Duke University was created in 1924 by James Buchanan Duke as a memorial to his father, Washington Duke. The School of Engineering was founded in 1939 and renamed the Pratt School of Engineering in 1999 in honor of 1947 graduate Edmund T. Pratt Jr., a former chief executive of Pfizer.

Duke engineering faculty and alumni have contributed to a number of important high-impact technologies including clinical ultrasound imaging, restoration of hearing by cochlear implant, megapixel photography, and metamaterials.

The Pratt School of Engineering maintains these academic departments:

  • Biomedical Engineering

  • Civil & Environmental Engineering

  • Electrical & Computer Engineering

  • Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science

Biomedical Engineering

CovIdentify uses biometric data from smartwatches and smartphones to identify early signs of COVID-19 infection.

The Biomedical Engineering (BME) division was founded in 1967. The department’s close proximity to Duke University Medical Center has fostered an interdisciplinary approach to research, with engineers working closely with both biological scientists and physicians.

Biomaterials: Focus areas include the molecular design of soft materials, nanomaterials, immune-active materials, scaffolds for tissue engineering, and complex mechanisms by which materials engage biology. Research in biomaterials has led to the development of implantable biomedical devices and continues to be central to the introduction of new medical therapies ranging from engineered tissues to delivery vehicles for genes and drugs, to immune therapies.

Biomechanics and Mechanobiology: Research efforts range from applications in orthopedics, injury mechanics, biomaterial, and tissue engineering design to those aimed at affecting disease states.

Biomedical and Health Data Sciences: The increasing availability of electronic health records data has enabled data-driven inquiry into contemporary healthcare issues. Researchers are developing data science, machine learning, and digital health modeling approaches to transform multiscale biomedical data (e.g. imaging and wearable sensors) into actionable health insights.

Biomedical Imaging and Biophotonics: Duke researchers have pushed the boundaries of innovation in optics and photonics, ultrasound, MRI, X-ray, and nuclear medicine-based imaging technologies, developing new diagnostic and treatment tools for ailments ranging from cancer to cardiovascular, neurological, and ophthalmic diseases.

Biosensors and Bioinstrumentation: Recent advances in biochemistry, electronics, omics, and physiology are used to develop novel diagnostic, therapeutic, and prosthetic devices. Biosensor researchers engineer macro- and nano-scale devices that utilize biological components, such as antibodies or enzymes, to detect and quantify minute amounts of chemicals or investigate biological processes in diverse systems and environments.

Computational Modeling of Biological Systems: Researchers focus on the study and advancement of computational methods and data analysis techniques to understand biological phenomena. This quantitative research uses modeling and simulation, high-performance computing, and large-scale data analysis to create testable hypotheses about mechanisms driving complex biological function.

Neural Engineering: Researchers develop novel neural technologies such as brain machine interfaces, neural prostheses, and implantable devices for the treatment of neurological disorders. Current activity includes deep brain stimulation for the treatment of motor disorders, electrical stimulation for the restoration of bladder function, and electrical stimulation for restoration of multi-joint motor function.

Bioelectric Engineering: This area spans a range of length scales from the ion-channel to the organ level. One of the main areas of focus is the development of realistic mathematical and computer models of cardiac muscle.

Technologies – Originally launched on April 2, 2020, CovIdentify was designed to explore how data collected by smartphones and smartwatches could help determine whether or not device users have COVID-19. The project explored how biometric information like sleep schedules, oxygen levels, activity levels, and heart rate can help indicate early symptoms of COVID-19. Recently, the team launched an iOS application and sent devices to target populations and underserved communities at high risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Researchers developed a biomaterial that significantly reduces scar formation after wounding, leading to more effective skin healing. This new material, which quickly degrades once the wound has closed, demonstrates that activating an adaptive immune response can trigger regenerative wound healing, leaving behind stronger and healthier healed skin.

