On the web

On the Web
Virginia Tech Magazine's online feature, "On the web," gives web-savvy readers more news and stories about some of the exciting things happening at the university today. "On the web" will be updated with web-only content on a quarterly basis.

By Jean Elliottt

With heated global competition, the United States is in a marathon race to maintain an edge in fundamental areas of research and innovation. The National LambdaRail (NLR) initiative will provide critically needed high-speed network infrastructure for the next generation of research. Going beyond Internet and Internet2 technology, NLR will provide the resources for members across the nation to connect to a fiber optics network with supercomputing, storage and visualization capabilities suited to "big science" research. NLR will provide a national fiber optic backbone linking research universities and laboratories at gigabit and higher speeds. The NLR initiative is a partnership formed by many leading research universities and corporate networking entities throughout the United States.

To create the NLR backbone, regional nodes will be positioned in major urban areas to form a trans-continental network. The regional nodes serve not only as a component of the NLR backbone but also as the regional access points to the NLR. In the mid-Atlantic region, Washington, D.C. is the major urban area. A node will be placed in the fiber carrier's regional access point in Northern Virginia to create the Washington NLR node.

Virginia's research universities have formed the Mid-Atlantic Terascale Partnership (MATP) to sponsor location of an NLR node in the area, to facilitate access to it, and to strengthen collaboration for combining computational resources and application support.

Founding members of MATP include Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University, George Mason University, the College of William and Mary, and associate member Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Membership is open to any public or private research institution in Virginia, Maryland, or Washington DC. The Virginia Tech Foundation, acting on behalf of MATP, is the NLR member representing Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC. Each MATP participant will share a portion of the cost commitment made by the Foundation to ensure location of an NLR node in the Washington area and access by area institutions.

Additional Points on NLR/MATP:

  • NLR will initially support four 10 gigabits/sec wavelengths. Additional wavelengths will be available to provide network transport for future specialized applications.
  • NLR is legally constituted as a 501-C-3 by its member organizations. The estimated cost is $80 million for the first five years. Each regional node requires a $5 million fee, while the fiber lease is for 20 years.
  • The MATP is a consortium, with each member paying an annual fee of approximately $100,000 per year for five years.
  • In addition to providing support for NLR, MATP will provide a forum for cooperation among participating institutions to implement terascale research computational and communication infrastructure to support research requirements described in the Cyberinfrastructure report published by the National Science Foundation.
  • MATP will focus on finding ways to enhance research competitiveness for participating institutions while increasing computational capabilities and minimizing costs through collaboration.
  • The Virginia Tech Foundation has appointed Erv Blythe, Vice President for Information Technology at Virginia Tech, to serve on the NLR, Inc. Board of Directors. Blythe has been extensively involved in the detailed planning and development of the NLR initiative. Prior to its creation, he wrote several key papers outlining the research and experimental mission and charter for the proposed organization, and he has been instrumental in its organizational development.

For more information, contact: Erv Blythe, Chief Technology Officer, 540-231-4227, blythe@vt.edu

by Susan Trulove

Billions of years ago, there was a lot more greenhouse gas than today, and that was a good thing, or else the Earth might be an icy ball.

How much greenhouse gas was there in the ancient atmosphere? A 1993 model by Jim Kasting of Pennsylvania State University estimates that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the Earth's early atmosphere must have been 10 times to as much as 10,000 times today's level, in order to compensate for the young and fainter sun. Now, a measurement of the fossil record using a new instrument has confirmed a portion of the model. Atmospheric CO2 level 1.4 billion years ago was at least 10 to 200 times greater than today, according to the new research.

The findings are reported in the Sept. 18 issue of Nature by Alan Jay Kaufman of the geology department at the University of Maryland and Shuhai Xiao of the geosciences department at Virginia Tech ("High CO2 Levels in the Proterozoic Atmosphere Estimated From Analyses of Individual Microfossils").

The researchers determined the CO2 level by using the carbon ion microprobe housed at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C. They conducted their studies on the microscopic fossil Dictyosphaera delicata from Proterozoic shales in northern China. "This was a eukaryotic photosynthesizer; it had a nucleus and made organic matter from CO2, about one-tenth of a millimeter in size," Xiao said. "It had the ability to become dormant in bad times, when it formed a robust wall to protect itself. That tough wall is what is preserved in the fossil record."

All modern eukaryotic photosynthesizers use a similar biochemical pathway to convert CO2 into organic matter. "We assume the old fossil used the same biochemical pathway," Xiao said. Therefore, they would be able to measure the type of carbon in the fossil in order to determine the CO2 concentrations in the ocean and the atmosphere.

