Accepting the Challenge
Two years ago, the National Science Foundation tasked the U.S. National Academy of Engineering to determine the most significant issues facing today’s society. The academy developed its “Grand Challenges for Engineering” — a list of 14 — with the help of an international panel of engineers and scientists.
The National Academy of Engineering experts panel determined that in four broad realms of human concern — sustainability (S), health (H), vulnerability (V) and joy of living (J) — specific challenges await engineering solutions.
Since then, engineers and scientists from around the country and abroad have held conferences and started research related to the challenges.
Ohio State engineering faculty, students and alumni, along with colleagues from other disciplines, are working to solve these challenges. Some they’ve been developing for years; others they’ve just begun exploring. Here are some of their successes so far:
S: Make solar energy economical: Solar energy provides less than 1 percent of the world’s total energy, but it has the potential to provide much, much more. Ohio State researchers, in collaboration with a team led by Replex Plastics in Mount Vernon, Ohio, are developing a low-concentration, low-cost photovoltaic array to produce solar energy. The project is intended to reduce the cost of photovoltaics by substituting most of the large surface area of a solar panel with relatively inexpensive optics. The design utilizes compound parabolic concentrators, or CPCs, which concentrate sunlight rays at 7 to 10 times their intensity onto silicon solar cells. Heat sinks passively cool the cells and at the same time serve as structural components. The optics design also has a wide angle of acceptance and, unlike high concentration (about 500 times the intensity) designs, should work well in the sunlight conditions of mid-northern latitudes. At Ohio State, the primary collaborator is Bob Davis, director of the Nanotech West Lab, co-director of the Ohio Wright Center for Photovoltaics and adjunct associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Ohio State is testing commercially available cells, performing materials tests and developing a silicon cell fabrication process tailored for the project. The project is funded by Ohio Third Frontier with matching funds from Replex and Ohio State and also includes support from Dovetail Solar and Wind in Athens, Ohio; the Edison Welding Institute; and a collaborator at Case Western Reserve University. The Replex engineering team includes mechanical engineering alumna Kara Shell, a key participant in the 2009 Ohio State Solar Decathlon Team who joined Replex this year.
S: Provide energy from fusion: Human-engineered fusion has been demonstrated on a small scale. The challenge is to scale up the process to commercial proportions, in an efficient, economical, and environmentally benign way. Nuclear fusion could be the basis of a new means of generating electricity that is easily controlled and safe, free of hard nuclear waste products, and that does not pollute the atmosphere. “It is hard to achieve fusion. Two nuclei need to get close enough to each other to ‘stick’ together, and nature does not easily permit this,” says Douglass Schumacher, associate professor of physics. The High Energy Density Physics group at Ohio State is studying how the energy in an intense laser beam can be converted to high energy electrons. These electrons may allow the researchers to drive the fusion reaction using a smaller laser system. “For fusion to become practical, it needs to become easier to achieve,” Schumacher says. Doctoral student Vladimir Ovchinnikov recently led an experiment with collaborators to study how severely these electrons diverge away from their target. G. Elijah Kemp, also a doctoral student, has discovered a new way to measure the plasma that surrounds a target during experiments like the one Ovchinnikov undertook. Lack of knowledge about this plasma is a major impediment to progress in this field. The High Energy Density Physics group is led by Schumacher, physics Professor Rick Freeman and Linn van Woerkom, professor of physics and associate provost and director of the University Honors & Scholars Center. It also includes two computer science and engineering students, Alex Barbur and Serge Borysov, and two mechanical engineering students, Will Morgan and Rosa Nemec, who are working on development of a high-power laser facility related to the group’s research.
S: Develop carbon sequestration methods: Engineers are working on ways to capture and store excess carbon dioxide to prevent global warming. Since 2002, Ohio State engineering alumna Danielle Meggyesy has been involved in carbon sequestration work at Battelle and now as a partner in Peregrine Solutions LLC in Granville, Ohio. Meggyesy, who received her master’s degree in civil engineering in 2001, worked with Battelle scientists on the world’s first fully integrated carbon capture and storage installation at a coal-fired power plant, AEP’s Mountaineer facility in West Virginia. In charge of overseeing construction and completion of injection and monitoring wells for a portion of the Mountaineer Plant demonstration project, she led a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and technicians for geologic and reservoir testing and data collection, operational field oversight, and real-time cost tracking of a nearly $14 million budget. In late 2009, the project became operational. The chilled ammonia process, patented by Alstom Power, is designed to capture and store approximately 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, removing 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from flue gas from a 20-megawatt electric portion of the plant. AEP and partners, including the U.S. Department of Energy, now are working to expand the process for commercialization. Testing the feasibility of carbon capture and storage methods is important, Meggysey says, because of concerns about carbon release caused by humans and its possible effects on the environment. “Carbon capture and storage is one possible tool for reducing emissions and, as such, the pros and cons need to be understood more thoroughly,” she says.
