ATHENA Lab augments human capabilities

Tom Schnieders and Rick Stone
Tom Schnieders (left) and Richard Stone

Engineering ideas and technologies enhance human performance, preserve safety and quality of life

Developing telerobotics control systems, applying biomechanics for improved sports performance, creating visualization tools that improve battle space awareness. These projects and more are going on within the Augmentation and Training of Humans with Engineering in North America Lab.

The lab, known as ATHENA Lab for short, is one of four labs of its kind in the world. And the only one the Augmented Human International Conference Series recognizes in North America.

“We want to make humans more capable and safer, and we’re using a mix of ergonomics, augmented reality and cutting-edge technologies to accomplish our goals,” says Richard Stone, an associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, co-director and co-founder of the lab.

The ATHENA Lab evolved from the Human Performance and Cognitive Engineering Lab that Stone started when he came to Iowa State in fall 2008. Fast forward to 2015 and bring in Thomas Schnieders, a Ph.D. student in industrial engineering and the other co-director and co-founder of the lab, who talked with Stone about the potential of having a recognized human augmentation lab on campus.

“The ATHENA Lab takes what we were already doing and gives us more focus. It also shows us other areas where we could be adding value with our work,” explains Schnieders. “A lot of labs do great work individually in biomechanical, biomedical and cognitive science, but our lab tries to merge all these aspects to see how they work together.”

No two days at the ATHENA Lab are similar. The researchers are constantly running new experiments, testing body armor one day and the next they might be focused on figuring out what technologies could make wound suturing more consistent.

“Our setup is always changing, and we’re moving equipment around all the time,” Stone adds. “At any time you might see boxes of basketball shoes stacked to the ceiling or maybe robots tucked away on a shelf. It just depends on what problem we are working to solve.”

The ATHENA Lab is also equipped with a large variety of sensors, cameras, hardware and software the researchers use to gather data.

Stone says the students who work in the lab bring a lot of energy and excitement to the projects. “The work we are doing is very focused. They get to work on projects they can apply to their everyday life, and they get to see the end results of their time and effort,” he explains. “It’s fun to see young students come in and show them a different side of engineering.”

Leadership in multiphase flow discovery, education and practice

Multiphase flow scienceA cohesive group of researchers at Iowa State has joined together to accelerate discoveries in multiphase flow science and their transfer to industry.

The group known as CoMFRE initially started out in 2002 as an informal way for faculty to share insights about related research projects. Now, the team is more formally organized with a mission to bring ideas together to make computational and experimental multiphase flow research more cohesive and connected.

Shankar Subramaniam, professor of mechanical engineering, and Rodney Fox, distinguished professor in chemical and biological engineering, lead the group of 18 faculty members who make up CoMFRE. The group also collaborates with a number of experts in industry, academia and national laboratories.

Subramaniam says having a large number of faculty and experts involved has helped the group expand its impact. “We aren’t working on just one problem. We’re working on a set of techniques that can be rapidly realigned to various problems. I anticipate that over the next 20-25 years we can continuously reinvent ourselves to solve whatever the hard multiphase flow problem of the day happens to be.”

One major initiative within CoMFRE is biofuels. As biomass, such as corn stover, is heated to create fuel, multiphase flow researchers can analyze how changes in the composition of biomass and flow impact the reaction.

The team develops simulations of biomass reactors, analyzes computational data gathered during the process, and evaluates the economics of the facilities used to generate biomass and biofuels, effectively performing an entire life-cycle analysis that focuses on efficiency and sustainability.

“From a computational perspective, all of our work involves a variety of statistical and mathematical methods and visualization,” Subramaniam says. “While it’s relatively easy to compute large amounts of data, we take our research beyond information. We provide insight into the processes occurring and look for answers to research questions.”

As the long-term applications and science research being developed under the umbrella of CoMFRE continues to grow, Subramaniam says the group’s industry outreach will also expand. CoMFRE facilitates training, seminar and networking opportunities for industry collaborators, where the group shares rich knowledge and diverse expertise to advance research in the multiphase flow field.

Collaborators come from a variety of industries including energy, healthcare, materials design, advanced manufacturing, sustainability and infrastructure.

The team also incorporates training and workforce development for graduate students, providing them with skills that can be applied across industries to investigate multiple challenges. CoMFRE is even proposing to break away from the traditional Ph.D. structure to act as more of a learning community, where graduate students work with peer groups and a whole group of faculty members acting as advisers. In addition to refining their technical skills, the students will be trained on entrepreneurship, which would prepare them to adapt to changes that can occur in the research landscape over time.

“We want our graduates to be cognizant of how to connect their work to societal issues,” Subramaniam says. “We think we’ve set up CoMFRE to prepare these students to be industry leaders while we also make advancements in our research.”

New heights for materials science

With his plans to develop an open-source manufacturing platform, Peter Collins is determined to make additive manufacturing a mainstream technology.

Collins, who is an associate professor in materials science and engineering, says the advantages of additive manufacturing—using fewer resources, improving material performance and creating one-of-a-kind products—can be a game changer for manufacturers of all sizes.

nanoscale materialsThat’s why he’s working on a program that will reduce the amount of testing involved with the additive manufacturing process.

“When we look at creating a better material, additive manufacturing is a great place to start,” he explains. “Rather than taking a huge piece of material and sizing it down to fit within the parameters we have, researchers add small amounts of powder to specific areas of a material to achieve desired characteristics and geometries. It’s simply a more efficient and effective approach.”

Collins wants to tailor materials to exact specifications, such as designing high strength on one side of the material and high stiffness on the opposite side. He says being able to change composition of a material is useful for many industries, including energy, aerospace and automobile markets.

But testing materials created through additive manufacturing is a significant investment and a big part of why the process isn’t commercially available. “Manufacturers spend sizable amounts of money to create a large piece of material, then section it into smaller pieces to send off for mechanical, fatigue and composition tests,” Collins says. “As you can imagine, it’s expensive, and if something doesn’t meet the desired performance, you have to create a new piece of material and do it all over again.”

Material characterization, which involves looking at how the atoms and crystals in the material are arranged, can help researchers predict the composition of a material and reduce the expenses associated with testing. “Knowing how materials will respond after they go through specific processes will help us understand what elements we will lose and what characteristics the material we’ve developed will exhibit.”

A large part of his research with groups such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation and the Boeing Company focuses on bringing this materials science mindset into additive manufacturing.