An interdisciplinary team of scientists developed a highly sensitive and rapid diagnostic test for Ebola virus (EBOV) infection. The D4-assay proved to be 1,000 times more sensitive than the currently approved rapid diagnostic test and capable of detecting the virus a full day earlier than the gold standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

A dual-mode device for climate control in buildings. (Left) The device in heating mode showing a square of material that absorbs solar energy and conveys it to the building’s HVAC system. (Right) The device in cooling mode showing a square of material that reflects solar energy into outer space and achieves sub-ambient cooling.

Civil & Environmental Engineering

Duke Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) research focuses on creating healthy, safe environments and engineering complex Earth, water, and built systems. Research addresses protecting the health of human populations and predicting, monitoring, and managing impacts on air, water, and other global cycles.

The Geomechanics and Geophysics for Energy and the Environment (GGEE) group works to understand and address issues related to underground engineering, exploration, resource use, and environmental hazards. The Hydrology and Fluid Dynamics group pursues some of the most pressing open problems in environmental fluid dynamics, hydrology, and water resources.

The Risk & Resilient Systems group focuses on finding new and better ways to model, estimate, and quantify the dynamics, uncertainty, and risks prevalent in diverse engineered and natural systems with the ultimate goals of reducing risk, informing decisions, and developing more resilient systems.

Technologies – Researchers developed a method that uses machine learning, satellite imagery, and weather data to autonomously find hotspots of heavy air pollution, city block by city block. The technique could be a boon for finding and mitigating sources of hazardous aerosols, studying the effects of air pollution on human health, and making better informed, socially just public policy decisions.

A method for estimating the air quality over a small patch of land uses nothing but satellite imagery and weather conditions. Such information could help researchers identify hidden hotspots of dangerous pollution, greatly improve studies of pollution on human health, or potentially tease out the effects of unpredictable events on air quality such as the breakout of an airborne global pandemic.

Electrical & Computer Engineering

Duke’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) research enables creative, applicable solutions to pressing challenges in human health, security, and automation and new strides in fundamental scientific exploration and discovery. Research areas include AI/ machine learning, autonomous systems, intelligent computing systems, neuromorphic computing, data modeling, and computer vision.

ECE is home to world leaders in metamaterials and metasurfaces. Faculty members demonstrated the world’s first negative refractive index metamaterial in 2000 and in 2006, a Duke ECE engineer invented a metamaterial “invisibility cloak” that renders objects undetectable at microwave frequencies.

Structuring materials and particles at the tiniest of scales can imbue them with unique optical, electronic, or mechanical properties. Engineers in Duke ECE are making materials stimuli-responsive, antimicrobial, and superhydrophilic, for example. They are also working to create self-assembling electronic devices and printed biosensors and are exploring the potential of electronic materials and films to enable next-generation solar cells, infrared photodetectors, photo-electrochemical cells, and superconductors.

With the ability to sense changes in pH, temperature, and oil, the DraBot completely soft robot could be the prototype for future environmental sentinels.

Technologies – Engineers developed the world’s first fully recyclable printed electronics. The completely recyclable, fully functional transistor made of three carbon-based inks can be easily printed onto paper or other flexible, environmentally friendly surfaces. Carbon nanotubes and graphene inks are used for the semiconductors and conductors, respectively.

A versatile microfluidic lab-on-a-chip uses sound waves to create tunnels in oil to touchlessly manipulate and transport droplets. The technology could form the basis of a small-scale, programmable, rewritable biomedical chip that is completely reusable to enable on-site diagnostics or laboratory research.

Duke and Michigan State University engineers developed a supercapacitor that remains fully functional even when stretched to eight times its original size. It does not exhibit any wear and tear from being stretched repeatedly and loses only a few percentage points of energy performance after 10,000 cycles of charging and discharging. It could be part of a power-independent, stretchable, flexible electronic system for applications such as wearable electronics or biomedical devices.

