Humanitarian Materials Engineering Awards 2016

Friday, December 2, 2016

The 2016 Humanitarian Materials Engineering Awards were won by four teams of Penn State researchers. Each award provides $10,000 to continue promising work that will benefit society, with a special focus on resource-scarce regions of the world.

The Winners

Material Matters: A model for the design and construction of low-cost, high performance energy-efficient shelters in Burkina Faso, West Africa, by Vernelle Noel, Ph.D. candidate, School of Architecture, and Allen Kimel, assistant professor of materials science and engineering.

This project entails improving the design, performance, and production processes of clay-based building blocks to replace cement blocks in home construction. Clay is a local resource that offers better thermal properties than cement and could contribute to the local economy. “Our contribution is a working prototype for a building component that builds upon local materials and skills for the design and construction of low-cost, energy efficient, sustainable shelters.”

Smart phone-based optical spectrometer for early plant disease detection by Zhiwen Liu, professor of electrical engineering, and David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology.

Their proposal is to develop a miniature, low-cost, high-performance smart phone spectrometer for early detection of plant disease. With their tool, farmers in Africa and around the world can detect plant disease before it becomes visible to the naked eye, avoiding an estimated 16 percent annual crop loss globally. Their work will involve optimizing photolithographic fabrication of miniaturized lens designs that can be etched into silicon as a mold for high-throughput device replication. They will then test the accuracy of their device against healthy and diseased plants. “Just a 1% reduction of global crop loss can increase food production to feed 25 million more people,” write Liu and Hughes.

Expanding the Capacity to Confront the Global Water Crisis: Exploring Affordable Possibilities and Increased Effectiveness of Point of Use Ceramic Water Filters with Metallic Nanoparticles by Ismaila Dabo, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering, and B. Stephen Carpenter, II, professor of art education and African American studies.

We propose an interdisciplinary collaborative effort to advance a materials-enabled, low-cost approach to provide clean water in remote areas. Water-related diseases cause millions of deaths annually. Lack of safe drinking water, pervasive disease, and substandard sanitation are known as the global water crisis.

“Our approach is to use a combination of computational, experimental, and testing capabilities to modify, adapt, or augment current point-of-use ceramic water filters that have a wider range of filtration capabilities through the development of metal nanoparticle-modified ceramic materials,” the team writes.

Point-of-care Microfluidic Platform Using ZnO Nanowire Template for Multiplex Virus Detection by Plasmonic Colorimetric Reaction by Yiqiu Xia, Ph.D. candidate, and Siyang Zheng,associate professor of  biomedical engineering.

Infectious diseases cause approximately 25% of the annual global mortality. Viruses, nanoscale infectious agents that can infect all type of living forms, have caused the deadliest pandemics in recorded human history. Most viral infectious diseases happen in developing countries, where medical resources are limited and thus low cost and disposable point-of-care (POC) diagnostic tools are critical for disease surveillance and control.

Xia and Zheng propose a cheap, disposable point-of-care microfluidic platform using plasmonic colorimetric reactions for virus detection.

“We have been working on a novel process of replica molding of polymer polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) directly from zinc oxide (ZnO) nanowire forests to form an all PDMS device, which can significantly improve virus capturing efficiency and virus detection limit,” say Xia and Zheng. 

A cell phone imaging system will be constructed to record and display virus detection results. Virus capture and detection will be conducted through specific antibodies and standard curves will be set up so virus concentrations can be deducted from measured grayscale values.

About the Awards

The Humanitarian Materials Engineering Awards 2016 are sponsored equally by Covestro LLC (formerly Bayer MaterialScience LLC) and the Material Research Institute (MRI). All of the awards are meant to support undergraduate or graduate researchers and potentially lead to further federal or philanthropic funding.

MRI Director Clive Randall said, “Our call for proposals once again attracted a strong field of candidates, with many more worthy projects than we could fund at this time. We thank Covestro for their generous support. In the future we want to continue and expand on the program. If other corporate sponsors wish to learn more about the MRI Humanitarian Materials Initiative, please contact me or our Industry Relations Manager Dave Fecko.”

About Covestro:

With 2015 sales of EUR 12.1 billion, Covestro is among the world’s largest polymer companies. Business activities are focused on the manufacture of high-tech polymer materials and the development of innovative solutions for products used in many areas of daily life. The main segments served are the automotive, electrical and electronics, construction and the sports and leisure industries. Covestro, formerly Bayer MaterialScience, has 30 production sites around the globe and as of the end of 2015 employed approximately 15,800 people (full-time equivalents).

Contacts: Dave Fecko,, phone 814-865-6691 or Clive Randall,, 814-863-1328