"We zapped into the fossil using a 10 micrometer ion beam, which destroys a small amount of the organic material and ejects carbon ions, which we analyzed," Xiao said.

The critical measure was the amount of carbon-12 (12C) versus carbon-13 (13C) found in the fossil. D. delicata formed their organic wall from dissolved CO2 in the ocean. Carbon dioxide formed with 12C is preferred because it is lighter. The higher ratio of 12C in the tissue would indicate higher levels of CO2 available in the water. Since D. delicata lived in the surface ocean, which is at equilibrium with the atmosphere, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere could also be calculated.

Carbon dioxide today is 350 parts per million (ppm) or .035 percent, compared to 270 ppm before industrialization, a less than 30 percent increase. But 1.4 billion years ago, CO2 was more than 10 to 200 times today's level.

"This gives us a geological context for CO2 evolution and climate change," Xiao said. While Kaufman and Xiao's study confirms the model, "We need more data points to fill the gaps and test the model for the first four billion years," Xiao said.

There are many data points to confirm the model from the last half billion years, but the Kaufman and Xiao study provide only the second data point between a half billion years ago and 4.5 billion years ago. Rob Rye at University of Southern California and colleagues looked at ancient soil from 2.7 billion years ago and determined there was barely enough CO2 to compensate for the weaker Sun the lowest range of the Kasting model. "But there were probably significant amounts of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, 2.7 billion years ago," Xiao said.

The Earth's atmosphere became more oxidized by 2.2 billion years ago, after which methane became a less significant greenhouse gas, "But, by the period of our study, there was plenty of CO2," he said.

Xiao and Kaufman began their collaboration at Harvard, where Kaufman was a post-doctoral associate while Xiao was a graduate student. The research was supported by NASA Exobiology, NSF Geology and Paleontology and China Ministry of Science and Technology 973 programs. Xiao was a faculty member at Tulane University before joining the Virginia Tech faculty this fall.

For further information, contact Dr. Xiao at (540) 231-1366 or xiao@vt.edu, or Dr. Kaufman at (301) 405-0395 or kaufman@geol.umd.edu.

There is also an additional article on this research in the News and Notes section of Nature and a University of Maryland news release with information from Dr. Kaufman will be available.

by Susan Trulove

Since President Bill Clinton announced "a major new national nanotechnology initiative" in 2000, researchers at Virginia Tech have made important advancements, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors learned at its Sunday afternoon meeting.

A nanometer is about the size of 10 atoms. Nano-scale materials offer new or enhanced mechanical, electronic, magnetic, optical, solubility, and spatial resolution properties. "Scientists are following nature's example in assembly of materials atom by atom. It's very efficient," says Robert Porter, research program development manager and Virginia Tech's representative on the steering committee of the statewide nanotechnology initiative, INanoVa. An oft-cited example of the potential of nanotechnology, including by President Clinton, is replacing the capacity of today's room-sized supercomputers with a molecular device the size of a sugar cube.

However, the fact that materials behave differently at the molecular and sub-molecular level than they do in bulk means that many applications will come only after basic research to understand and predict the properties and functions of nano-scale materials and devices.

Materials Science and Engineering Department Head David Clark and Physics Department Chair John Ficenec told the board that, having received significant funding and begun work in such fields as biomedicine, electronics, and materials, the university's nanotechnology initiative is being "ramped up."

"Our goal is to position Virginia Tech to compete for multi-million dollar grants," Clark said. He told the board of visitors that the focus for nanotechnology research at Virginia Tech is biomedicine, defense and homeland security, electronics and information technology, and energy and environment applications.

"The university has a solid foundation and a significant portion of the science and engineering faculty oriented to the nanotechnology revolution," Ficenec said. "We have made significant contributions. Now, with searches underway in the Colleges of Engineering and Sciences for 12 additional faculty members who will be doing nanoscience and technology research, Virginia Tech is well-positioned to be a leader in nanotechnology."

