In This Issue
Cutting-Edge Research in Engineering
December 1, 2005 Volume 35 Issue 4

Cutting-Edge Research in Engineering (editorial)

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Author: Pablo G. Debenedetti

Editor's Note

The U.S. Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) Symposium, a yearly event sponsored by NAE, brings together some 100 outstanding young engineers (ages 30 to 45) from academia, industry, and government laboratories for three days of sharing ideas and learning about cutting-edge research on a broad range of engineering topics. The competitively selected emerging engineering leaders who attend FOE symposia represent a wide spectrum of backgrounds, interests, and talents, and the event offers them a unique opportunity to learn about the latest research in engineering areas other than their own. Six papers based on this year’s presentations are included in this issue of The Bridge.

The eleventh FOE Symposium, held on September 22–24, 2005, at the General Electric Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, encompassed four themes: ID and verification technologies, engineering for developing communities, engineering complex systems, and energy resources for the future.

The session on ID and verification technologies was chaired by Visvanathan Ramesh. The first speaker, Peter Belhumeur, addressed the challenge of face recognition as a computational pattern-recognition or machine-learning problem. He described the challenges that lie ahead, such as handling voluntary changes in facial expression and natural outdoor lighting. Jonathon Phillips focused on the design of objective biometrics for assessing face- and fingerprint-recognition problems and independent evaluations. Matthai Philipose, whose paper appears in this issue (p. 5), described the development of computing systems that can observe, understand, and act on physical human activity. As an example of the potential benefits of this technology, he described how it might be used in caring for the elderly. Rapid progress is being made in this field based on a family of sensors based on radio frequency identification.

Garrick Louis and Amy Smith organized the session on engineering for developing communities, which opened with a presentation by Kurt Kornbluth. He described the DISASCARE Wheelchair Center in Zambia, a project that makes use of locally available resources to address technological needs. Daniele Lantagne highlighted engineering inputs to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Safe Water System (SWS) Program. This initiative provides safe drinking water to people with no access to infrastructure-treated water through point-of-use water chlorination, water storage in safe containers, and education to improve hygiene and water practices. Julie Beth Zimmerman explained how engineers could use the principles of green engineering as a design protocol for promoting sustainability. She argued that a design framework that incorporates sustainability factors as performance criteria could advance the goals of prosperity and a healthier environment. Daniel Kammen, who gave the last presentation in the session, focused on sustainability science. In his paper (p. 11), he argues for the development of a science and engineering research agenda in which the preservation of natural and social systems plays a central role.

Luis Amaral and Kelvin Lee organized the session on the engineering of complex systems. In a brief opening talk, Luis Amaral identified the distinguishing characteristic of complex systems as the emergence of behavior not foreseeable by the system designer. In Alessandro Vespignani’s presentation, he showed how the computational study of complex networks, such as the World Wide Web, can provide valuable insights into infrastructure design, epidemiology, and social science. Jay Keasling, whose paper is printed in this issue (p. 18), described synthetic biology, that is, the design and construction of new biological entities, such as cells, enzymes, and genetic circuits. The exciting possibilities in this emerging field include engineered bacteria for the production of anti-malaria drugs. The final presentation by Zolt?n Toroczkai described modeling of agent-based systems, collectives of living entities, as distinguished from collectives of inanimate constituents, such as multiparticle systems. He illustrated how agent-based modeling can be used for planning urban transportation and for analyzing disease-spread scenarios. His paper appears on p. 22.

The subject of the fourth session, chaired by John Vohs, was energy resources for the future. John Reinker discussed the current and future electrical energy picture in the United States. He also addressed the challenges of satisfying world energy demand and the roles of fossil fuels, nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biomass technologies in meeting those challenges. Sunita Satyapal provided an overview of research and development activities in the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen Program. She described how improved theoretical modeling, high-throughput screening techniques, and understanding at the nanoscale have impacted the discovery and optimization of materials to meet the targets for commercially viable vehicular hydrogen storage systems. Stuart Adler described the current status and future challenges of fuel cell technologies (p. 28). He compared polymer-electrolyte and solid-oxide fuel cells and described the significant technical challenges that must be overcome for these technologies to become commercially viable. Michael McGehee addressed the need for alternative technologies to meet worldwide energy demand while minimizing adverse environmental consequences. He described organic semiconductors, which can be dissolved in common solvents and sprayed or painted onto substrates, as promising candidates for the development of solar cells that would not only be environmentally benign, but would also be economically competitive (p. 33).

The technical talks were followed by extended, lively Q&A sessions with enthusiastic participation by the audience. The program this year also featured 90-minute get-acquainted sessions, during which attendees were divided into nine groups. Each person had been asked before the meeting to prepare a transparency describing his or her work and was given two minutes to introduce him/herself and explain his/her technical work. The balance of the time was devoted to discussions on research interests and activities. The get-acquainted sessions turned out to be highly interactive and very educational.

The dinner speaker, a traditional highlight of FOE programs, was Shirley Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In the course of her distinguished career, Dr. Jackson has held leadership positions in government, industrial research, and academia. She is an NAE member and a fellow of the American Physical Society and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her truly inspirational speech, entitled “Engineering for a New World,” addressed the need for a larger, more diverse workforce in science and engineering, the challenges and opportunities involved in meeting world energy demand, and the emergence of new economic powers, such as China and India.

For the past three years, it has been my privilege to chair the FOE organizing committee, which selects the speakers and topics for the symposium. I thank all the session chairs, speakers, and participants of the 2003, 2004, and 2005 meetings for maintaining the high quality that has become the standard of FOE symposia. I am also grateful to Lance Davis, NAE Executive Officer, and Janet Hunziker, NAE Program Officer, for their invaluable contributions to the planning, organization, and successful implementation of these unique meetings. I wish the incoming chair of the organizing committee, Dr. Julia Phillips, Director of the Physical, Chemical and Nano Sciences Center at Sandia National Laboratories, every success.

I know of no meeting as interdisciplinary, diverse, and stimulating as FOE, and I hope that the six papers included in this issue convey some of the excitement we experienced in Niskayuna in September.

About the Author:Pablo G. Debenedetti is the Class of 1950 Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University and an NAE member.