He also wants to reduce costs associated with additive manufacturing, which accumulate thanks to the equipment, like lasers and electron beams, used in the process. So he’s developing an open-source manufacturing platform with visions that every town could implement additive manufacturing. “Something like this would mean a farmer could go into town and repair or create a new piece of equipment instead of paying an exorbitant amount to have one made and shipped to them,” he explains.

While he knows there’s a lot of research that needs to be done before this vision becomes reality, he says his approach is definitely a step in the right direction.

“Adding material characterization to the process gives us the information necessary for exploring and creating superior materials for the manufacturing industry much quicker than has been done in the past.”

More data, more vulnerabilities

Protecting and securing data takes on many forms at Iowa State, where researchers in electrical and computer engineering are tackling big threats in the digital world: detecting malware on apps, improving online privacy and eliminating insider threats.

Mathematical abstraction and software reasoning

Suraj Kothari, Richardson Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, mixes theoretical ideas and practical application together as he looks for ways to improve the quality and security of software. The tools he has developed utilize visual mathematical models to dissect and conquer larger problems.

Recently, his models have been applied to detecting malware attacks within mobile applications for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project. Kothari’s team designed a tool that gathered important information about an app as it scanned code for malware. This data is then presented in a compact form for a human analyst to review, allowing for more accurate assessments about an app’s intentions than systems currently in place. The tool is flexible enough to be refined and extended to address future malware attacks.

Machine learning to secure information

Morris Chang, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, wants to make sure data collected by third-parties (think: healthcare workers or employers performing background checks) stays private. He says individuals providing personal information are increasingly exposed to vulnerabilities that may exist within a third-party’s data-collection system.

Through DARPA’s “Brandeis” Program, Chang is creating technology that helps secure privacy over the Internet through distributed algorithms that protect user’s data on mobile devices. Chang’s approach focuses on securing data before it is transmitted via Internet to remote cloud services. These services then use machine learning techniques to process data, allowing the data to be transferred in an irreversible way before reaching the Internet.

The project brings together researchers from several universities and segments the work to propose a solution to addresses the efficiency, privacy, security and flexibility of Internet computation.

Parsing big data to identify threats

Srikanta Tirthapura, associate professor of computer engineering, makes big data more manageable with methods that analyze extremely large data sets, especially data that quickly changes, which are often referred to as data streams.

Part of Tirthapura’s research is applied to cyber security, where he looks at how to convert, store and analyze information to find anomalous user behavior or unauthorized access. One example is insider threat detection, where someone within an organization who has authorized access to some parts of the system misuses his or her access.

He says detecting insider threats adds an extra challenge because the user is familiar with the system. In this case, technology is essential to search through gigabytes of files to identify unusual behaviors. That’s why Tirthapura has created tools that can be used across a variety of datasets and problems to efficiently retrieve and process information.

Engineers, elementary educators and future teachers partner to teach STEM

TrinectAt Iowa State, integrating engineering into K-12 classrooms is a collaborative effort that spans across campus and into surrounding school districts. Trinect, a program funded by the National Science Foundation STEM-C Partnerships, brings together three groups to introduce engineering concepts to young students: engineering graduate students, preservice teacher students and cooperating elementary teachers from Des Moines Public Schools.

“Trinect is about sharing knowledge and helping elementary teachers gain confidence in teaching STEM subjects,” says Adah Leshem, pre-college education program director at the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals located on Iowa State’s campus. Leshem is Trinect’s project co-director and was a driving factor in establishing the program.

“We know there’s a crucial timeframe for engaging young students in STEM fields and there’s often a lack of opportunity for students to experience these subjects. We think Trinect can help fill those gaps.”

Each semester, 10 Trinect Fellows, who are engineering graduate students, work with 3rd-5th grade students and their teachers. The fellows help teachers understand the concepts of the engineering  design process as well as reaffirm common subjects such as math, science and technology.

“Instead of having graduate fellows teach the concepts, they act as a resource for teachers and students. The approach engages teachers as they develop innovative activities focused on STEM subjects,” Leshem explains.

Iowa State’s School of Education’s preservice teachers represent the third partner of Trinect. These students are placed in cooperating teacher classrooms for 16 weeks and participate in teaching STEM concepts. At the end of the program, they are better prepared to independently integrate these types of lessons into their own classrooms once they are in the workforce.

Leshem says an external partner will measure the overall effectiveness of Trinect. The data will evaluate how the triad functions as a team and how the approach the program is using compares to traditional learning methods.

“We’ll be continually improving our program as we receive feedback and looking for additional opportunities to expand collaborations,” Leshem says.

Market-ready solutions

Matt Darr
Matthew Darr, associate professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering

Advanced ag machinery technology developed at ISU transfers to industry

Matthew Darr’s research group strives to make an impact that extends knowledge and scientific development to the marketplace. “Seeing our results ported out to the public sector where we’re able to help agricultural producers with intelligent technologies — that’s our ‘why,’” he says.

Darr, an associate professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering, runs an industry-focused research program at Iowa State, working on innovations in the agricultural equipment and agricultural automation sectors.

“We’ve developed strong relationships with industry partners, which helps us better understand their needs. We then focus our research on addressing applied research questions through targeted applications of advanced technology, science and innovation,” he says.

Much of the group’s work is data driven, with researchers working to both collect and analyze complex data from a range of agricultural systems. Darr says analysis of vehicle sensor networks has become a focal point for the group’s research.

The team develops algorithms for sensors used within agricultural equipment for a range of purposes and then works with industry partners to get that intelligence integrated into a commercial product.

Because the agricultural field relies heavily on telematics to gather data, Darr’s group creates hardware and software solutions that integrate the process. One such project involved assessing the logistics behind cellulosic ethanol supply chains in the Midwest. Industry partners used technology from Darr’s team to gather data and then made informed changes to how the plants operate, saving time and money.

Another area Darr is exploring is unmanned aerial vehicles, which involves remote sensing with UAVs. “We are utilizing this technology to acquire plant health indicators for individual plants.  This allows us to create a quality index that is used to adapt farming operations and make decisions related to crop production,” he explains. “The data from these UAVs can help producers make decisions about everything from water management to fertilizer application.”

While most of the group’s work has a significant impact in the Midwest, Darr says there’s an international component to the team. Test research of the group’s technologies happens on four continents every year, something Darr says provides the group with a greater understanding of how technology could help in the less developed ag markets.