Virginia Tech chemistry professor Harry Dorn is a nanoscience pioneer. When a new form of carbon, a hollow molecule named after architect Buckminster Fuller, was discovered in the 1986, Dorn and other scientists worldwide began to try to put atoms inside of it. In 1999, Dorn reported in Nature that he and his post doctoral fellow, Steven Stevenson, had discovered a method for inserting metal atoms inside of fullerenes, creating a novel family of molecules and the architecture for a new field of chemistry. Since 1999, Dorn has received more than $435,000 in research funding -- $222,000 from NASA, and his filled fullerenes are now being developed by Luna nanoMaterials of Blacksburg as improved MRI reagents. The next goal for scientist around the world was to enable fullerenes to travel through the blood stream. Last year, Dorn's Ph.D. student, Erick B. Iezzi, of Jeannette, Pa., developed the first organic derivative of a fullerene. He figured out how to attach an organic group to the carbon molecule, bringing fullerenes a step closer to biological applications, such as the delivery of medicine or radioactive material to a disease site. Iezzi received a $20,000 Graduate Fellowship from the American Chemical Society to continue his work.

Chemistry Associate Professor Karen Brewer and her students are also creating new molecules, called supramolecular polymetallic complexes, to be light absorbers, molecular devices, catalysts for reduction of carbon dioxide (artificial photosynthesis), and as anticancer agents. They have demonstrated a new molecule that can be signaled to bind to target DNA and stop replication. The complex does not become toxic until it receives a light signal.

In 1996, the Virginia Tech Research Division anticipated the national initiative by providing $25,000 in seed money for Geological Sciences Professor Michael Hochella and an interdisciplinary team to study microbe-mineral interactions. Ph.D. student Steven Lower built an enhancement of the atomic force microscope that allowed the researchers to discover an attraction between microbes and minerals. This first evidence of recognition between a living organism and an inanimate object was reported in Science, Lower became a faculty member at the University of Maryland, other students in the group began to receive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellowships, and external funding began. In 2000, the group received $386,000 from the Department of Energy (DOE) to study microbe-mineral interactions, and an additional $437,292 in 2002. In 2001, the group received a million-dollar NSF grant to study nano-scale processes in the environment.

One of the first Virginia Tech researchers to receive significant federal research for nanotechnology also predated the national initiative announcement. In 1998, Electrical Engineering Professor Rick Claus, director of the Fiber and Electro-Optics Research Center (FEORC), received $9.6 million over five years from the Naval Research Lab to focus on microelectronics, high-speed communication waveguide devices, and nanostructured materials. A self-assembly process developed at FEORC for creating nano-scale thin films at room temperature has resulted in the spin-off company, Nanosonic, Inc. of Blacksburg, which has subsequently invested in research throughout the university. Products include sensors and electronics and communications enhancements. The company also produces an educational kit for middle and high school students, which was shared with board members at the Sunday meeting.

Since 2000, several significant NSF grants have been awarded for nanotechnology research at Virginia Tech, including a series of awards to Materials Sciences and Engineering Assistant Professor Sean Corcoran to study nanoporous metals; $520,000 to Chemistry Professor William Ducker for research instrumentation to study nanometer-scale modifications of electrodes; a $100,000 Nanoscale Exploratory Research (NER) grant to Associate Professor of Physics Randy Heflin and Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Kevin Van Cott to focus on a new concept for detecting DNA and a $91,000 NER grant to Associate Professor of Inorganic Chemistry Gordon Yee to develop a new strategy for the production of molecule-based nanomagnets; a grant to Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Sanjay Raman to develop multifunctional wireless sensory microsystems; a grant to Chemistry Professor Judy Riffle for magnetic nanoparticle complexes that she and her team are developing for delivery of therapy within the body; an award to Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Sandeep Shukla to use models to evaluate the reliability of defect tolerant architectures for nanotechnology; $232,200 to Materials Engineering Professor Diana Farkas to study the impurity effects on structure and deformation behavior of nano-crystalline materials; and $270,000 to Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Ravi Saraf to develop a nanodevice for imaging and sensing normal stress distribution.

Clark told the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors that the benefits that accrue to the university as a result of leadership in nanotechnology research include national and international prestige; enhanced ability to recruit outstanding faculty members; more applications from doctoral students wanting to study nanoscience and technology and affiliated fields; more research funding, which supports students, pays for equipment, and provides overhead for university research space, including labs where undergraduate and graduate students gain experience; new knowledge for the scientific community, education, and public use; and intellectual properties that offer the potential of technology transfer, spin off businesses, new products, and reinvestment in research.

"Nanotechnology is the next scientific epoch. Its impact will be pervasive. We are on the cusp of a new age," Porter said.

Contact for more information about nanotechnology research at Virginia Tech: David Clark, (540) 231-6640, dclark@vt.edu, John Ficenec, (540) 231-7890, jficenec@vt.edu, Robert Porter, (540) 231-6747, reporter@vt.edu

by Liz Crumbley

We delight in the way that each new generation of computers can perform increasingly complex tasks and operate at faster speeds, from surfing the Internet in real time to solving differential equations. But most of us don't realize that our gain comes at a high price for the semiconductor industry in terms of more complex designs and tests for speedier computer chips.

