With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies spread throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments from the region:

Cyberinfrastructure and Quantum Sensing. Two professors from the University of Arizona have each received $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program. The program aims to support “interdisciplinary efforts to solve real-world problems in the near future.” 

Laura Condon, a UA assistant professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences, secured the grant for her work with CyVerse, a UA-led organization providing scientists with “computational infrastructure” to handle and analyze large sets of data. In particular, CyVerse helps manage water resources with machine learning. Over the next nine months, Condon and CyVerse will use the grant to develop modeling tools that can better visualize complex groundwater systems and aid in engineers’ decision-making with regards to large amounts of resources.

“Water is one of the most pressing issues for climate change,” Condon said in a press release. “We need big physical hydrology models in order to make predictions about how environmental changes will impact our water resources. Our goal with this project is to make groundwater data and simulations more useful for decision making using machine learning.”

Zheshen Zhang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, secured the grant for his work with quantum networks. Zhang is creating a prototype network of sensors connected via quantum entanglement. This process involves linking two particles, often atoms, in such a way that whatever happens to one particle influences the other. Zhang is working to entangle photons, which are more stable than entangled atoms. This could improve sensor-based systems ranging from vehicle navigation to medical imaging.

According to UA, because sensing systems are ubiquitous, applications for this technology are broad. For instance, it could lead to the creation of an internally based navigation system for self-driving cars, or faster and more precise medical imaging by entangling light sources in a method called atomic force microscopy.

The grants are part of the Convergence Accelerator’s phase one, which supported a total of 29 projects. In June 2021, the previously selected teams will participate in a “pitch competition.” Those who win the competition will move into the Convergence Accelorator’s phase two, with potential funding of up to $5 million used across 24 months.

Pest Patrol. A new research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discusses how academics, farmers and government agencies worked together to eradicate the pink bollworm, one of the most damaging crop pests in Arizona. A native to Pacific islands and Australia, the invasive pink bollworm cost Arizona cotton growers tens of millions of dollars annually, after first being introduced to North America in 1917. A collaboration between local cotton growers, the University of Arizona, and both the US and Mexican governments has led to the eradication of the pest from local fields. 

Local farmers and scientists utilized a genetically engineered cotton to produce proteins from the bacterium “bacillus thuringiensis,” which can kill pink bollworm and other caterpillar pests but are “harmless to people and most beneficial insects.” In addition, a mass release of sterile pink bollworms via airplane overwhelmed populations of the pest.

According to the research article Transgenic Cotton and Sterile Insect Releases Synergize Eradication of Pink Bollworm, “analysis of computer simulations and 21 years of field data from Arizona indicate these two tactics interacted synergistically to suppress the pest. By eradicating the pink bollworm, the program ended the damage it caused to cotton and the insecticide sprays used to control it, yielding economic, environmental, and social benefits.” According to the study, the eradication program saved U.S. cotton growers $192 million from 2014 to 2019. The pink bollworm remains a pest in dozens of countries.