The team’s successful approach in partnering with industry to create transferrable technology is an accomplishment in and of itself. Thanks to Iowa State’s land-grant mission, the university has flexible options for industry partners that address intellectual property concerns and facilitate the process for all parties involved.

He adds that diversity in the research group, which includes computer scientists, researchers from a number of engineering disciplines, ag technologists and students, gives the team a broad perspective for approaching problems.

The team’s work recently contributed to three innovation Silver Medal awards at AGRITECHNICA 2015, a global showcase of ag machinery in Hannover, Germany. The award-winning innovations, which were developed at Iowa State University and licensed to John Deere, involved the operation of harvesting equipment.

“When we see the value our work creates for producers, we know we’re making contributions to the agricultural industry,” Darr says. “Iowa State creates an environment where this is possible, and we are able to make a difference because of it.”

Power management in smart robots

Ran Dai and student team
Ran Dai, foreground, an assistant professor in aerospace engineering and Black and Veatch Faculty Fellow is working to develop technologies that will help robots manage their energy use to improve efficiency and battery life

Designing solar-powered vehicles for long-duration, high-efficiency missions

Using renewable energy to power aerial and ground vehicles could change the way we handle aspects of environmental monitoring, search and rescue missions, surveillance, and agricultural practices.

To navigate these sorts of dynamic environments, Ran Dai, an assistant professor in aerospace engineering and Black and Veatch Faculty Fellow, says a solar-powered robotic system offers a lot of promise.

During her first year at Iowa State, she and undergraduate research assistants manufactured the first prototype of a solar-powered ground vehicle in her Automation and Optimization Laboratory.

The vehicle was capable of designing an efficient path to harvest energy from the environment while simultaneously allocating its available power among electric components. The team also created an indoor solar simulator to have a static environment for evaluating the robot’s performance.

Now, confident her ideas will work, Dai has moved forward with a second- and third-generation robot, adding real-time power tracking to record the vehicle’s power intake and consumption, along with a solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle.

The project is supported by a $500,000 grant provided by the National Science Foundation’s CAREER program, which is designed to support the research and teaching of junior faculty, and will expand the usefulness of these unmanned vehicles even more with advancements that will improve their endurance and capability.

Dai says her biggest obstacle in this work is the weather. “Our algorithms can help the robot make decisions based on available solar energy, but if it’s cloudy, the robot could go into sleep mode to conserve energy, resulting in a delay in completing a mission.”

She says those sorts of delays could be offset with cooperative, back-up vehicles that harvest energy while the other robots are doing work. When the working robots need to recharge, the second group could step in to realize a persistent operation.

“The key to being able to make a system like this work is to find out how to make a robot energy-aware and autonomous,” she says. “That way it could recognize changing solar conditions and make necessary adjustments.”

Dai also plans to develop an open-source software program everyone can use. She hopes this will lead people who are interested in the technology to create their own solar-powered robots.

In the end, it’s the big picture that drives Dai forward — she wants to contribute to the country’s economic vitality, public health and security with these robots.

Soil and water samples illuminate antibiotic resistance

Michelle SoupirStudies of manure application reveal antibiotic resistance movement

While using manure as an organic source of fertilizer has helped the agricultural industry maintain balance in integrated crop and livestock systems, there is some risk the manure contains bacteria that may contaminate water bodies if transported off the field by rain.

Michelle Soupir, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, and her team of researchers are examining the transport of two pathogen indicators: E. coli and enterococci. Both are identified by the EPA as indicators of potential fecal contamination of water resources. She also looks for relationships between the traditional pathogen indicators and antibiotic resistance.

Soupir says identifying the resistance is incredibly difficult. “When you monitor environmental systems, you can be on a fishing trip of sorts when determining what resistance might be out in the environment. In our study, we targeted tetracycline and tylosin.” Both are antibiotics. Tetracycline treats bacterial infections like acne and genital or urinary infections, whereas tylosin isn’t prescribed to humans but is in the same class as other common human antibiotics like erythromycin.

The fieldwork is conducted at the North East Iowa Research Farm (NERF), near Nashua, Iowa. A different land-use treatment is applied to one-acre plots of crops, separated from other plots by berms and curtain drains to reduce cross-contamination from either above or below the surface. Manure is injected into some of the plots in bands close to the root system before the first hard frost.

“It’s applied in the fall so ammonia doesn’t volatilize, and we don’t lose the nitrogen we’re applying,” says Soupir. “It’s always a gamble, because you want to do it right before the soil freezes.” The manure is then held in the soil all winter at cold temperatures, which is a benefit to water quality as the cold temperatures tend to kill off some of the pathogens and resistant bacteria.

The team is getting data from three points in the system. Samples of the manure that is applied to specific plots tells them how much antibiotic resistant bacteria and pathogen indicators are going onto the plots. Measurements of the soil show how long the organisms survive. This leads the research team to take samples of water, which tells them what organisms are moving off site and could potentially be moving into surface water.

But the results of this have not been as expected. “We rarely see statistically significant differences between the manure amended and control plots in the tile drainage water,” says Soupir. “It’s been surprising that there aren’t more statistical differences. For the most part, it’s been pretty good news for pork producers because the method of manure application (injection in the fall) seems to be a good management strategy for preventing pathogens and resistant bacteria from moving into the tile drains.”

The project is on its fourth year, and while most of the results are on swine manure, the researchers have begun to look at a poultry-amended site as well as a beef-amended site. Soupir says these research sites are novel because they have received manure application for long periods of time. “It’s really made me appreciate the need for long-term studies.”

Materials under extreme conditions

Illustration of a sample being compressed and sheared in a rotational diamond anvil cell
Illustration of a sample being compressed and sheared in a rotational diamond anvil cell

Search for new materials and phases under high pressure and large plastic shear

When you look at the properties and strength of a diamond, which is created under intense heating and pressure, it’s clear there’s value in understanding how it’s synthesized. Phase transformations under high pressure, like when graphite is formed into a diamond, are at the heart of the theoretical work Valery Levitas has been conducting throughout his extensive international career.

Levitas, Iowa State’s Schafer Professor and faculty member of aerospace engineering and of mechanical engineering, conducts fundamental research to predict and discover new phases of materials under high pressure. His work can be translated into engineering applications, including synthesizing superior materials for new technologies and products.

A significant part of his research investigates ways to retain high-pressure phases after pressure is released. To do this, he uses plastic shear, or an irreversible deformation that is applied with a rotational diamond anvil cell (DAC). He explains that plastic deformation not only changes the shape of a sample, it also changes the sample’s microstructure and generates new defects and phase transformations.