Intel Corp. and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have turned to Michael Hsiao, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, to help meet these challenges.

Hsiao is creating tools that will save time and improve accuracy in the design, testing, and verification of computer chips. The tools will be useful throughout the semiconductor industry and could help keep down the future costs of chips--and computers.

Working with a $225,000 grant from NSF, Hsiao is developing graph-theoretic algorithms (problem-solving mathematical procedures) to reduce the time it takes to verify chips against errors.

"Semiconductor chips are becoming far more complex and about 70 percent of design time is dominated by verification," Hsiao said. "We have already achieved an order-of-magnitude breakthrough toward our goal of reducing verification costs, and hope to have another breakthrough soon."

Hsiao's approach in the NSF-sponsored project involves using non-conventional methods to perform accelerated state-space exploration, a key step in design verification. Intel has awarded Hsiao a $120,000 grant to work on testing high-performance chips.

Each Pentium chip is tested before it is shipped, Hsiao explained. Before the technology reached today's high speeds, testing was not a significant problem. Higher "clock rates," the speed at which computer chips process instructions, along with other design advances make chips more vulnerable to speed-related failures.

During the past 30 years, Intel has increased the clock rate of its computer chips from several MHz (megahertz--or million cycles per second) to a top speed today of 3 GHz (gigahertz--or billion cycles per second). Intel's Pentium 4 chip, for example, is designed to operate between 2 to 3 GHz

"It's already a daunting task to test a 3 GHz chip. It is critical to ensure that each chip works at the correct processor speed and that it won't fail at the rated clock," Hsiao said. "But testing will become even more of a problem as Intel moves on to the next generation processor, which will operate at speeds greater than 3 GHz."

Hsiao's goal is to develop state-of-the-art algorithms and tools that will significantly decrease the time required to test the performance of each chip manufactured.

Hsiao, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2001, has a successful record in this area of research. In 2000, while he was teaching at Rutgers University, he won a highly competitive NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant for his work on functional testing of semiconductor chips.

by Karen Gilbert

With increasing world population, demand for underground construction is expected to accelerate in the future. An interdisciplinary group of researchers at Virginia Tech received a National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant for the design and implementation of an Information Technology (IT)-based system for safe and efficient design and construction of underground space.

Underground excavations are used for a wide variety of civilian and military purposes, including mining, road and railway tunnels, and caverns. Permanent storage of the current U.S. stockpile of nuclear wastes will utilize large underground excavations.

The new grant, titled "Adaptive and Real-Time Geologic Mapping, Analysis and Design of Underground Space (AMADEUS)," has a project budget of $1.07 million over four years from NSF's Information Technology Research (ITR) Program and the Geomechanics and Geotechnical Systems Program.

From an IT viewpoint, design and construction of underground facilities are just emerging from the dark ages. Advances in IT, particularly in digital imaging, data management, visualization, and computation, can significantly improve analysis, design, and construction of underground excavations.

As an integrated system, AMADEUS will result in significant contributions to the safe, efficient, and economical construction and use of underground space. Computational modeling can lead to more rational designs for underground excavations than what is provided by traditional rock mass classification systems and empirical design procedures.

Marte Gutierrez, associate professor in civil and environmental engineering (CEE), is the principal investigator for this research. Matthew Mauldon, associate professor, and Joseph Dove, research assistant professor, also in CEE, are co-principal investigators. Co-principal investigators outside the CEE department include Doug Bowman, assistant professor of computer science, and Eric Westman, assistant professor of mining and minerals engineering. All of the research team members are relatively new to Virginia Tech. "The open and free flow of ideas among the members of the research team contributed to the success of the proposal," Gutierrez said.

Using IT, real-time data on geology and excavation response can be gathered during the construction using non-intrusive techniques that do not require expensive and time-consuming instrumentation. The real-time data will then be used to update the geological and computational models of the excavation, and to determine the optimal rate of excavation, excavation sequence, and structural support. Virtual environment (VE) systems will allow for virtual walk-through inside an excavation, observation of geologic conditions, virtual tunneling operations and investigation of the stability of an excavation via computer simulation. "AMADEUS has the potential to revolutionize design and construction of underground excavations, and hopefully, change the way we use subsurface data all together," Gutierrez said.

Further information about this grant is available from Gutierrez via email at magutier@vt.edu or from the following website: https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/servlet/showaward?award=0324889.