News & Events


Professor Goddard and Team Find the Simplest Form of a Catalyst


William A. Goddard, Charles and Mary Ferkel Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science, and Applied Physics, is part of research team which finds that an electron is the simplest form of a catalyst. A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction by lowering the barriers from reactants to products. Traditionally, most catalysts contain transition metal as the source of activity. The most recent Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for the discovery of pure organic compounds as catalyst for asymmetric organic synthesis. Is there any catalyst simpler than small organic compounds? Yes, in an article published in the latest edition of Nature, a team of Northwestern University and Caltech discovered that an electron itself can play the role of catalyst for the process of molecular recognition. [Nature Article]

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Chaining Atoms Together Yields Quantum Storage


Engineers at Caltech have developed an approach for quantum storage that could help pave the way for the development of large-scale optical quantum networks. "The ability to build a technology reproducibly and reliably is key to its success," says graduate student Andrei Ruskuc. "In the scientific context, this let us gain unprecedented insight into microscopic interactions between ytterbium qubits and the vanadium atoms in their environment." The new system relies on nuclear spins—the angular momentum of an atom's nucleus—oscillating collectively as a spin wave. This collective oscillation effectively chains up several atoms to store information. "Based on our previous work, single ytterbium ions were known to be excellent candidates for optical quantum networks, but we needed to link them with additional atoms. We demonstrate that in this work," says Andrei Faraon, Professor of Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering. [Read the paper] [Caltech story]

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Professor Anandkumar Tackles COVID-19 with AI


A pair of papers coauthored by Anima Anandkumar, Bren Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, were selected as finalists for the 2021 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Gordon Bell Special Prize for High Performance Computing-Based COVID-19 Research. The purpose of the award is to recognize the innovative parallel computing contributions towards the solution of the global crisis. "All the six finalists this year had some component in their calculations that used AI," Anandkumar says. "This has enabled unprecedented understanding of the coronavirus that would not have been possible with conventional tools." [Caltech story]

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Nano-architected Material Refracts Light Backward—An Important Step Toward One Day Creating Photonic Circuits


A newly created nano-architected material exhibits a property that previously was just theoretically possible: it can refract light backward, regardless of the angle at which the light strikes the material. "Negative refraction is crucial to the future of nanophotonics, which seeks to understand and manipulate the behavior of light when it interacts with materials or solid structures at the smallest possible scales," says Julia R. Greer, Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering; Fletcher Jones Foundation Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute. [Caltech story]

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Professor Wennberg Named as AAAS Fellow


Paul O. Wennberg, R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering; Executive Officer for Environmental Science and Engineering; Director, Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, has been named as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for major scientific advances in atmospheric chemistry. AAAS Fellows are a distinguished cadre of scientists, engineers, and innovators who have been recognized for their achievements across disciplines, from research, teaching, and technology, to administration in academia, industry, and government, to excellence in communicating and interpreting science to the public. [Caltech story]

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Wennberg Lab Shows How Wildfire Smoke Increases Ozone Pollution


Using data gathered from a specially equipped jet that spent a month flying through and studying wildfire plumes, scientists have a better understanding now of how wildfire smoke impacts air quality. "Of course it is well known that wildfires lower air quality. But it's important to understand the chemical and physical mechanisms by which they do so that we can more effectively forecast how individual fires will impact the communities downwind of them," says Paul O. Wennberg, R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering; Executive Officer for Environmental Science and Engineering; Director, Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science. [Caltech story]

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Gunnarson and Dabiri Teach AI to Navigate Ocean with Minimal Energy


Engineers at Caltech, ETH Zurich, and Harvard are developing an artificial intelligence (AI) that will allow autonomous drones to use ocean currents to aid their navigation, rather than fighting their way through them. "When we want robots to explore the deep ocean, especially in swarms, it's almost impossible to control them with a joystick from 20,000 feet away at the surface. We also can't feed them data about the local ocean currents they need to navigate because we can't detect them from the surface. Instead, at a certain point we need ocean-borne drones to be able to make decisions about how to move for themselves," says John Dabiri, Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering. [Caltech story]

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Controlling Light with a Material Three Atoms Thick


Scientists can control light more precisely than ever with a material only three atoms thick and constructed from so-called black phosphorous. In the lab of Harry Atwater, Otis Booth Leadership Chair, Division of Engineering and Applied Science; Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science; Director, Liquid Sunlight Alliance, three layers of phosphorous atoms were used to create a material for polarizing light that is tunable, precise, and extremely thin. Black phosphorous tech could revolutionize telecommunications by vastly improving light signals sent through fiber-optic cables. The technology could also open the door to a light-based replacement for Wi-Fi, something researchers in the field refer to as Li-Fi. "Increasingly, we're going to be looking at light-wave communications in free space," Atwater says. "Lighting like this very cool-looking lamp above my desk doesn't carry any communication signal. It just provides light. But there's no reason that you couldn't sit in a future Starbucks and have your laptop taking a light signal for its wireless communication rather than a radio signal. It's not quite here yet, but when it gets here, it will be at least a hundred times faster than Wi-Fi." [Caltech story]

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LEONARDO, the Bipedal Robot, Can Ride a Skateboard and Walk a Slackline


Researchers have built a bipedal robot that combines walking with flying to create a new type of locomotion, making it exceptionally nimble and capable of complex movements. "We drew inspiration from nature. Think about the way birds are able to flap and hop to navigate telephone lines," says Soon-Jo Chung, Bren Professor of Aerospace and Control and Dynamical Systems; Jet Propulsion Laboratory Research Scientist. "A complex yet intriguing behavior happens as birds move between walking and flying. We wanted to understand and learn from that." A paper titled "A bipedal walking robot that can fly, slackline, and skateboard" about the LEO robot was published online on October 6 and was featured on the October 2021 cover of Science Robotics. [Caltech story]

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The Science of Underground Kingdoms


A team led by the laboratory of Jose Andrade, George W. Housner Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering; Cecil and Sally Drinkward Leadership Chair, Department of Mechanical and Civil Engineering; Executive Officer for Mechanical and Civil Engineering, studied the digging habits of ants and uncovered the mechanisms guiding them. Before beginning this research, Andrade had a big question he wanted to answer: Do ants "know" how to dig tunnels, or are they just blindly digging? "I got inspired by these exhumed ant nests where they pour plastic or molten metal into them and you see these vast tunnel systems that are incredibly impressive," Andrade says. He enlisted the help of Joe Parker, Assistant Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering, whose research focuses on ants and their ecological relationships with other species. "What Jose and his team needed was somebody who works with ants and understands the adaptive, collective behaviors of these social insects to give them some context for what they were doing," Parker says. [Caltech story]

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