ELLC provides an advantageous community for first-year engineering students

Saving Humpty Dumpty – ELLC Egg Drop. If only Humpty Dumpty had engineering students instead of all the king’s horses and men. Last Saturday, students from CEM’s Engineering Living Learning Community (ELLC) participated in the 2nd Annual ELLC Egg Drop Competition. Students placed eggs in protective constructions they built then threw them from the top of UND’s parking ramp. ELLC Faculty advisor and Assistant Professor Dr. Joel Ness calculated students’ scores based on adherence to the rules, if the vehicle fell within target zone, and creativity. Ness also awarded additional points to those who used engineering theory in their construction. After the competition, all competitors came down from the parking ramp to McVey Hall Director Abbey Lane who announced, “I have three prizes and bubble wrap for fourth place!” The winners were Kyle Scott in first place, Hannah Gombold in second, Josh Hoernemann in third, and Bridget Heiland in fourth.

ELLC provides an advantageous community for first-year engineering students

Students were given a set of rules to follow when designing their “drop vehicle”. The structure must be smaller than 1′ x 1′ x 1′. No breakable or hazardous materials can be used in the construction. “Last year, everybody used parachutes or balloons and none of the eggs were breaking”, said Lane, so this year, no parachutes or balloons allowed. Finally, the egg must be placed in the drop vehicle at the start of the event, not prior. After following all these rules, students had the opportunity to gain bonus points if 1) their structure is reusable and functional after the 1st fall and 2) if their structure can protect more than one egg at a time.

ELLC (McVey Hall floors 3 and 4) provides an advantageous community for first-year engineering students. Students have access to in-hall tutoring and on average receive a higher GPA than engineering students living elsewhere. Lane says being surrounded by RAs and peers who take the same or similar classes gives students easy access to assistance and helps to build community. In addition to the student community, ELLC coordinates monthly dinners with Engineering faculty and staff. These events and others outside the classroom setting allow students to network with their teachers on a more personal level.

What Happens in Vegas

To round off spring break, UND’s Mechanical Engineering department took a team of sophomores to Las Vegas to compete in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Student Design Competition. Dominic Todd, Austin Kilene, Isaiah Klingfus, Nick O’Reilly, Kevin Kilbride, Jared Hibbison, and their coach Dustin McNally took 2nd place, landing them a spot at ASME’s International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in the fall. This year, competitors designed a robot to complete a Pentathlon.

The robot must lift a weight, throw a tennis ball, hit a golf ball, sprint 10 meters, and climb stairs. “UND was neck and neck with Colorado School of Mines on many events, but they had an issue on the Throw”, said McNally. The team took first in the sprint and golf ball hit, second in the stair climb and weight lift, and fourth in the throw. Of the 12 teams at the Western US competition, UND is one of two teams invited to compete against other finalists (from Eastern US and Asia Pacific) at the IMECE in Tampa, FL in November.

An Alien Visits UND

Just the other day, an alien arrived at UND. An 86-pound meteorite, brought by its owner for classification, spent an hour and a half in the Harold Hamm School of Geology and Geological Engineering. A small slice (left) was cut from it with a diamond blade. This piece remains at the school; the rest of the extraterrestrial returned home with its owner. Over the next nine months, Justin Germann will classify the meteorite for his senior thesis. Germann is an undergraduate studying geology at UND. He explains how The Colgate, named for where the meteorite was first found, is made of rusted and non-rusted metals; finding the ratio of metals will help researchers to know where in the solar system The Colgate formed. “This rock is definitely older than any rock found on earth. I’m humbled to be classifying it.” Germann hopes to have his classification published on the national list of meteorites as the “largest meteorite found in North Dakota.” He will graduate in December 2017.