S: Manage the nitrogen cycle: Engineers can help restore balance to the nitrogen cycle with better fertilization technologies and by capturing and recycling waste. Water table management systems developed and tested by Ohio State researchers have significantly reduced excessive nitrogen discharge from Ohio farm fields. Larry Brown, a professor of food, agricultural and biological engineering, has been studying these systems for more than 20 years in collaboration with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. He explains that excessive amounts ofnitrogen and phosphorus, fertilizers and crop nutrients lost mainly from cropland (but also from lawns, golf courses, failing septic systems, etc.), can cause surface water quality problems such as excessive growth of aquatic plants and hypoxia, or low oxygen, in Lake Erie and as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. In agricultural water recycling systems the team developed in Fulton, Defiance, Van Wert and Champaign counties in Ohio, Brown is assessing benefits including greater crop yields, additional wetland habitat and decreased flooding potential downstream as well as the reductions in the amount of nutrients, pesticides and sediment discharged into local waterways. The systems, called Wetland Reservoir Subirrigation Systems, feature constructed wetlands that collect runoff and subsurface drainage. Natural processes allow the wetlands to partially treat the water through removal of nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus; pesticides; and sediment. The water is then routed to storage reservoirs, and subsurface pipes allow for drainage or irrigation of crop roots. Hydraulic control structures regulate the surface water levels in the wetlands and shallow ground water levels in soil while limiting offsite discharge. “Our long-term plot research and field work shows that we can reduce nitrate-nitrogen loads by up to 50 percent,” Brown says. He also is conducting water management project work in Uganda, South Africa, China and India.
S: Provide access to clean water: The world's water supplies are facing new threats; affordable, advanced technologies could make a difference for millions of people around the world. As manufacturers broaden the use of nanoparticles in new materials, engineers are increasing their research into the environmental fate and dispersal of these particles in aquatic systems and their ease of removal during water treatment. Civil and environmental engineering faculty John Lenhart and Harold Walker study silver nanoparticles, which because of their antimicrobial properties are widely used in products such as textiles, food containers, home appliances and even dietary supplements and already have been discharged as waste into sources of fresh water. Scientists know that ionic silver is toxic to micro-organisms when it dissolves in solutions, but they have yet to determine the risks of nanoscale silver. “We are testing this with water from the Olentangy River now,” Lenhart says. “Next summer we will use water from Lake Erie.” Lenhart and Walker determined that, when exposed to various kinds of naturally occurring salt ions in NaCl, NaNO3 and CaCl2 in fresh water, the silver nanoparticles become unstable, aggregate and settle out of the water as sediment, posing a risk to organisms that live and feed there. “We also are looking at different ways of preparing silver nanoparticles, which will result in the particles having different surface properties,” Lenhart says, “to determine whether that will affect the environmental fate of the particles.” Results of these studies will assist policymakers in establishing regulations for waste discharge of nanoparticles into the environment.
H: Advance health informatics: Stronger health information systems not only improve everyday medical visits but are essential to counter pandemics and biological or chemical attacks. To help doctors and researchers retrieve and analyze information for large numbers of patients, Preethi Raghavan is applying natural language computer processing techniques to clinical narratives to extract information of interest. By generating longitudinal health records that include a coherent chronology of events for given patients, the medical community can, for instance, more efficiently use such data to improve patient care, medical education and health sciences research, explains Raghavan, a doctoral student in computer science and engineering. Automatically analyzing such varying clinical narratives, which include admission information, progress notes and radiology and pathology reports, is a challenging task that requires Raghavan to use significant linguistic analysis and medical knowledge. She is developing computer algorithms with techniques from natural language processing, a computerized approach to analyzing text; machine learning, which allows computers to evolve behaviors based on empirical data; and temporal reasoning, or automatic reasoning and drawing inferences from data related to events and time. She works on the project with faculty members Albert Lai, biomedical informatics, and Eric Fosler-Lussier and Chris Brew, both computer science and engineering and linguistics. A critical aspect of the work includes determining an accurate representation for the temporal information in the text to facilitate reasoning and further processing. “We also investigate automatically resolving overlapping mentions of the same event within and across clinical narratives,” Raghavan says. “Another aspect we focus on is accurately modeling the inherent uncertainty of the time-based information to ensure effective information retrieval. Finally, we would like to integrate the list of obtained events across all clinical narratives with structured data such as laboratory results.”