More importantly, the shear drastically decreases the pressure necessary to create desired phase transformations. “Near the defects we create, there are regions with concentrations of large stresses, which can be considered as pressures in different directions,” he says. “Instead of applying external high pressure, we apply a lower value of pressure coupled with large plastic shear to generate new defects.”

Using a rotational DAC in place of a traditional DAC has required Levitas to develop a new multiscale theory to explain the interactions between phase transformations and plastic flow under pressure. He says this is because unlike traditional high-pressure physics, which operates with the single parameter of pressure, he has to understand the effect of six components of stresses and six components of plastic strains, as well as the effect of evolving defects.

The corresponding analytical and computational approaches he developed to support his theory explain mechanisms of strain-induced phase transformations at the nanoscale as well as the complex behavior of a sample in rotational DAC.

His research group has been able to predict and confirm new phenomena through experiments. Notably, the team has proven the possibility to reduce transformation pressure by an order of magnitude to transform boron nitride from graphite-like to superhard, which may serve as a precursor of new technologies. Experiments have also revealed a new amorphous phase of silicon carbide that may shed a light on how armor ceramics are damaged under projectile penetration.

Levitas began his work in Kiev, Ukraine, and brought his high-pressure theories and technology to the U.S. in 1999. It took him eight years to obtain his first federal grant on this topic from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, but now this work is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation and Army Research Office.

“As the only team in the world working on this topic theoretically and the only one in the U.S. performing experiments with rotational DAC, I’m encouraged to see interest growing,” Levitas says. “Having an understanding of materials, including how they behave in natural and technological processes like earthquakes, friction and wear, surface treatment, military applications, and mechanochemical processes like ball milling, will lead to ways of controlling these processes and creating even greater materials.”

Easing traffic headaches

HallmarkInTrans performs need-based research to improve transportation infrastructure

Since Iowa State’s Institute for Transportation (InTrans) first began as the Local Transportation Information Center in 1983, researchers have transformed the surface transportation landscape through innovative methods, materials and technologies.

Now, with specialization in areas that range from work zone safety and traffic engineering to sustainable pavement and integrated earthworks operations, there are nearly 200 students, professional staff and faculty working within the 16 centers and programs that make up InTrans.

The research happening within the institute focuses on developing practical and applied solutions that can be quickly implemented to improve roadways, making the traveling experience better and safer for everyone.

Take for instance InTrans’s Center for Transportation Research and Education, which is leading three of 11 research teams under the Federal Highway Administration’s SHRP2 Implementation Assistance Program. Securing these projects involved working with three state department of transportation partners to identify priorities and pull proposals together.

The teams are working on identifying driver characteristics and roadway features that play the most significant role in road departure crashes (Iowa DOT); evaluating the roles of speed and driver distraction in work zone crashes (Minnesota DOT); and determining the effects of distracted driver behavior and speed limit enforcement on crashes (Michigan DOT in partnership with Wayne State University).

Shauna Hallmark, director of InTrans and professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, says the ability to work with transportation agencies locally and nationally, as well as private-sector and university affiliates, has been a large part of InTrans’s success.

“We offer a unique range of expertise that is in high demand as the country addresses major issues within transportation infrastructure. These relationships help speed up improvements to roadways through knowledge sharing and thorough investigation,” she adds.

As Iowa State University’s primary resource for promoting transportation education, research and extension activities, InTrans is also improving the learning environment of students, faculty and staff.

A new Traffic Operations Lab features real-time connectivity to data and system performance directly from the field to researchers and students. “The lab extends traditional training for students and gives them an opportunity to be a part of using technology to improve systems performance and safety. The lab’s big data provides opportunities to blend transportation and computer science techniques toward developing unique front- and back-end solutions for public agencies and the transportation research community,” Hallmark adds.

InTrans is also home to Iowa State’s master of science in transportation, an interdisciplinary degree with supporting academic programs in the colleges of engineering, design and business.

Educating the next generation of transportation practitioners reaches beyond those enrolled at the university through InTrans’s GO! magazine. The online publication combined with other outreach activities help K-12 students understand the variety of career needs in the transportation industry.

“The educational component of InTrans is crucial for our institute,” Hallmark explains. “We’ve spent countless hours creating programs and activities that address everything from policy to maintenance to make the transportation system more durable, reliable, safe and sustainable. We have to prepare others to keep the momentum moving forward.”

That momentum includes more than $13.6 million research dollars secured in 2014 from federal, state and private funding. “The increase we’ve seen in high-profile projects shows that we’re a talented team of researchers dedicated to delivering results. We’re excited to continue assembling and supporting world-class teams through new projects.”

A faster way to optimal solutions

Flow streamlines in a large commercial building modeled using a turbulence model
Flow streamlines in a large commercial building modeled using a turbulence model

Using simulation and modeling to improve sustainable buildings

Insurmountable data is no match for Baskar Ganapathysubramanian. In fact, he says the more data, the better. That way he’s sure to evaluate every possible scenario within the models he creates.

Ganapathysubramanian, associate professor of mechanical engineering, uses mathematical techniques and computational tools to solve a variety of real-world phenomena.

He’s especially interested in applying this technology to energy and the environment, like he’s doing with a project that studies how energy is utilized in buildings.

He says he was initially inspired to research the topic after reading the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenge to restore and improve urban infrastructure. “When I saw that approximately 45 percent of the national energy budget is used to heat and cool buildings, I knew that even the smallest improvements in energy efficiency could have a substantial impact in terms of saving costs and use of nonrenewable resources.”

Ganapathysubramanian uses modeling and simulations to investigate ways to improve design for new sustainable buildings as well as to augment existing building controls. His end goal is to improve the use of natural flows within these structures.

So far, his group has spent time understanding how beehive-shaped mud houses in Harran, Turkey, control internal temperature without any powered conditioning. Additionally, the team has looked at Iowa State University’s solar-powered Interlock House to determine the best ways to allow for natural ventilation. Another project has researchers evaluating ideal locations for air quality sensors.

“Performing this work without a computational framework requires a great deal of time and painstaking measurements to explore a select few scenarios,” he explains. “In our case, however, after we create a model of a building, we can make endless changes to our settings to determine how to make it more sustainable. The ideas we are generating, once implemented, are going to have a substantial impact on the building design and energy market.”

