The Next "Little" Thing

Bjorn Lussem, PhD

While wearable technology may be all the rage among many young Americans, the average high school or college student probably doesn’t know much about the science behind their high-tech apparel.

Björn Lüssem, PhD, an assistant professor of physics in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences, recently received a five-year $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The award honors Lüssem, who studied electrical engineering in Germany and joined Kent State in 2014, as one of the most promising up-and-coming researchers in his field and provides funding for laboratory research and educational outreach.

His project, “The Working Mechanics of Organic Electrochemical Transistors,” focuses on microscopic- to miniature-sized sensors that can be used to interact with biological tissue.

“Transistors usually are just conducting electronic current. The nice thing about this [organic transistor] is that it converts ionic current to electronic current,” Lüssem says. “In our bodies, it’s all ions. So if you want to interface electronics with biology, you need this kind of transistor.”

Lüssem says the highly sensitive transistors could, for example, measure the amount of lactic acid in sweat or even monitor electron excitation in the brain. As one of only a few physics researchers studying the transistors, he hopes to advance understanding and use of the technology.

“The standard model has many contradictions, so people think it doesn’t work very well,” he says. “But it does work well, up to a certain level. We want to show why it is working, but also find out how we can make it better.”

Lüssem wants to change the way students think about physics research.

Components can be added to the basic transistor to make it more sensitive to certain biomolecules, Lüssem says. With any luck, they might even be printable on devices a little more sophisticated than the average desktop printer.

An NSF Career grant comes with an understanding that the researcher will use some of the funds to become a more proficient educator. Lüssem wants to change the way students think about physics research.

“When teaching physics, it’s been a linear kind of thing—A follows B follows C—and that’s not how physics is,” he says. “I think students get a completely wrong image of what it means to do physics research in real life. [In reality,] it’s being wrong almost all of the time and being right only about five percent of the time.”

Lüssem is working with Kent State’s School of Visual Communication and Design to create short stories and cartoons to illustrate the scientific process and the study of physics.

He plans to try the designs in classes at Kent State, as well as reach out to local high schools and even primary schools to test how they apply to the students there.

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POSTED: Friday, September 6, 2019 11:21 AM
Updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2019 03:15 PM
Dan Pompili