H: Engineer better medicines: Engineers are developing new systems to use genetic information, sense small changes in the body, assess new drugs, and deliver vaccines. Jeffrey Chalmers, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Analytical Cytometry Shared Resource at the Ohio State Comprehensive Cancer Center and James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, conducts research in bioprocessing with applications in biotechnology and medicine. His latest work expands his success in isolating head and neck cancer patients’ circulating tumor cells, which travel in the blood stream and can help with diagnosis, prognosis and treatment monitoring of cancer patients. “We rupture the red blood cells and, using antibodies, make the normal cells magnetic so we can remove those with the goal of isolating the cancer cells that remain for further testing,” explains Chalmers, who conducts the research with Ohio State and Cleveland Clinic medical experts. His pilot study has shown that patients with no detectable circulating tumor cells have a significantly higher probability of disease-free survival at a mean overall follow-up of 19 months. As part of a National Cancer Institute-approved study of the effectiveness of an experimental two-drug treatment of a type of breast cancer, Chalmers now is using his magnetic cell separation technology to isolate the circulating tumor cells and determine if the treatment is having the expected molecular effect. Columbus-based Ward Engineering is commercializing Chalmers’ technology, which is licensed to its spinoff, PreCelleon. The businesses are owned by Ohio State mechanical engineering alumnus Tom Ward, who also serves on the advisory board for the college’s mechanical engineering department.
H: Reverse-engineer the brain: The intersection of engineering and neuroscience promises great advances in health care, manufacturing, and communication. Electrical and computer engineering professors Yuan F. Zheng and David Orin are senior investigators for a $6 million federal grant to advance the U.S. study of humanoids, robots engineered to mimic human form and motion and used for research such as mechanical control, artificial intelligence and power systems. Ohio State is one of eight universities participating in the five-year project to develop a common open platform instrument that will result in knowledge and best practices, and perhaps standardization, for humanoid robotics research. The work, led by Drexel University, is funded by the National Science Foundation. In early 2012, Ohio State is expected to receive a world-class, adult-sized humanoid unit, HUBO, for the research efforts. “We will design new algorithms to make HUBO more powerful for fast and dynamic locomotion,” Zheng says of the Ohio State role. Building upon HUBO, developed at the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, researchers will create an enhanced research platform (HUBO+), consisting of six units, the world’s first homogenous full-sized humanoid team, with capabilities for sensing, manipulation and rapid locomotion.
V: Restore and improve urban infrastructure: Good design and advanced materials can improve transportation and energy, water, and waste systems, and also create more sustainable urban environments. Cities across the U.S. are facing billion-dollar capital improvement projects to decrease sewer and stormwater that enters rivers and streams. Jay Martin, an associate professor of ecological engineering, is working in collaboration with other Ohio State engineers and scientists, the Central Ohio Rain Garden Initiative and the city of Westerville, Ohio, to create an alternative to costly infrastructure projects by using rain gardens that promote infiltration rather than directing stormwater to sewer systems or streams. Rain gardens are a low-cost and low-maintenance technology that is very effective at reducing stormwater runoff, which can spread pollutants into sources of drinking water. With funding from the Ohio Water Development Authority, Martin’s team is quantifying rain garden effectiveness at the watershed scale by installing 20 rain gardens in Westerville. Downspout gardens will capture water from residential roofs, and streetside gardens will capture stormwater from curbs. By studying and understanding how to most effectively position and size rain gardens to capture stormwater, the collaborative effort will provide municipalities with evidence for a cost-effective approach to reduce sewer overflows into streams and rivers. Martin and his colleagues have already developed a preliminary model to simulate the impact of rain gardens on stormwater reduction; validation of the model with the Westerville project will provide results to predict the impact of rain gardens at other locations.
V: Prevent nuclear terror: The need for technologies to prevent and respond to a nuclear attack is growing. The worldwide expansion of domestic nuclear energy programs to produce carbon-free electricity increases the risk of countries in unstable regions gaining technologies to produce nuclear weapon materials. Lei (Raymond) Cao, assistant professor of nuclear engineering, and his students have established a Nuclear Analysis and Radiation Sensor Lab to advance technologies for detecting nuclear weapon or other radiological material. A primary initiative of Cao’s laboratory involves the development of alternative instrumentation for the detection of neutrons, which are emitted from nuclear materials such as plutonium when examined by a neutron or gamma source. The type of detector currently used relies on an interaction between neutrons and helium-3 gas, a byproduct of the nuclear weapons program. However, because the U.S. is no longer producing weapons materials, the availability of the gas has decreased while demand for it has increased. Cao’s team is working to develop a gallium nitride (GaN)-based semiconductor neutron detector that can remove the effect of gamma-ray background noise, indicate the direction from which the radiation was emitted, and determine the energy of the neutrons, which is an indication of their source. “The bright blue LED using GaN is making the LED industry boom,” says Cao. “It would be fascinating if we could turn a blue LED into a neutron detector.” This year Cao received a $200,000 Young Investigator Award (funds pending) from the U.S. Department of Defense and a $450,000 faculty development grant from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to support his research.
