research roundup

3 innovative research projects coming out of the University of Houston

From a new solar energy capturing and storing device to stem cell-based pacemakers, here are three game-changing technologies coming out of UH. Getty Images

Across the University of Houston campus, professors and researchers are creating solutions for various problems in several different industries.

From information technology benefiting police officers to stem cell-based pacemakers, here are three game-changing technologies coming out of UH.

A stem cell-based biological pacemaker

Photo via of UH.edu

A University of Houston associate professor of pharmacology is contributing to research that's taking stem cells found in fat and transforming them into heart cells to act as biologic pacemaker cells.

"We are reprogramming the cardiac progenitor cell and guiding it to become a conducting cell of the heart to conduct electrical current," says Bradley McConnell in a UH news release. McConnell's work can be found in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology.

The treatment could replace the more than 600,000 electronic pacemakers implanted annually, These devices require regular doctors visits and aren't a permanent solution.

"Batteries will die. Just look at your smartphone," says McConnell. "This biologic pacemaker is better able to adapt to the body and would not have to be maintained by a physician. It is not a foreign object. It would be able to grow with the body and become much more responsive to what the body is doing."

Suchi Raghunathan, doctoral student in the UH Department of Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy, is the paper's first author, and Robert J. Schwartz, Hugh Roy and Lillian Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of biology and biochemistry, is another one of McConnell's collaborator.

The use of information technology to protect law enforcement

Photo via of UH.edu

A tech-optimized police force is a safe police force, according to new UH research that shows that the use of information technology can cut down on the number of police officers killed or injured in the line of duty by as much as 50 percent.

"The use of IT by police increases the occupational safety of police officers in the field and reduces deaths and assaults against police officers," says C.T. Bauer College of Business Dean Paul A. Pavlou in a news release. Pavlou co-authored a paper on the research that was published in the journal Decision Support Systems.

Pavlou, along with his colleague, Min-Seok Pang of Temple University used FBI, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and U.S. Census data to build a dataset, which tracked IT use and violence against law enforcement from 4,325 U.S. police departments over a six-year period, according to the release.

The study focused on crime intelligence, prediction, and investigation. The potential for IT in the police force had yet to be realized because there hadn't been much research on the subject.

A new solar energy capture and storage technology

Image via of UH.edu

New research coming out of UH has created a new and more efficient way to capture and store solar energy. Rather than using panels that store solar energy through photovoltaic technology, the new method, which is a bit of a hybrid, captures heat from the sun and stores it as thermal energy

The research, which was described in a paper in Joule, reports "a harvesting efficiency of 73% at small-scale operation and as high as 90% at large-scale operation," according to a news release.

The author of the paper, Hadi Ghasemi, is a Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH. He says the potential is greater due to the technology being able to harvest the full spectrum of sunlight. T. Randall Lee, Cullen Distinguished University Chair professor of chemistry, is also a corresponding author.

"During the day, the solar thermal energy can be harvested at temperatures as high as 120 degrees centigrade (about 248 Fahrenheit)," says Lee, who also is a principle investigator for the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. "At night, when there is low or no solar irradiation, the stored energy is harvested by the molecular storage material, which can convert it from a lower energy molecule to a higher energy molecule."

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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