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Warf News & Media

Technology Monitor: A new era of industrial hemp, transplant therapy, controlling quantum bits and more


Hemp traits: Half a century ago the Badger state led the nation in hemp production. Today, a project by Mike Petersen and Shawn Kaeppler at the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center (WCIC) is using state-of-the-art genetic engineering to improve industrial hemp. They are targeting traits such as eliminating THC production while upregulating high-value cannabinoids, and increasing yield and value through high-density flowering.

While COVID-19 has slowed progress in the lab, the team continues to make advances. An evolving regulatory situation at the federal level could ease regulations and restrictions in all states, which could reduce current risks with product development, sales and distribution.


Qubit control: A project led by Robert McDermott (physics) is pursuing a novel scheme to control superconducting quantum circuits. Their vision is a streamlined system footprint that can be scaled to millions of qubits to realize a fault-tolerant quantum computer. McDermott’s team, in collaboration with a group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, has now successfully designed and fabricated quantum chips that will be incorporated into quantum-classical multichip modules for further experimentation. Progress remains on track despite the pandemic.

Next-generation lithography: Block copolymer (BCP) lithography is one of the most powerful technologies of the digital electronics era, allowing millions of nanoscale components to be fabricated on a single chip. It is also at the center of a WARF Accelerator project led by Padma Gopalan (materials science).

There is an increasing need, specifically in the semiconductor industry, to develop methods to access sub-5 nanometer (nm) features for microelectronics. But Gopalan notes that state-of-the art chip production still relies on costly, multistep techniques. In contrast, her method of directed self-assembly BCP lithography parallels the traditional manufacturing process but achieves smaller features. Her project is on target to wrap up at the end of 2021. Next steps include pattern transfer studies at Brookhaven National Laboratory.


Immune tolerance: Transplantation therapy continues to face serious obstacles including host rejection, immunosuppressive drug side effects and shortage of donor-derived cells and tissues. A new project led by Jacques Galipeau (medicine) is investigating a synthetic fusion protein that has the potential to mitigate all three of these concerns by abolishing host-immune rejection response and crossing donor and even species barriers.

The team’s data show that donor-derived and cross-species pancreatic islet allografts that express the engineered protein remain functionally viable and reverse hyperglycemia in the long term when transplanted into immune-competent canine and diabetic mouse models. They now report that they have generated human constructs of the protein and validated its expression, subcellular localization and biological activity.

Wearable kinetics: Last fall more than 300 participants at WARF’s first all-virtual Innovation Day got a sneak peek at a technology at the intersection of science and sports. Darryl Thelen (mechanical engineering) and team have shown that ‘wave speed’ in tendons can be measured with a wearable sensor system and used to infer tissue tension. His group has met with UW Athletics staff as well as an NBA team to discuss the potential for this kind of testing for injury prevention and recovery assessment.

Recently, Thelen’s team was awarded a two-year NIH Phase II STTR grant in collaboration with a product design firm, performed a pilot study on a patient with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and published in a peer-reviewed journal.


Lignin first: Shannon Stahl (chemistry) is making progress optimizing a biomass processing technology that first earned his team a WARF Innovation Award nomination in 2019. Their process saves time and energy by breaking down lignin – one of nature’s most confounding materials – directly into valuable molecular building blocks.

Lignin is a major component of biomass (15-25 percent) but due to its complex structure is typically treated as waste and burned. Yet lignin is the largest renewable source of aromatic compounds, which can be used in transportation fuels, bio-based polymers and other valuable chemicals. For decades, lignin depolymerization strategies have been explored for this purpose, but required more steps than Stahl’s. His team now looks to scale up to win new collaborations, industrial partnerships and licensing opportunities.