While smart phones have been the bane of many professors’ existence–with students surreptitiously texting and checking Facebook during class–the director of the Swalm School of Chemical Engineering has found a way to incorporate them into a core class.
Jason Keith, working with computer engineering majors John Gazzini and Reed Spraybery, has created “Heat Transfer for Students,” a free iPhone app that will help students better understand how thermal energy is transferred.
“If I’m writing equations on the board during class, students can get really bored,” Keith explained. “They punch numbers into the calculator to get the answer but they don’t actually understand heat transfer.
“You have to take a step back and do some analysis to figure that part out and the app gives you the functionality to do that.”
Through its simple interface, the app allows users to input variables and create a simulation of heat conduction in a solid material. Keith said this virtual experiment helps students understand how heat transfer really works.
The app has been downloaded more than 2,000 times and inspired an academic paper and presentation. Keith said he hopes this is just the first of many apps to help bring chemical engineering education into the 21st century.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities in many of the core chemical engineering classes for applications like this,” Keith said.
Human Health Enhancement
R.E.M. sang, “Stand in the place where you work.” Now, 25 years after the song’s release, BCoE industrial engineers agree. Stand where you work. It’s good for you.
Standing workstations may have positive effects on overall health, according to Kari Babski-Reeves and Lesley Strawderman, associate professors and human factors and ergonomics researchers.
“When a person maintains a static posture for an extended period of time, they experience a great amount of muscle fatigue and discomfort,” Strawderman said. “The body was made to move, which is one of the greatest advantages of standing workstations. They force you to adjust your posture and not sit in the same position for an entire workday. This type of dynamic movement encourages blood flow and decreases fatigue.”
Strawderman stressed that changing office furniture isn’t enough to create an effective standing station. In addition to purchasing or building a standing desk, the user needs to make certain it is set-up to compliment his or her physiology.
For maximum comfort and efficiency, the researchers suggest users position the computer monitor slightly below eye level, place the keyboard slightly below elbow height and stand on an anti-fatigue mat with their feet under the table.
“It’s all about customizing your work space for you,” Strawderman said. “After all, no two people are exactly alike.”
Information and Decision Systems
Random projection for dimensionality reduction—this long phrase summarizes research that will lead to the development of tiny sensors that are energy efficient and cheap to produce.
The idea is to create an imaging process employing a single sensor to capture millions of measurements that represent an image. Jim Fowler, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing the tools that will allow those numbers to become scientifically relevant representations.
“If a sensor acquires measurements that each span the entire spectral range, you no longer have an understandable representation of the image, just a bunch of numbers,” Fowler said. “I’m working on the ground systems that will reconstruct those images to access the valuable data they contain.”
The research is funded by a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant meant to spur the development of fundamental algorithms. Fowler said the data recovered from this program will benefit a variety of fields including defense and agriculture.
“We’re dealing with the theoretical, which is how a lot of engineering goes,” Fowler said. “You have to put the theory into place and years later it will show up in practice. You have to have solid theory—an understanding of what is possible—to generate practical applications.”
Materials Science and Engineering
Oliver Myers is working to make composite structures last longer. Using the natural properties of embedded magnetostrictive materials, he is identifying ways to sense damage that occurs within the structure during its lifetime.
“We’re looking at how these materials, and the products they are used in, can be in service for longer periods of time,” Myers said. “The data we are collecting will lead to better designed composites to save time and money, which is always the bottom line.”
Myers explained that this kind of information could be very helpful to the aerospace and automotive industries by allowing them to determine when damage will occur and how it will affect the system and life of the structure.
“We have data to show that it is functional. Now we need to show that it is consistent and determine how this embedded sensor material affects the strength of the structure,” the assistant professor in mechanical engineering said.
Other areas of Myers’ work include NASA-funded research with professor Judy Schneider to characterize friction stir welding and an Army-related project to develop piezoelectric morphing structures. These structures use electric currents to change the shape of a structure without the added weight and maintenance of additional mechanisms on an unmanned aerial vehicle.
Transportation and Vehicular Systems
Sandra Eksioglu is helping engineer transportation systems that make possible the mass production of biofuels. Using mathematical models, she optimizes the design and management of the biomass supply chain to reduce the economic and environmental costs of biofuels.
“The first step in designing biofuel supply chains is to understand the physical characteristics of the products that flow through this system,” Eksioglu said. “We collaborate with other groups on campus, such as chemical and agricultural engineers, to understand the different types of biomass and biofuels.”
The models Eksioglu develops integrate into the supply-chain planning and operational decisions, including facility location, mode of transportation, inventory management, and production scheduling. The results help developers identify assets, understand the trade-off between choices and make informed decisions.
The associate professor of industrial and systems engineering began this research in 2006. Her work has since expanded and will continue through 2016 with funding from a National Science Foundation CAREER award.
“Biofuels are not the only source of renewable energy,” Eksioglu said. “New products will continue to be developed to meet our needs. Each new product has unique characteristics that should be considered when designing the necessary supply chains. We are ready for the challenges of the work in front of us.”
Water and the Environment
Assistant civil engineering professor Veera Gnaneswar Gude has a solution to some of the world’s environmental woes. It’s there in the lab, a slimy green ooze. Algae that is. Green gold. Renewable energy.
Working with undergraduate and graduate students, Gude is overseeing three projects involving algae.
Doctoral student Edith Martinez-Guerra and graduate student Sara Fast are working to produce biodiesel from oil extracted from the plant. Doctoral student Bahareh Kokabian and junior Jing Liao are developing a process that uses the green stuff to generate electricity. But, it’s the work of senior Matthew Blair that will make large-scale use of those projects possible.
Blair is working to identify a mix of nutrients that will allow for cost-effective algae farming that will enable widespread use of the plant’s byproducts.
“The concentration of nutrients and growth medium needed to produce algae cost a lot of money,” Gude explained. “If we can develop growing and processing techniques that use fewer resources, we can make the process economical so that algae can be a viable option for energy production.”
Gude said that, in addition to producing high-value bio-products, algae also is a natural environment scrubber because it can remove carbon dioxide and waste products from its surroundings.
Each of the projects has received funding from Mississippi State. The Environmental Protection Agency recently has funded a microwave/ultrasonic reactor project that will facilitate the removal of oil from algae.