Creating these models is no easy task. Modeling fluid flows, such as natural ventilation, is incredibly difficult, and it often results in various levels of approximations because of the complexity of the flows.

Ganapathysubramanian says an intersection of unique developments at Iowa State supports the mathematics behind his work and has led to even better results for his research. He is also thankful for the various collaborative activities that ISU enables and supports.

Most of the building research is in collaboration with Ulrike Passe, associate professor in architecture, who is interested in leveraging mathematical models to understand and design sustainable buildings.

Collaborating with Ming-Chen Hsu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Ganapathysubramanian has created a framework for modeling natural flows in complex geometries. Hsu is currently looking at incorporating his immersed-modeling method that takes a complex geometry and immerses it in a cube, thus allowing the team to explore a variety of complex geometries in a straightforward way.

Umesh Vaidya, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, helps with understanding how to control and sense the flow physics. Together with Ganapathysubramanian, they have created a rigorous framework for rapid (real-time) contaminant analysis and sensor placement strategies.

These mathematical methods and tools also have utility in other areas of energy and sustainability. Ganapathysubramanian works with ISU agronomists (like Pat Schnable and Asheesh Singh) to apply similar tools to improving agricultural productivity.

Ganapathysubramanian adds that the tools and methods are the foundation to significant improvements in science. “As we use these technologies across disciplines, we’ll see that having more time available to spend on analyzing a wide range of scenarios leads to superior end products.”

Customized products, processes

Frank Peters, interim department chair and associate professor of IMSE, in the Wind Energy Manufacturing Lab
Frank Peters, interim department chair and associate professor of IMSE, in the Wind Energy Manufacturing Lab

Delivering advanced manufacturing technology ready for commercialization

Researchers in Iowa State’s industrial and manufacturing systems engineering (IMSE) department are major players in the country’s goal to strengthen the resurgence of manufacturing in America.

With their projects to be supported by three of the recent federal manufacturing research centers – America Makes, the Institute for Advanced Composite Manufacturing Innovation and the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute – they are working to solve unique manufacturing problems.

“Creating a product involves a great deal of reasoning and planning by individuals, which can lead to unwanted variation,” explains Matt Frank, associate professor of IMSE. “We reduce that variation through automation solutions that generate high-quality products at a competitive cost all while using fewer resources.”

But the group isn’t working in the typical factory setting. Researchers explore complex, difficult-to-make components, like wind turbine blades and one-of-a-kind replacement products.

“It’s tough to justify applying conventional automation technologies for products that aren’t high volume,” explains Frank Peters, associate professor of IMSE. “Instead, we like to partner with companies with interesting problems and create specific solutions that can be commercialized to improve the manufacturing system.”

That’s exactly what’s happening at Iowa State’s Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory (WEML). The lab is partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to incorporate advanced composites, specifically carbon fiber, into wind blade manufacturing. Using carbon fiber in place of fiberglass allows for lighter blades and may have the potential to lower the cost of wind energy.

Peters says WEML has been investigating composites for some time, and the connection with collaborators expedites getting the technology into industry.

In another area, researchers generate customized replacement parts – whether it’s a human bone or tractor part – with rapid manufacturing. Frank’s lab features reconfigured traditional manufacturing technologies that act like 3D printers. From there, he’s able to produce components using materials with preferred properties.

Matt Frank, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, in the Rapid Manufacturing and Prototyping Laboratory
Matt Frank, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, in the Rapid Manufacturing and Prototyping Laboratory

The group is also working on a project to connect metal 3D printers with a subtractive finishing process. “If we can implement this rapid manufacturing process in such a way that it will create extraordinarily customized products in an affordable way, it’s going to make a big impact for consumers in the United States,” Frank says.

Other projects include an automated system to produce patterns for large metal castings used in industry and military. The team has worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to make manufacturability analysis software with the goal of reducing the design-to-build time frame. “The software analyzes proposed design ideas, giving feedback about everything from how difficult parts will be to machine, cast or weld, to what aspects within the design will drive up costs,” Peters explains. “

As the country continues to look for ways to manufacture products within a variety of fields, our engagement with industry on relevant and applied solutions are an example of how that can happen,” Frank says.

Wind characterization leads to new innovations

Expanding wind energy volume takes an interdisciplinary perspective

Hui Hu, professor of aerospace engineering
Hui Hu, professor of aerospace engineering

Aerospace engineering and atmospheric sciences are joining forces and technology at Iowa State to better understand airflow and wind shear on wind farms.

Using computer models, wind and icing tunnel experiments, and field measurements, the researchers say their work can depict individual turbine dynamics, turbine-to-turbine interaction and ultimately how wind farms impact regional wind profiles.

“The projects we’re leading give insight into how much wind energy is harvested and also the lifetime of turbines, providing an overall sense of how well a wind farm is operating,” said Hui Hu, professor of aerospace engineering. “From there, we want to figure out ways to increase efficiency, keeping cost effectiveness a priority.”

One way the team is working on improving wind farm productivity involves creating a dual-rotor wind turbine. The project, which was recently funded by the National Science Foundation, features a second rotor that fits into the larger, less aerodynamic section of the main rotor. The smaller rotor is designed to extract energy from wind that initially passes by the main rotor.

Anupam Sharma, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and Walter W. Wilson Faculty Fellow
Anupam Sharma, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and Walter W. Wilson Faculty Fellow

“This setup can also help in mixing out the wake, or disturbances that occur in the atmosphere from the wind turbine, replenishing the energy in the wind before it gets to the next turbine on a farm,” explained Anupam Sharma, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and Walter W. Wilson Faculty Fellow.

For this project, Hu runs experiments in the wind tunnel while Sharma develops analytical and numerical models. The combination offers a complementary environment where details can be thoroughly investigated, giving the researchers an exact picture of what would happen in the field.

But at Iowa State, the research goes one step further. Bringing in Gene Takle, professor of agronomy and geological and atmospheric sciences, the aerospace engineers can confirm their data using on-site measurements to come up with optimal solutions.

Gene Takle, professor of agronomy and geological and atmospheric sciences
Gene Takle, professor of agronomy and geological and atmospheric sciences

Takle’s research group has access to power generation data for large wind farms across the state of Iowa. And the group actively measures wind activity on different sites as well. His team looks at several factors, including wind direction, shear and speed, as well as atmospheric stability at different elevations. While his work is primarily investigating how wind turbines affect crops and soil, the information he has can be applied to the research of Hu and Sharma.

