Letter from the Director for April/May

Dear Friends of CITRIS:

The world is full of valuable information that, if known, would save money, lives, and numerous resources. The trusses supporting our bridges contain information about when the aging structures will become dangerous to cross. Chemical signatures in our breath and skin contain information about our health and possible diseases. An airplane’s fuselage contains information about tiny fractures. The gas pipes running beneath our cities contain information about when their seams might fail, when they will begin to leak, and when they might explode. Until now, most of these systems and structures have been mute. Often we do not know the scale of a problem until it is too late, like the fuselage that tore open on a commercial flight recently. Or the pipeline explosion that took eight lives and destroyed 55 homes in San Bruno last September. Or the Mississippi River Bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2008, killing 13 people and injuring 145. 

Intelligent infrastructure is about more than averting disasters. Some structures wear out before engineers expect them to, others remain sound much longer than it would be safe to assume. Real-time monitoring would identify when bridges do not need expensive updates as well as when they do. This would allow attention and money to be precisely focused where it is needed.

This newsletter describes the work of two young CITRIS researchers working on the nano-scale to give voice to exactly the kind of this information.

Saif Islam, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UC Davis, has developed nanowires that ionize gasses at some extraordinarily low voltages, enabling the development of mobile, inexpensive, super-sensitive gas detectors that could be deployed for various uses, like detecting leaks and diagnosing disease.

Sixty miles to the southwest, here in Sutardja Dai Hall at UC Berkeley, Islam’s colleague Ali Javey,  Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, is wedding super-thin layers of semiconductor saturated materials onto versatile substrates, producing flexible, smart “skins” that can add intelligent sensing to items like bridges and airplanes. The skin could work as a pressure and temperature sensitive dermal layer for human prosthetics, as well as for the surfaces of buildings, robots, and almost anything else that has physically sensible information to impart.

The work of these two innovative researchers is exactly what CITRIS’s founders had in mind: creative multi-disciplinary work that employs IT to address society’s most pressing needs.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Paul K. Wright
Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute@CITRIS Berkeley