Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics
Tony Huang arrived at Penn State from UCLA in the late summer of 2005. As a graduate student researcher at UCLA, he worked with Prof. Chih-Ming Ho on his lab's first BioMEMS DARPA project, shrinking a medical laboratory including mixers and separators onto a tiny watch-sized chip.
"We had good success making microvalves, micropumps, and microsensors. Our chip could detect a number of pathogens simultaneously in about 30 minutes, all automatically," Prof. Huang says. "This project is important because if these chips can be mass produced, they can aid in the early detection of cancers and HIV. By the time we go see a doctor our body is probably feeling pain, and it may already be too late to cure the disease. If we can get a handy device cheap, we can monitor our health in a much different way."
During the course of his Ph.D. studies, Huang switched his focus to the creation of artificial molecular machines. "Our body already produces many molecular machines. These are very powerful," he explains. "The machines produce ATP, which is our energy source, and they also create DNA, the code for the origin of life. They provide motion for small objects like nutrients inside cells, and for big objects like muscles. We were amazed by how powerful these machines are. We wanted to develop a MEMS device, powered by artificial molecular machines. Those devices actually have more advantages as far as engineering application "they can survive a wide range of temperatures and high pH levels. Also, they can produce a higher force."
The motors they created were well controlled and the strain they produced, around 40 to 50 percent, was much greater than the 1 percent of strain for piezoelectric materials. The result of their work in powering microdevices with nanomotors was featured on the cover of Applied Physics Letters.
"If we can perfect the technology, I think it does have very good potential," Huang says.
Here at Penn State, Huang and his new group will be continuing work on molecular mechanics, developing techniques to characterize molecular motion, and finding ways to optimize the motion. He intends to build devices that function in MEMS, nanophotonics, and biological sensors.
"I have some new ideas about developing nanobiosensors that can detect single molecules and single point mutations. At UCLA I had some experience developing DNA and protein sensors. Here I want to develop a sensor that is fluorescent free, in which the detection can be finished within seconds. That will have a lot of advantages."
A third direction for his research is in microfluidics. His lab is to be called the BioNEMS Lab, for Biofunctionalized Nanoelectromechanical Systems. Since most biological molecules are immersed in water, his research will focus on how biological molecules behave in aqueous solutions, and how these molecules can be manipulated. He says he would like to work with Penn State biologists and chemists on this research area. "I am still very new here, so I am still trying to learn who the people are I can collaborate with."
Prof. Huang received bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from Xi—an Jiaotong University in northwest China, a modern university in located in an ancient city on the Yellow River. His studies at XJTU were far removed in scale from his current research. "I started out working on fluid mechanics and heat transfer. It was very much mechanical engineering. I spent three years trying to improve heat exchange in a big boiler. Going to UCLA to work on the DARPA BioMEMS project was a big change for me."
Coming to Penn State was not a difficult choice, he says. "First, the nanofabrication and materials research facilities are magnificent. Second, Penn State is very supportive of junior faculty. My department chair, Professor Todd, has been very supportive, and I'm certain she will help me succeed. Junior faculty need a lot of support, and with an endowed junior faculty chair, deciding on Penn State was easy for me."
Currently Prof. Huang is teaching an undergraduate statistics course and is opening a new course in the winter term designed for graduate and upper level undergraduate students that will be called BioNEMS. He urges faculty with an interest in his research areas to contact him.