professor of chemistry in the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The Northwestern material combines different aspects of silicon- and polymer-based electronics to create a new classification of electronic materials: nanoparticle-based electronics. Imagine a single device that reconfigures itself into a resistor, a rectifier, a diode, or a transistor based on signals from a computer. The multidimensional circuitry could be reconfigured into new electronic circuits using a varied sequence of electrical pulses.

The hybrid material is composed of electrically conductive particles, each five nanometers in width, coated with a special positively charged chemical. The particles are surrounded by a sea of negatively charged atoms that balance out the positive charges fixed on the particles. When an electrical charge is applied across the material, the small negative atoms can be moved and reconfigured, but the relatively larger positive particles are not able to move.

By moving this sea of negative atoms around the material, regions of low and high conductance can be modulated; the result is the creation of a directed path that allows electrons to flow through the material. Old paths can be erased and new paths created by pushing and pulling the sea of negative atoms. More complex electrical components, such as diodes and transistors, can be made when multiple types of nanoparticles are used.

Students Build Off-grid “Tiny House”

tiny-houseHow much space does one person need? A one-bedroom apartment? A small studio? How about 128 square feet?

That is the size of the “Tiny House” that McCormick students have designed and built over the last two years. The 8 x 16–square-foot house, which sits on the back of a trailer, comes equipped with a bed, kitchen, and bathroom and can function completely off the grid. The design includes solar panels to generate electricity, a rainwater catchment and filtration system for potable water, a composting toilet, a shower with an extremely efficient shower head, a small fireplace, and a kitchen complete with sink, refrigerator, and one burner. They designed the house to be compatible with DC electricity (which comes from the solar panels) and made sure it would gather enough water in Chicago’s climate for a person to use 8.6 gallons a day.

The team is in talks to exhibit the house at a Chicago museum.

Achenbach Receives Rarely Awarded Honorary Degree in CHINA

Jan AchenbachJan D. Achenbach, Walter P. Murphy and Distinguished McCormick School Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering and professor of engi-
neering sciences and applied mathematics and of mechanical engineering, has been awarded an honorary doctorate from China’s Zhejiang University. He received the award in a September ceremony attended by the university’s president, Yang Wei, in the Zhejiang Province.

The award is a rare honor, as Chinese universities bestow honorary degrees approximately once every five years, and their selections must be approved by state officials. Previous recipients of Zhejiang University’s honorary doctorate include former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. Achenbach is the seventh individual—and first engineer—to receive an honorary doctorate from Zhejiang University.

Born in the Netherlands, Achenbach became a member of Northwestern’s faculty in 1963. Since then he has become highly respected for his work in the areas of wave propagation in solids and for pioneering the field of quantitative nondestructive evaluation. He received a National Medal of Technology in 2003 for his contributions to engineering research and education and for pioneering methods for detecting dangerous cracks and corrosion in aircraft, advances that led to improved air safety. Achenbach was also awarded a 2005 National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for innovation in technology and science. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1982, a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994.

Belytschko Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Ted BelytschkoTed Belytschko, an expert in computational methods for computer simulation of mechanical events such as car crashes, drop tests, and other prototype testing, has been elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. Membership in the academy is one of the highest honors given to a scientist or engineer in the United States. Belytschko is among 72 new members and 18 foreign associates from 15 countries recognized this year for their distinguished and continuing achievements in original scientific research.

Belytschko was also awarded the Prager Medal for outstanding research contributions in theoretical or experimental solid mechanics. He was presented the award at the 48th annual technical meeting of the Society of Engineering Science in October.

Belytschko is the Walter P. Murphy Professor in mechanical engineering and professor of civil and environmental engineering. His main interests lie in the development of computational methods for engineering problems. He has developed methods that are widely used in crashworthiness analysis and virtual prototyping. Recently these methods have been instrumental in enabling the auto industry to replace physical prototype testing with computer simulation in crashworthiness design. These methods also have replaced prototype testing in many other industries, thus shortening the design cycle.

ETOPiA Explores Issue of Human Cloning

A NumberA Number, a one-act drama by Caryl Churchill about the potential consequences of human cloning, was presented in October and November at McCormick.

