Stimulating research

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is supporting College of Science and Engineering faculty research projects that may help stimulate economic recovery.

One of the projects is an ingenious plan to create a “double dividend” in producing geothermal energy; another involves basic research into the mechanical properties of one of the most deadly of brain cancers; a third involves a major scientific initiative dedicated to investigating the fundamental building blocks of matter. These are the sort of cutting-edge scholarly projects that give the College of Science and Engineering its reputation as one of the nation's leading resources for pure and applied scientific research. But now these three projects—as well as the research of many other scholars at the University of Minnesota—are fulfilling an additional purpose. They’re also helping to put America back on track economically after the recent recession.

As part of the massive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 [ARRA] the University of Minnesota has received grants totaling about $164.1 million from what is popularly known as "stimulus funds." Researchers within the College of Science and Engineering have earned the biggest chunk of that money—some $57.5 million, according to Tim Mulcahy, University of Minnesota Vice President for Research.

"All else being equal, using carbon dioxide gives you roughly the electricity output efficiency compared to using water." – Martin Saar

Support from the stimulus funds was to go to research projects that—in the language of the bill itself—result in "measurable outcomes . . . that promote the goals of the Recovery Act." The charge to the College of Science and Engineering was clear. Create science that will eventually help create jobs and prosperity. "University of Minnesota research has been successfully commercialized in a broad range of industries, including biosciences, green technologies . . . and many others," said Mulcahy. "This track record gives us every reason to believe that our research . . . will help launch companies that will provide economic vitality, jobs, and tax revenues for the state."

The research projects funded under ARRA are as varied as the many paths to national economic recovery. "I know a couple of young, non-tenured faculty members whose research was jump-started by the stimulus funds," said Mos Kaveh, associate dean for research and planning for the College of Science and Engineering. There are also major scientific initiatives like the NOvA detector facility. "NOvA is really big science," explains Kaveh, "and big science requires major funding."

To date Mulcahy notes, the ARRA funding has helped "create or preserve more than 100 jobs at the University." And that doesn't even begin to address another of the stimulus funds' long-term impacts on the state's economy. Pointing out that the University grants almost half the science and engineering degrees earned in the State of Minnesota, he added, "Those students will go on to become valued contributors to Minnesota's economic vitality."

MARTIN SAAR: Research heats up

One of the young faculty members whose research might well have been jump-started by the stimulus money is Martin Saar, College of Science and Engineering assistant professor of geology and geophysics. Saar and graduate student, Jimmy Randolph, have devised an ingenious “two-for-one” strategy to simultaneously produce renewable energy and to reduce the presence of harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Their idea is to use CO2 in place of water in the production of geothermal energy.

The “ah-ha” moment came to Saar while on a drive to northern Minnesota. “In the car, we talked about a project we’d just completed on geological CO2 sequestration,” he said. That’s the process that removes harmful carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel sources by injecting them into geologically stable subsurface rock formations. “But Jimmy’s main project is geothermal energy production,” he continued. As the two scientists discussed both projects, they began to think about their complementary aspects and “eventually we connected the dots.”

Water is the traditional working fluid used to transfer geothermal heat from the earth’s interior to its surface for power production. But why not accomplish the same goal by building a geothermal power plant that is based on the partial recirculation of sequestered and geothermally heated carbon dioxide? Such a plant, said Saar, “would have a net negative carbon footprint…Geothermal heat captured this way not only does not emit CO2, but would actually sequester CO2 from sources like coal-fired or ethanol-producing plants.”

He adds that there are other advantages to using CO2 in place of water. “All else being equal,” he said, “Using carbon dioxide gives you roughly double the electricity output efficiency compared to using water.” That might allow geothermal electricity generation in regions where underground temperatures are too low to use water for economic electricity production.

Another argument for using CO2, explains Saar, involves hydrofracturing, the process by which a hot dry underground rock formation is deliberately "cracked" to create an artificial reservoir in what's known as an enhanced geothermal system (EGS). The problem is that hydrofracturing can trigger small earthquakes. "Our CO2-based system does NOT hydrofracture," he said, noting that the drawbacks of EGS were driven home when "they had to shut down systems in Switzerland, Germany and Northern California all within one week last December" in part because of small earthquakes.

Saar is excited about the economic potential of his work. "If Minnesota establishes itself in this technology, it could lead to jobs in the long run," he said. Beyond the immediate academic positions generated by the basic research, Saar looks forward to a day when designing and constructing power systems using CO2 technology might become a "Made in Minnesota" industry. "The University's Office for Technology Commercialization is in vigorous pursuit," he notes of possibly forming a start-up company based on Saar's and Randolph's research.

"If we combine fundamental research with real- world applications, we can really make a difference in terms of the environment as well as energy efficiency and security," he added.


"David Odde, professor of biomedical engineering, is using stimulus dollars to achieve a better understanding of the mechanics of glioblastoma, the most common and most aggressive type of primary brain cancer in humans."


DAVID ODDE: Understanding cell movement

If Saar's work focuses on large-scale problems of energy production systems, by contrast David Odde, biomedical engineering professor in the College of Science and Engineering, concentrates on the smallest units of living matter.

David Odde photo

"How do cells sense the mechanical properties of their environment?" is the question posed by his work.

Odde is an expert on the shape and movement of cells in response to the underlying "stiffness" of their tissue environment. In the past, he has investigated how the underlying mechanical stiffness of their environment can affect the differentiation of neurons.

Now, in collaboration with neuro-oncologist Steven Rosenfeld of Columbia University, Odde is using stimulus money to apply his expertise to achieve a better understanding of the mechanics of glioblastoma, the lethal brain cancer that killed more than 12,000 people in 2009, among them Senator Ted Kennedy.

“It’s the migration of tumor cells that kills people with brain cancer,” said Odde, “but glioma cells migrate differently in vivo than in vitro.” The problem for those studying the mechanics of the disease is to get glioma cells under laboratory conditions to behave more like glioma in a living creature.

"If we get a good understanding of glioma, it will change how we think about therapeutic strategies." – David Odde

One approach is to study glioma cell migration "in silico," as Odde says, by creating computer models to simulate the movement of the cells against underlying tissue environments of varying "stiffness."

The kind of deep understanding of glioma cells that his research can produce has tremendous potential implications for clinical work, explains Odde.

Odde envisions his research one day promoting what he calls a “Roach motel” approach to glioma therapy. By understanding how cancer cells migrate throughout the brain, it might someday be possible to develop a device that would manipulate the mechanical environment of brain tissue to induce cancer cells to take the one-way trip to no-exit eradication. And that, in turn, could provide growth for an important sector of the Minnesota economy.

"We have a very strong biomedical device industry in Minnesota," he said. "Devices are researched, developed, and produced here."

Hope for the therapeutic promise of his work is exciting, but what keeps Odde engaged on a day-to-day basis is the sheer pleasure of discovery. "We find something that cuts against what we expected," he said, "and yet it's true. I like that."