Takle says one of the most interesting things the researchers have worked on has been identifying the changes in wind flow as it goes through a large field.

“While Anupam has substantiated our observations of changing wind patterns with numerical models, we have yet to determine the implications,” Takle said. “For example, as warm, moist air is pushed up, there’s potential for it to lead to clouds and eventually rain. We want to know the larger scale impact of this phenomena and if in fact wind farms can influence weather conditions.”

As the researchers explore and expand these and other projects—like turbine blade positioning and de-icing, ideal terrain conditions and turbine alignment on farms, turbine noise signatures, and even wind forecasting—they plan to continue collaborating with one another and add insights from others on campus.

Wake simulation of dual-rotor wind turbine
Wake simulation of dual-rotor wind turbine

“The wind energy field is such that we need input from many disciplines, and the fact that we are able to bring it all together here at Iowa State makes us one of the very few places that can carry out work in such great magnitude,” Sharma said. “We’re tackling the problem the way it’s supposed to be tackled.”

Taking cyberinnovation to the farm

Ratnesh-KumarData from soil sensors gives researchers and farmers insight into sustainable agricultural practices

Maintaining soil health by protecting land suitable for growing crops continues to be a priority as the world’s population rises. Issues like managing the nitrogen cycle, which is also one of the 14 Grand Challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering, are becoming an increasingly important part of sustainable agriculture.

Ratnesh Kumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering, says being in Iowa gave him fertile ground to expand his domain expertise beyond cyberphysical and embedded control systems (where he has earned recognition as an IEEE Fellow) and apply cyber practices to farming.

Kumar, Robert Weber, professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering, and Ph.D. student Gunjan Pandey have developed a portable, wireless, low-cost network analyzer that can be buried beneath crop fields. The sensor measurements are intended to provide a deeper understanding of fertilizer inputs and the nitrogen cycle, both of which are a major source of water quality impairment and also result in greenhouse emissions.

The nitrogen level that has increased from things like fertilizer and certain crops that are produced, like soybeans, ought to be rebalanced, according to Kumar. He adds that plants don’t necessarily use all the fertilizer put on them, and that has been causing significant problems such as hypoxia in coastal waters. “With the data from our sensors, we want to be able to determine the adequate amounts of fertilizer to apply as well as uncover ways to improve irrigation practices.”

The sensors Kumar and his team have designed collect information about water levels and soil nutrients, gathering details at a wide range of frequencies through measurements of complex impedance. This detail includes capacitance (how an electrical charge is stored) affected by moisture and conductance (how easily an electric current passes) affected by nutrients present in their ionic forms.

A key feature to the sensors is a first-of-its-kind wireless interface. Kumar says such an interface allows the sensors to be used in-situ, so researchers can actively gather information without interfering in any agricultural operations. The design was inspired from “meta-materials” that feature electromagnetic properties not found in natural materials.

“The sensors also have an inbuilt calibration mechanism so they don’t need to be manually calibrated each time conditions, such as temperature, change,” he added.

The group is also working with agronomists, specifically soil scientists and crop scientists, to develop sensor-driven models for soil- and crop-growth dynamics. Kumar says such understanding is crucial to the management of soil nitrogen and other nutrients as well as soil health.

His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation through two prior grants and was recently awarded a $1 million, four-year grant from NSF under the CyberSEES program. Additionally, the sensors component has one pending U.S. Patent.

Kumar says he has even more advancements in his sights. “Going forward, we will be thinking about the entire system of soil, plant and air. They all must be monitored simultaneously to assess the soil, plant and air attributes relevant for soil, water and air health toward sustainable agriculture.” Electronic microchips send frequencies out in the ground to detect movement amongst other things.

Shifting the paradigm of biorenewable chemicals

shanksCBiRC focuses on platform technologies and new chemicals from biomass feedstocks to replace petrochemicals

When the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) was founded in 2008, its approach of combining biology and chemistry to develop sustainable biobased chemicals was a novel idea.

“At the time, we were trying decide if there was value in having people from the biological area—those who work in enzymes, proteins and microbial systems—in the same center with classical chemical conversion researchers,” explained CBiRC’s director Brent Shanks.

Six years later, it seems the partnership was indeed a good strategy.

CBiRC has more than 25 faculty researchers, numerous graduate students and 35 industry partners focused on changing the chemical industry.

One of the biggest challenges to CBiRC’s mission is that there are hundreds of products made from petroleum-based chemicals.

“A lot of organizations working on biorenewable chemicals will focus on one or two products, but it’s hard to justify the cost and time it takes to develop such a small number of products when you are dealing with a market that is so diverse,” explained Shanks, who is also Iowa State’s Mike and Jean Steffenson Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “We are striving to break away from that lone end-product mindset.”

Instead, CBiRC wants to develop a platform technology—one that can be developed and then simply exploited to make a range of different products.

Shanks says novel biological intermediates give CBiRC the opportunity to make this technology a reality.

“We are using biological conversions to get to unique intermediate molecules. From there, we use chemical conversion to go to a range of different chemical products, essentially creating a star diagram, where an intermediate molecule from fermentation can make a whole range of different molecules,” he added.

One such intermediate molecule is triacetic acid lactone, which can be created through biological conversion and converted to a variety of products. An example end product created by CBiRC researchers from this platform is pogostone—an antimicrobial that has a great deal of potential but has been difficult to synthesize in the past. By starting with triacetic acid lactone, pogostone was developed in one step.

While CBiRC’s approach seems subtly different, it’s incredibly important. That one intermediate molecule can lead to solutions for high-value, specialty products as well as large-volume, low-value commodity products.

“With our technologies, we can get to families of molecules that people generally haven’t ever considered and start to examine the efficacies of these molecules to come up with some interesting options,” Shanks said.

As CBiRC researchers publish their work and get patents on technologies, the center is inspiring spin-off companies to help to move the technology forward.

There are currently six start-up companies working on a range of biorenewable chemical products. One example is Glucan Biorenewables, which is exploring how to best make organic furanic compounds such as furfural. And the other companies have similar missions—making a promising product available and accessible.

“There’s evidence this platform-technology approach will work, giving the biorenewable chemical industry a foundation for building many products. It’s exciting to consider just how much of an impact this could make,” Shanks said. CBiRC researchers develop novel biocatalysts in the interdisciplinary Biorenewables Research Laboratory.

