Engineering at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla started in 1964 and 1965 with two broad applied science departments: one in the areas of aerospace engineering, solid mechanics, bioengineering and materials and the other in the areas of electronics, information theory, and radio astronomy. In 1997, the School of Engineering was renamed the Jacobs School of Engineering to honor Qualcomm founder and former UCSD engineering professor Irwin Jacobs and his wife.
Among top achievements at UCSD is the Pascal programming language and operating system developed in the 1970s and early 1980s that made microprocessors accessible to the masses and led to the PC revolution. Founding faculty member Y.C. Fung established the first biomedical engineering program in the nation and to this day is considered the father of biomechanics.
The Jacobs School currently encompasses six academic departments: Bioengineering; Computer Science and Engineering; Electrical and Computer Engineering; Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; NanoEngineering; and Structural Engineering.
The Bioengineering Department is a leader in systems biology, regenerative medicine, and multi-scale bioengineering focused on understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of human disease. Research interests focus on three pillars of bioengineering: multiscale bioengineering, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and systems biology and medicine. The department has four disease focus areas including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases.
To meet the need for rapidly deployable, emergency-use ventilators with sufficient functionality to manage COVID-19 patients with severe Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Jacobs researchers developed the MADVent Mark V emergency ventilator that is built around a ventilator bag usually found in ambulances. The team built an automated system around the bag and brought down the cost of an emergency ventilator to just $500 per unit. The device’s components can be rapidly fabricated and the ventilator can be assembled in just 15 minutes.
The ventilator is also the only device offering pressure-controlled ventilation equipped with alarms that can be adjusted to signal that pressure is too low or too high. This is especially important because excessive pressure can cause lung injury in COVID-19 patients who often experience rapid decreases in lung capacity as the disease progresses.
Computer Science and Engineering
Strengths of the Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) Department include machine learning, databases, graphics and vision, systems and networking, security and cryptography, software engineering, bioinformatics, computer architecture, embedded systems, and theoretical computer science.
Electrical and Computer Engineering
The Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department focuses on information technology and communications as well as network infrastructure, embedded systems, electronic circuits and systems, photonic devices and systems, electromagnetics, electronic devices and materials, nano-electronics/nano-photonics, signal processing and intelligent systems, bionanotechnology, energy generation and conversion, and magnetic and optical storage.
An ultra-low-power Wi-Fi radio developed by electrical engineers at UCSD could enable more portable, fully wireless smart home setups as well as lower-power wearables. The device, which is housed in a chip smaller than a grain of rice, enables Internet of Things (IoT) devices to communicate with existing Wi-Fi networks using 5,000 times less power than today’s Wi-Fi radios. It consumes just 28 microwatts of power and does so while transmitting data at a rate of 2 megabits per second over a range of up to 21 meters.
Researchers also have developed a new gene prediction algorithm, called MINING-D, that could help investigate the genetic clues behind the variation of symptoms shown in COVID-19 patients — information that is key to creating a versatile and effective vaccine. The algorithm could provide a more comprehensive view of how the genes that form the foundation of our immune system create a personalized repertoire of antibodies to protect against invading pathogens. They may also shed light on why some people have a more effective immune response to an infection.
Another development related to COVID-19 is an app for contact tracing. Called BluBLE — referring to protective, social-distancing “bubbles” around members of the public — it employs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and personalized algorithms. The app aims to provide each user with a personalized risk score by considering their various social and physical interactions. Risk scores update in real time, offering a faster, more efficient means of alerting individuals to exposure than current methods.
BLE’s range of 150 feet creates a contact tracing radius much larger than the 6-foot standard, raising the chances that an app will register contact between two people when no such contact occurred. An app might consider neighbors separated by a wall, for example, as “in contact” with one another if they are within 150 feet. Also, most COVID-19 contact tracing apps identify a person’s exposure to the virus as a binary “yes” or “no.”
With more context, BluBLE can better estimate the user’s likelihood of contracting a virus from social interactions. Engaging in an extended conversation in a poorly ventilated room, for instance, would carry a higher probability of transmission as compared to briefly passing by on the street. By considering input from various common sensors available on the phone (chiefly Bluetooth, infrared, and motion sensors), BluBLE can provide more accurate estimates of each contact’s potential risk.
Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
The Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering (MAE) Department covers mechanical, aerospace, and environmental engineering. Researchers are leaders in fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, and materials as well as systems and controls. Their research addresses technological challenges in diverse areas such as energy, the environment, defense, and medicine.
MAE engineers built a squid-like robot that can swim untethered, propelling itself by generating jets of water. The “squidbot” carries its own power source inside its body and can also carry a sensor, such as a camera, for underwater exploration. Th squidbot is made mostly from soft materials, such as acrylic polymer, with a few rigid, 3D-printed, and laser-cut parts. The robot takes a volume of water into its body while storing elastic energy in its skin and flexible ribs. It then releases this energy by compressing its body and generates a jet of water to propel itself. (Read our October 2020 Tech Briefs Q&A with the creators of the squidbot.)
Engineers also have developed a new method that doesn’t require any special equipment and works in just minutes to create soft, flexible, 3D-printed robots. The innovation comes from rethinking the way soft robots are built: instead of figuring out how to add soft materials to a rigid robot body, the team started with a soft body and added rigid features to key components. The structures were inspired by insect exo-skeletons, which have both soft and rigid parts. The researchers called their creations “flexoskeletons.”
The new method allows for the construction of soft components for robots in a small fraction of the time previously needed and for a small fraction of the cost. The new method makes it possible to build large groups of flexoskeleton robots with little manual assembly as well as assemble a library of LEGO-like components so that robot parts can be easily swapped.
The NanoEngineering Department focuses on research related to materials science for the 21st century in a broad range of topics, with particular focus on biomedical nanotechnology, nanotechnologies for energy storage and conversion, molecular and nanomaterials synthesis, and computational materials science and nanotechnology.
Jacobs scientists have discovered a new anode material that enables lithium-ion batteries to be safely recharged within minutes for thousands of cycles. Known as a disordered rocksalt, the new anode is made up of earth-abundant lithium, vanadium, and oxygen atoms arranged in a similar way as ordinary kitchen table salt, but randomly. It is promising for commercial applications where both high energy density and high power are desired, such as electric cars, vacuum cleaners, or drills.
Nanoengineers also created a safety feature that prevents lithium metal batteries from rapidly heating up and catching fire in case of an internal short circuit. The team made a tweak to the part of the battery called the separator, which serves as a barrier between the anode and cathode, so that it slows down the flow of energy (and thus heat) that builds up inside the battery when it short circuits. The separator provides advance warning that the battery is getting a little bit worse each time it is charged.
A new wearable ultrasound patch that noninvasively monitors blood pressure in arteries deep beneath the skin could help people detect cardiovascular problems earlier and with greater precision. Applications include real-time, continuous monitoring of blood pressure changes in patients with heart or lung disease as well as patients who are critically ill or undergoing surgery. The patch uses ultrasound, so it could potentially be used to track other vital signs and physiological signals from places deep inside the body.
The Structural Engineering Department, founded as the first department of its kind in 1999, has become a leading center for large-scale structural testing and earthquake safety engineering. Programs cover multi-hazard mitigation including earthquakes and blast, earthquake engineering and infrastructural renewal, structural health monitoring, composite and nanomaterials, lightweight structural systems, and risk engineering.
The Office of Innovation and Commercialization aligns resources to accelerate the licensing of UCSD innovations. Visit here to learn more about commercialization and to view currently available technologies.