The Lab Coat Chronicles: new scientific findings at UB

On April 10, 2014

New technology could allow for better energy generation

Researchers specializing in photonics at UB have discovered a method of maximizing and reusing energy absorption through a microchip. This would be done by a nanoscale component of microchips called "multilayered waveguide taper arrays."

The component helps to effectively slow and absorb more light frequencies at different locations - collecting a "rainbow" of wavelengths.

Qiaoqiang Gan is the lead researcher on the project and an assistant professor of electrical engineering.

"This advancement could prove invaluable for thin-film solar technology, as well as recycling waste thermal energy that is a byproduct of industry and everyday electronic devices, such as smartphones and laptops," Gan told the UB Reporter.

The tapers are made of ultrathin layers of metal, semiconductors or insulators and the thickness of the layers are adjusted to cater to different frequencies. This advancement could be applied to a broad variety of fields.

Thin-film photovoltaics, used to harness solar power, are an alternative to traditional solar cells because they are less expensive and more flexible. The thin-films, however, also absorb less energy. But because the waveguide tapers are able to absorb visible and infrared wavelengths, adding them to the photovoltaics could potentially increase their energy generation.

The waveguide taper arrays would even be able to avoid detection programs that rely on radar, solar, infrared and other forms.

The four other contributing authors of the research, Haifeng Hu, Kai Liu, Xie Zeng and Nan Zhang, are also Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Their findings were published on March 28 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Computers can determine pain fakers better than humans can, study shows

A new study co-authored by UB researchers has discovered that a computer can distinguish between real or faked pain better than a human.

Mark Frank, a professor and researcher in the communication department, worked on the joint study with the University of California, San Diego and University of Toronto - the study was published in Current Biology, a reputable scientific journal.

Researchers created video clips of the faces of two sets of people. The first set were those who were in pain during "cold presser" test in which a participant's hands are immersed in ice water to determine the subjects pain tolerance. The second group of clips was of people faking pain.

Experimenters showed both sets of clips in random order to 205 people. The study found that participants were able to determine the difference between people in real pain and fake pain 55 percent of the time, whereas the computer determined the correct difference 85 percent of the time.

"In highly social species such as humans, faces have evolved to convey rich information, including expressions of emotion and pain," said Kang Lee, a professor of communication at the University of Toronto, to UB Reporter. "And, because of the way our brains are built, people can simulate emotions they're not actually experiencing so successfully that they fool other people. The computer is much better at spotting the subtle differences between involuntary and voluntary facial movements."

The computers could serve some practical purposes, including determining the veracity of pain in patients and determining deception in security, medicine, law and job screening purposes.

Nanaballoons could improve the effectiveness of cancer treatment

One difficulty in cancer patient's chemotherapy treatment is concentrating the drugs to the cancer-ridden area. The current state of treatment sometimes dilutes the drug on its way to the area - occasionally giving patients unwanted side effects.

But some researchers at UB have discovered a more effective way to solve this problem. The new method would encapsulate the cancer drugs in a PoP-liposome, or a nanoballoon, that pops open when struck with a red laser. This will increase the effectiveness of the treatment, while reducing the risk of side effects.

The nanoballoons, which are about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, are made of porphyrin - similar to a fat like vegetable oil. It would be delivered intravenously and a red laser will signal the nanoballoon to open, and when the laser is removed, it will close, capturing proteins and molecules that may cause further cancer growth. Doctors would then collect the nanoballons through drawing blood or taking a biopsy.

Jonathan Lovell, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has done experiments with mice that have been effective.

"Why PoP-liposomes, or nanoballoons, open in response to an otherwise harmless red laser is still a bit of a mystery to us, but we have definitely unearthed a new and unique phenomenon," he told the UB Reporter. "Its potential for improving how we treat cancer is immense."

Lovell said human trials could start as soon as five years from now.



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