Changing cancer treatment

lab work
Katie Bratlie (right), assistant professor of materials science and engineering and chemical and biological engineering and Rachel Philph, senior in materials science and engineering and Goldwater Scholar work together in Bratlie’s lab.

Polymer science advances drug-delivery mechanisms to better break down cancerous tumors

The National Cancer Institute has indicated that in 2014, “it is estimated that there will be 1,665,540 new cases of all cancer sites and an estimated 585,720 people will die of this disease.”

That’s why Katie Bratlie, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering and chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State University, wants to create a more effective and efficient way to treat the disease. And so she is developing biodegradable polymers to improve chemoimmunotherapy—a type of chemotherapy that works with the immune cells to remove cancerous cells.

The immune cells she’s working with are white blood cells called macrophages. Found all across the human body, macrophages are considered the “first responders” to bodily injuries, removing bacteria and debris.

Despite being good for the rest of the body, macrophages in tumors make the prognosis for cancer patients much worse. That’s because these cells promote blood vessel growth, bringing nutrients to the tumor and helping it grow.

White blood cells called macrophages are considered “first responders” to bodily injuries, removing bacteria and debris

“Once those blood vessels are established, the tumor cells have a place to metastasize across the body,” explained Bratlie. Macrophages offer an advantage in that they take up drugs relatively easily, making them a great resource for Bratlie, who is determined to find a way to utilize the proprieties of tumor-associated macrophages for treating cancer.

She and her team are looking at a variety of chemical characteristic groups to uncover a functional group that will alter macrophage secretion profiles, essentially reprogramming the macrophage cells to act in a pro-inflammatory capacity, fighting off the tumor rather than promoting its growth.

When she finds the ideal polymer, she plans to integrate it into a hydrogel that will encapsulate a cancer-treating drug. Her technique would allow the medicine to be delivered directly to a growing tumor without impacting surrounding cells.

“Using this approach, the drugs used to treat a cancer will attach to a malignant cell and signal to macrophages and other white blood cells that the cancerous cells should be phagocytosed, or digested,” she explained.

As the team is analyzing cells and studying their responses to polymers in petri dishes in the lab, it is looking for apoptosis, or cell death, to ensure the treatment is effective in killing cancerous cells. The group is also conducting animal trials and collaborating with researchers who have expertise in animals and humans to explain tumors and physiology.

The ultimate dream, while likely many years down the road, is to bring the research to clinical trial. Bratlie says some day it may also be possible to personalize the macrophage response based on cancer stage and other factors, making for a more individualized approach to this combination cancer therapy.

Her research is also applicable in other areas, as macrophages are being studied across Iowa State’s campus, including their role in vaccines and parasitic diseases.

“Some diseases, like tuberculosis, actually reside inside the macrophage, so it doesn’t get destroyed. Instead it divides and stays. It’s a persistent infection,” she said. “If we could do something inside the microphage to remove the infection or attack it, that would be a great advancement.” Katie Bratlie (right), assistant professor of materials science and engineering and chemical and biological engineering, and Rachel Philiph, senior in materials science engineering and Goldwater Scholar, work together in Bratlie’s lab. White blood cells called macrophages are considered “first responders” to bodily injuries, removing bacteria and debris.

A new kind of solar cell

vik-dalalImproving the performance of organic, thin-film materials with perovskites to make solar energy more affordable and accessible

With the sun providing most forms of energy, whether indirectly or directly, it’s no wonder Vikram Dalal has spent more than 40 years working on better ways to access its energy.

But it’s the potential to provide the developing world with a more reliable source of energy that most inspires him.

Dalal, Whitney Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says cost-effective solar energy could be a consistent source of electricity for parts to the world that typically rely on diesel generators or kerosene for energy.

“If we could accomplish this, it would mean clean drinking water, refrigeration to keep vaccines cold and electricity at night. All positive things that could drastically improve people’s way of life.”

And so, Dalal is working on a new class of solar cell. His research, which is currently funded by the National Science Foundation as well as the Iowa Energy Center, joins organic and perovskite solar cells with thin films of silicon.

Perovskites are a new system of materials that are increasingly efficient at converting solar energy into electricity. When perovskites are combined with thin-film silicon cells, which use amorphous silicon that is only a few hundred nanometers (a billionth of a meter) thick, or organic solar cells that are applied to a semi-transparent panel to absorb sunlight, there is potential for these cells to convert 20 percent of the light they absorb into electric energy.

That would match the efficiency of conventional solar panels, something that has yet to be done with newer technology. In addition, these cells would be more cost-effective, requiring less expensive material than the silicon crystals currently in use.

A major problem facing both organic and perovskite cells is that they degrade rapidly in performance due to environmental factors such as moisture and light exposure. Not much is known about the fundamental physics of why these cells degrade, so Dalal’s research is working to understand these phenomena. Over time, he will then design new materials and device structures that are much more stable with the goal of reaching a 20-year life for these cells.

“We have many challenges to overcome, both in improving efficiency and achieving much better stability. That’s why we’ve begun working with several disciplines, including chemistry and physics, and we are forming new partnerships, like that with Nazarbayev University, a new university in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana,” he says. Dalal adds that bringing together experts in organic and perovskite solar cell research will help advance the technology.

“Making solar energy better and cheaper will allow solar to penetrate the large-scale utility market as well as be widely utilized in developing countries. It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time, and these new cells could be the solution.”

Advancing production in large-scale industries

Calling for a multidisciplinary, value-driven philosophy for systems engineering

Energy. Transportation. Civil infrastructure. Aerospace. These and many other large-scale, complex industries are critical to the security and prosperity of our nation. And they are in need of some serious attention.

That’s where Christina Bloebaum says she can make a difference. Bloebaum, the Dennis and Rebecca Muilenburg Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Iowa State, is investigating a new educational and technological framework to improve the way these systems and related products are developed.

Christina BloebaumThe implication of her work is a more efficient use of valuable resources, like time and money, while making an end product better suited for specific purposes.

Her approach, which uses integrated research in social sciences and engineering, emphasizes a value-driven design process. This requires each decision to be tied back to a value function, such as maximizing profit or mission success, which is established at the beginning of a project.

“We also want to explore the use of serious games to enable research as well as educate the future workforce about how these complex products and systems are designed and delivered,” she adds. “Gamification offers an immensely powerful yet largely unexplored approach to enable a paradigm shift in practice, as well as training, in systems engineering.”