V: Secure cyberspace: It's more than preventing identity theft. Critical systems in banking, national security, and physical infrastructure may be at risk. U.S. Department of Defense-funded research by David Lee, professor, and doctoral student Wenjie Lin in computer science and engineering has new results on Internet attack traceback technology for military and government applications. Most technologies in development to trace attacks to the original source require universal deployment of tracking systems, Internet service provider support and substantial overhead on Internet systems. Consequently, none performs well in a non-cooperative or hostile network environment, particularly in foreign countries, says Lee, who directs the university’s Center of Academic Excellence for Information Assurance Education, designated by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security. “We investigate a new approach of Internet attack traceback for identifying the original attack source. For this, we invented a new type of software, called pebbleware, that conducts an end-to-end traceback approach from a victim all the way back to the attacker’s machine,” Lee says. “This scheme enables us to trace back automatically to the original source of attack while its operation is well disguised. It is designed to perform in non-cooperative and hostile network environments without any support by the Internet service provider or overhead on Internet systems.” Once the software system is completed in 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense will decide whether to commercialize it for government applications.
J: Enhance virtual reality: True virtual reality creates the illusion of actually being in a different space. It can be used for training, treatment, and communication. A research team at Ohio State is advancing computer simulation as a more realistic and less costly alternative to cadaver training for medical residents. The researchers are continuing work begun in 2000 to develop a simulator for practicing surgeries on the temporal bone, which is located at the lower sides of the head and protects the hearing and balance organs. Dr. Gregory Wiet, associate professor of otolaryngology and biomedical informatics, has received funding for the project from the National Institutes of Health and leads the team members, including Thomas Kerwin, a doctoral candidate in computer science and engineering, and his advisor, associate professor Han-Wei Shen; and Don Stredney, a research scientist in biomedical applications at the Ohio Supercomputer Center. Kerwin, a graphics programmer developing the program’s software with Brad Hittle, a 2005 computer science and engineering alumnus and research software engineer at the Ohio Supercomputer Center, added a novel advancement of blood and fluid simulation to the program. The simulator also includes haptic, or touch, feedback, as well as simulated sounds of the surgical equipment. In addition, Kerwin uses volumetric rendering, taking stacks of 2-D X-ray pictures to create a 3-D image, with varying levels of opacity to illustrate a surgical trajectory through layers of the temporal bone and show its spatial relationships to other parts of the body. The research team is conducting trials with medical students to test the effectiveness of the simulator for training.
J: Advance personalized learning: Instruction can be individualized based on learning styles, speeds, and interests to make learning more reliable. When Kate Fisher wanted to integrate sustainability into her engineering degree curriculum, she couldn’t find a class that fit her needs. So she designed her own. Fisher, a junior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in integrated systems engineering with minors in psychology and entrepreneurship, created a sustainability seminar with help from Phil Schlosser, a college lecturer and three-time engineering alumnus of Ohio State. Fisher wants to dispel the old mentality that emphasizes producing products and services that are meant to take care of mankind but that in actuality end up hurting both mankind and the Earth in the long run. By learning sustainable solutions to everyday problems, she hopes, engineers, scientists and citizens can better care for themselves and the world they live in. “In order for our future to truly be successful, everyone should have some idea about how the environment works and how it can be directly affected by the work we will all be doing someday,” says Fisher, who plans to graduate in 2012. She is coordinating the seminar for a second quarter and working to get it approved as a permanent class at Ohio State.
J: Engineer the tools of scientific discovery: In the century ahead, engineers will continue to be partners with scientists in the great quest for understanding many unanswered questions of nature. Chia-Hsiang Menq, a professor of mechanical engineering, and collaborators from the College of Medicine at Ohio State are developing innovative technologies, including various probing systems and force sensing methodologies, to increase scientists’ understanding of how cells, such as metastasized cancer tumor cells, sense and react to surrounding mechanical force. In tumor metastasis, cells break out from their primary site and travel through the blood vessels to form secondary tumors. During the process, tumor cells are continuously exposed to various physical forces. The mechanical behavior of these cells and the nature of the physical stimulation they are subjected to are important for the cancer cells’ survival. A challenge to understanding this process, however, is the development of instruments that can measure mechanical properties of live cells and their adaptation to physiological and pathological stimuli. Menq and Younkoo Jeong, a postdoctoral researcher, have developed a dynamic-mode atomic force microscope that can scan very soft samples, such as live cells. The microscope’s measurement probe is a specially designed micro-cantilever equipped with a very sharp tip and a magnetic actuator that is precisely controlled to tap the cell surface gently at high speed, determining the force and the deformation of the cellular surface in real time. Menq’s team is using this innovative instrument to investigate the mechanical property of metastatic breast cancer cells.