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January 2002

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Soy plastic is explored
Members of the Iowa State chemistry department are developing cheaper plastics based on soy oil. Richard Larock, university professor of chemistry received $80,000 from the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board this year for research on making plastics from soy oil.

"Our goal is to make useful plastic materials," Larock said. "We've found some interesting thermal and mechanical properties of our plastic already."

Larock said the most interesting property of the soy plastic is as sound and vibration dampening material. This property could allow the soy-based plastic to be used as a quieting liner for washing machines. Currently, the Iowa Soy Bean Promotion Board is funding a study by an outside consultant to determine the economic feasibility of Larock's plastic. Technical aspects of the material are being explored by Larock's team, headed by Fengkui Li, a post-doctorate researcher.

Larock said the researchers are also looking for other promising markets for the cheap plastic. He said soy oil is now 17 cents per pound, while styrene, a synthetic commonly used in plastics, is 40 cents per pound. Larock said with 60 billion pounds of synthetic plastics produced each year; a change from styrene to soy oil could be a huge economic benefit for soybean farmers.

For more information, contact Larock, (515) 294-4660 or Bridget Bailey, ISU News Service, (515) 294-6881. A downloadable photo of Larock and the soy-based plastic is at: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~nscentral/photos/larock.html.

Researchers look to tailor solar cell materials
Researchers at Iowa State University are exploring ways of tailoring solar cell materials in order to improve their efficiency and reliability. Rana Biswas, a scientist at the Microelectronics Research Center and Ames Laboratory at Iowa State, recently received a $180,000 grant from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to look at mixed-phase solar cell materials, materials that include a combination of small clusters of crystalline silicon embedded in an amorphous (non-crystalline) matrix. While these materials have advantages for amorphous thin film solar cells, Biswas says, much still needs to be understood about them.

"We want to learn more about the materials, first through computer simulations, and then by understanding how they are formed," Biswas said. "The research could lead to improved materials properties making them more stable, and leading to easier ways to manufacture them."

Biswas and his colleagues are using molecular dynamics simulations to study the materials. They are specifically interested in how the materials behave in the nanoscale region where the amorphous and crystalline phases meet. He believes a better understanding of how the materials are formed microscopically could lead to significant advances in their performance. The end result could be higher-efficiency thin-film solar cells that do not degrade in sunlight as much as today's amorphous solar cells.

"Materials have traditionally been classified into crystalline or amorphous forms," Biswas says. "These new mixed-phase materials are neither, but capture the best of both forms, and that is what makes them most fascinating." For more information contact Biswas, (515) 294-6987, or Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.

Computer security program goes the distance
Becoming a cybercop is getting easier. Iowa State's information assurance program is now offering an engineering distance education (EDE) graduate certificate for students interested in enhancing their master's or undergraduate degrees in computer security.

The graduate certificate is available to off-campus students through the EDE program at Iowa State. It can be completed in two or four semesters and doesn't require the student to come to the ISU campus. However, it is only accessible to persons residing in the United States.

"After the recent creation of the master's degree in information assurance we had several students who already had a masters degree ask about the program," said Doug Jacobson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. "Many of them were working full time and wanted the technical courses to supplement their previous education."

Jacobson, director of Iowa State's information assurance program, said the new distance education certificate will allow students in a technical field to move into the computer security field or enhance their position within a company. The program includes video taped lectures, on-line support through chat-rooms, emails, phone, and hands-on learning experience using software systems through the Internet.

Jacobson said those who earn this certificate would qualify to work as security officers or security administrators protecting a company's computers and assets from hackers. The target audience for the new program is students with a B.S. or M.S. in computer science, computer engineering, or a closely related field. For more information, contact Jacobson at (515) 294-8307, or Bridget Bailey, ISU News Service, (515) 294-6881.


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