Electrical engineers devised a fully print-in-place technique for electronics that is gentle enough to work on delicate surfaces including paper and human skin. The advance could enable technologies such as high-adhesion, embedded electronic tattoos and bandages with patient-specific biosensors. The thin film sticks to skin much like a temporary tattoo and early versions were made to contain heart and brain activity monitors and muscle stimulators.

Engineers at Duke are leading a nationwide effort to develop a “super camera” that captures just about every type of information that light can carry such as polarization, depth, phase, coherence, and incidence angle. The new camera will also use edge computing and hardware acceleration technologies to process the vast amount of information it captures within the device in real time.

Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science

An artistic rendering of a new type of multispectral imaging detector. Depending on their size and spacing, nanocubes sitting on top of a thin layer of gold trap specific frequencies of light, which heats up the materials beneath to create an electronic signal. (Art by Ella Maru Studio)

Duke Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science (MEMS) is designing the future of mechanical systems and materials, focusing on clean and abundant energy, reliable autonomous technology, and biomechanical devices and biomaterials to improve human health.

Aerodynamics & Aeroelasticity: Working at the intersection of fluid mechanics, structural mechanics, and dynamics, Duke MEMS faculty are investigating a range of aerospace problems. Using computational and experimental methods, researchers are studying the physics involved to aid in the development of improved airframes and turbomachinery that are safer and more efficient.

Autonomous Systems: Duke MEMS researchers are at work on new control, optimization, learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) methods for autonomous dynamic systems that can make independent intelligent decisions and learn in uncertain, unstructured, and unpredictable environments. Researchers design autonomous systems that span robotics, cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and medicine.

Biomechanics & Biomaterials: Duke MEMS faculty are exploring an array of biological phenomena to unlock discoveries leading to new bio-inspired materials. Focus areas include acoustofluidics and microfluidics, biomaterials and soft matter, biomechanical engineering, medical device development, and nanoscience and nanomedicine.

Computation & Artificial Intelligence: Cutting across traditional discipline boundaries, Duke researchers specialize in the application of computational approaches, including artificial intelligence, to a wide range of engineering challenges, from predictive modeling to new materials development to automation and controls.

Energy Systems & Materials: MEMS faculty are engaged in developing new sources of energy and improving the design of systems for energy conversion, storage, and transport. New energy materials and approaches include photo-voltaics, solar fuels, thermoelectrics, supercapacitors/batteries, efficient lighting, and thermofluids. Practical applications are built upon discoveries in mechanics, thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, materials science, applied chemistry, and physics.

Soft Matter & Nanoscale Materials: Researchers focus on computational discovery of new materials, the creation of materials on the nanoscale, and the nanoscale investigation of physical phenomena and properties of polymers and nanomaterials.

Technologies – Duke engineers developed an electronics-free, entirely soft robot shaped like a dragonfly that can skim across water and react to environmental conditions such as pH, temperature, or the presence of oil. The demonstration could be the precursor to more advanced autonomous, long-range environmental sentinels for monitoring a wide range of potential telltale signs of problems.

Engineers demonstrated a dual-mode heating and cooling device for building climate control that, if widely deployed in the U.S., could cut HVAC energy use by nearly 20%. The invention uses a combination of mechanics and materials science to either harness or expel certain wavelengths of light. Depending on conditions, rollers move a sheet back and forth to expose either heat-trapping materials on one half or cooling materials on the other. Specially designed at the nanoscale, one material absorbs the Sun’s energy and traps existing heat, while the other reflects light and allows heat to escape through the Earth’s atmosphere and into space.

Technology Transfer

The Office of Licensing and Ventures (OLV) is a University service unit composed of specialists in research review, licensing, business development, and legal matters who are experienced in transferring technologies from the physical sciences, biological sciences, and information and computer sciences. The OLV manages the invention disclosures from all schools and colleges at Duke.

To learn more about licensing Duke innovations, visit here , e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or call 919-681-7167. Access a list of technologies available for licensing here .

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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