Written in 2002—six years after the highly publicized creation of Dolly, the cloned sheep—A Number explores the conflicts that arise between a father and his adult son, who learns that his father may have allowed his son to be cloned when he was a child. The play delves into the personal consequences of human cloning and how the power of replicating genetic identity may have unintended consequences.

The play was part of ETOPiA: Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts, an outreach initiative at McCormick with the goal of inspiring a cross-disciplinary dialogue about the role of science and technology in society. A Number was ETOPiA’s fourth play at Northwestern. Previous ETOPiA productions have included Copenhagen, Manya: A Living History of Marie Curie, and QED.

A Number presents a very human perspective on how relationships might be affected by the technology of genetic engineering and cloning,” says Matthew Grayson, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and the play’s producer. “It’s a personal, touching, and at times disruptive view of how this controversial science could change real lives.”

Each performance included a postshow discussion led by Northwestern students and featuring a panel of faculty members and graduate students.

McCormick Faculty Awards

Michael JewettMichael Jewett, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, has received the Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense, and the Agilent Early Career Professor Award from Agilent Technologies Inc. Jewett joined the Northwestern faculty in 2009. He uses cell-free systems to create protein therapeutics and unnatural polymers for applications in materials, medicine, and nanotechnology.

The DARPA program identifies rising research stars in US academic institutions and introduces them to Department of Defense needs as well as DARPA’s program development process. The Agilent prize is awarded annually to recognize and encourage excellence in measurement research, with a focus this year on the field of systems biology.

Jewett also recently received a 2011 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. He is among 16 promising science and engineering researchers nationwide to receive an unrestricted research grant of $875,000 over five years.


Leon KeerLeon Keer, Walter P. Murphy Emeritus Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, received the 2011 Raymond D. Mindlin Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The award recognizes outstanding research contributions to applied solid mechanics.




Randy SnurrRandy Snurr, professor of chemical and biological engineering, received the 2011 Institute Award for Excellence in Industrial Gases Technology from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in October. The award recognizes sustained excellence in contributing to the advancement of technology in the production, distribution, and application of industrial gases.

Snurr’s research focuses on the development of nanoporous materials to solve environmental and energy problems. Specific areas of interest include diffusion in nanoporous materials, adsorption thermodynamics, development of new adsorbents and catalysts, separations, and molecular modeling.

Outstanding Members of the Class of 2011 Recognized in June

McCormick students were honored at graduation ceremonies in June, hearing from speakers such as Ken Porrello, principal of Deloitte & Touche; Barry Nelson, the Walter P. Murphy Professor and chair of industrial engineering and management sciences; and Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

Among those honored was Ryan Brock, a materials science and engineering BS/MS student, who won the 2011 Harold B. Gotaas Undergraduate Research Award. The award, named in honor of the third dean of the McCormick School, is given to the senior who presents the best research paper in the competition. Brock developed transparent conductive electrodes based on carbon nanotubes and graphene, and his research has shown that metallic single-walled carbon nanotube anodes possess higher performance and stability than semiconducting nanotubes in a certain type of device. He conducted his research in the lab of Mark Hersam, professor of materials science and engineering and of chemistry.

Other finalists for the award included:

Tejas Shastry (materials science and engineering), who also worked in Hersam’s lab; he designed, fabricated, and tested high-performance carbon nanotube field-effect transistors

Samantha Strasser (biomedical engineering and applied mathematics), who worked with professors Allen Taflove and Vadim Backman to develop a novel technique to measure intracellular macromolecular concentration with nanoscale sensitivity based on near-field scanning optical microscopy

Alvin Tan (materials science and engineering), working in the lab of Jiaxing Huang, fabricated composites for carbon solar cells and characterized them using scanning electron microscopy and atomic-force microscopy

Anthony Tan (materials science and engineering), who worked in the lab of Katherine Faber and performed mass spectrometry and microstructural analysis to understand the role of additives in the electroplating process of copper on graphite

Gracie Wittman (mechanical engineering), who worked in the lab of Peter Voorhees and calculated the effect of microgravity accelerations on particle sedimentation

Four faculty members receive career awards:

Four faculty members affiliated with McCormick have received the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation. They are: Nicole Immorlica, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Paul Leonardi, Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Junior Professor of Design and assistant professor of industrial engineering and management sciences and of communication studies; Adilson Motter, associate professor of engineering science and applied mathematics and of physics and astronomy; and Hao Zhang, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.