As the former NSF program director of both the engineering and systems design program and the system science program, Bloebaum has seen a need for this sort of research firsthand, noting the current approaches used aren’t keeping pace with technological advancements.

Her own accounts are supported by the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited report, which describes how America is falling behind on the technology front and suggests that drastic measures need to be taken.

Bloebaum knows a change in systems engineering at the highest of levels involves a lot of different ideas coming together. Her experience with informed decision support through work on multidisciplinary design optimization will prove useful. And she’s gathering other ideas through interdisciplinary research teams coordinated to pursue grants related to her overarching idea.

“There are so many different components that need to be addressed in what we are proposing to do—from what type of widget to use to how communication flows through organizations—and we need to analyze a great deal of information to determine what changes can have the biggest impact,” she says.

Visualization technology will help support the process. She has used the technology to capture decisions made by end users of a complex product as well as to provide a representation of how the systems engineering process flows, identifying how changes in one area affect other areas.

Because her framework will mean altering long-standing processes, Bloebaum wants to provide demonstrations of success by partnering with larger agencies, such as NASA.

“Once we can prove we have a low-risk, incredibly high pay-off proposition, we can show others the benefits of our approach,” she says. “Along the way, students will have learned this framework through our educational outreach, and the result is a self-sustaining solution to a serious problem.”

Revolutionizing disease prevention and treatment

balajiUsing a systems approach coupled with nanoscale technology to develop next-generation vaccines

For more than a decade, Balaji Narasimhan has been determined to improve vaccine deliveryand availability, a mission that’s especially important for parts of the world where access to such life-saving, preventative medicine isn’t always practical or even possible.

One project includes searching for ways to boost the effectiveness of vaccines through experiments with the chemical composition and size of polymer-based nano particle adjuvants used to deliver antigens that trigger the body’s immune response, tailoring these to be released over an extended period of time. Another looks at using nanoparticles to load vaccine components and delivering them “needle free” to improve patient compliance.

Now, Narasimhan, Vlasta Klima Balloun Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is leading a collaborative effort in vaccine development with 43 investigators from five universities, two national labs, three research institutes and five companies. The group will be seeking large-scale funding to launch a national center on nanoscale technologies to develop next-generation vaccines.

The project, entitled “Systems Design of Nanovaccines,” will receive up to $1.5 million over three years as part of Iowa State’s Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research, a program launched by President Steven Leath to support research efforts that could lead to major advances, discoveries and technologies.

The research group plans to use a systems approach for vaccine development. Different from the current step-by-step method, the systems perspective frames the development of new and improved vaccines as a supply chain and considers all the steps—ranging from conceptualization to testing to global distribution and everything in between—as early as possible with built-in feedback at each step.

“The result is a better product made in a shorter period of time because you don’t have to wait for one step to be done to start the next. It could potentially shorten the time it takes to develop new vaccines from 10 years to about 5 years,” Narasimhan says.

Building on his existing research in nanotechnology, Narasimhan adds that formulating the vaccines into nanosized particles is effective because the immune cells the vaccines are trying to activate typically do a good job of internalizing, or taking up, the smaller particles.

Many viruses, such as H1N1 influenza and SARS, are also nanosized. “We are trying to mimic some of those pathogens using synthetic, man-made degradable polymer particles containing proteins specific to the pathogen to essentially trick the immune system into thinking it’s dealing with those pathogens so it mounts a potent immune response,” Narasimhan explains.

In the end, Narasimhan hopes the group’s efforts make vaccines more accessible. That might mean single-dose vaccines that can be self-administered. Or it could be vaccines that don’t have to be refrigerated, which would cut costs in half. Or maybe it’s a combination of those things and more.

“For these sorts of advancements to be made, we really need to operate in a cross-disciplinary setting,” Narasimhan says. “We need to be open to embracing ideas from other fields, as collaborating with experts gives us an advantage to develop better vaccines and with more efficiency.”

Reducing the cost of wind energy

laflammeSensing skin monitors structural health of wind turbine blades, giving insight into needed repairs

An inexpensive polymer that can detect damage on large-scale surfaces could be pivotal in making wind energy a more affordable alternative energy option.

The material, which is made into 3-inch square pieces, is a nanocomposite elastomeric capacitor fabricated from a dielectric layer sandwiched between two painted conductive layers. When the skin is placed on a surface, engineers can measure its capacitance, or stored electrical charge, to make inferences about any changes in geometry taking place on that surface.

Simon Laflamme says using this material on large-scale structures, such as wind turbines, could mean making less expensive, condition-based repairs when small cracks and other deformities appear instead of incurring the high cost of maintenance on a fixed time interval or after a breakdown, which may necessitate the replacement of huge components, like an entire turbine blade.

Laflamme, assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, has been developing the sensing skin since he was a student at MIT. While he didn’t originally plan on the skin being used on wind turbines, he says it’s a great application.

That’s because current structural health monitoring of wind turbine blades can’t be done in real-time on a continuous basis. “The turbines have to be physically inspected, and this usually happens only once or twice a year. By the time inspectors get to a blade, it could have sustained too much significant damage to do minor repairs,” Laflamme explains.

Once it’s adhered to a surface, the sensing skin would act as an indicator, automatically telling engineers to inspect a blade if something unusual happens. Over time, a pattern of how blades deteriorate emerges, providing insight into better maintenance plans for wind turbines, which could extend the life of the blades, as well as provide new ideas for future blade designs.

All of these factors come together in what is called an automated condition assessment. “The sensing skin is integral in capturing the entire lifecycle of blades as changes happen rather than through the reverse inspection that is used today,” Laflamme adds.

His research has become truly multidisciplinary. The skin itself is produced in collaboration with the materials science and engineering department, but it also has ties with electrical and computer engineering for designing cost-effective data acquisition systems. Additionally, various efforts have been undertaken with aerospace engineering and several centers on Iowa State’s Campus, including the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation and the Bridge Engineering Center.

Laflamme says an approach that brings in different ideas is absolutely necessary. “It’s the way modern problems are going to have to be solved. We have to share insight to create the best solution,” he explains.

He adds that he appreciates being able to bring this perspective to the undergraduate and graduate students working on the research project. “We have at least 12 students who are getting a sense of how valuable multidisciplinary engineering is, and they are truly enjoying the experience,” Laflamme says. “Integrating the concept into their education means it becomes a natural way of thinking for the next wave of engineers in industry, and that’s going
to mean big things for what’s to come.”