In an interview with WDAZ, Associate Professor Jaakko Putkonen also talked about The Colgate. He explained the importance of meteorites. Classifying meteorites helps researchers to know if the pieces found came from the same meteorite. When entering the Earth’s atmosphere, meteorites break into pieces and fall to the ground “like packages that came from the postal service from way back when”, says Putkonen. Once enough pieces are found, scientists can begin to guess the size of the original meteor. (left: Putkonen and Germann interview with WDAZ) Why should anyone care about meteorites now? Putkonen explains they are falling all the time and sometimes very large meteors make it through the atmosphere and to the ground, “like the one that killed the dinosaurs” and the Red Wing Creek crater (5.6 miles across) in western North Dakota. Rocks of that size hitting the Earth cause a substantial amount of damage.

Having a meteorite to hold and examine is not something everyone experiences. Putkonen says, “you feel like you’re in touch with the cosmos”. He explains, meteorites are not rare; finding them is rare. If you do find them, they are very valuable, but they look normal until you pick them up. “If you hold it long enough, you’ll start levitating. Well, that’s not scientific”, he said, laughing. The amount of iron in them makes them heavier than regular rocks. You can find them anywhere; you just have to be diligent. Putkonen says the best place to find meteorites is in Antarctica. Expeditions are sent every year to collect pieces for classification. More information on meteorites in North Dakota can be found in Meteorites in North Dakota published by the North Dakota Geological Survey.

UND Mechanical Engineering Professor named Expert by Government Accountability Office

Of planes, trains and things that fall down UND’s Master of Disaster, George Bibel, tapped by Congress to be subject matter expert on new rules for oil train brakes. George Bibel. UND Mechanical Engineering Professor George Bibel was recently consulted by the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for the U.S. Congress, as a subject matter expert in a report on new rules mandating electronic brakes on crude-oil trains. George Bibel likes to make complicated things simple. “I really like simple explanations of things,” said Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering, industry consultant and international media expert on plane crashes and train wrecks.

He became interested in them while working to make his lectures more interesting, and his research has led to three oft-cited books. “I like to tell stories,” Bibel said. “Freshman physics students learn about a cart rolling down a ramp. That’s boring. But a runaway train that ends in disaster? They can connect the dots.” His students learn, Bibel said, to connect mechanical engineering principles to extreme examples, such as engineering disasters like plane crashes and train wrecks. His engineering disasters course attracts aerospace students as well as mechanical engineers, and is taken occasionally by civil and electrical engineering students. What Bible finds equally gratifying is when professional engineers recognize his expertise. He was recently consulted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for the U.S. Congress, as a subject matter expert in a new report to Congress titled “Train Braking.” The study was specific to oil trains, and discusses new rules mandating electronic brakes on crude oil trains.

“Many issues today are the same that occurred in the late 19th century when they first tried to use automatic air brakes on trains,” said Bibel. “Because it was unsafe to mix automatic air brake cars with non-automatic, it took decades to convert freight cars to automatic. They have a similar problem today mixing electronic brakes with air-braked cars.” His expertise is valuable as communities across the region and the nation wrestle with safety questions and the potential hazards of petroleum-hauling trains carrying volatile commodities quietly through populated areas multiple times a day.

Wrecks are rare. Planes and trains are extremely safe, Bibel said. “They’re safer than driving.” And crashes and wrecks are rare: “That’s what makes them interesting,” he said. “It’s not a message on lack of safety.” Bibel’s ability to explain complicated disasters in a simple way has attracted national and international attention. He’s frequently interviewed by national media, including all cable news networks, The New York Times, National Public Radio, The New York Post, Popular Science, Scientific American, and radio stations in large markets. He wrote an article, “Listen Up and Fly Right,” which was printed in The New York Times and reprinted in international newspapers.

His books are often read in the industry. Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes was developed into a training seminar presented to Boeing Co. three times. That book begins with the 1931 plane crash that killed legendary football coach Knute Rockne, and looks at plane crash investigations to determine why planes fall from the sky. One interesting takeaway: the “black box” that records pilot activity is actually orange, and there are two of them. They contain the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, vital in analyzing airplane crashes. His second book, Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters, also received national attention. It focuses on runaway trains, bearing failures, metal fatigue, crash testing, the dynamics of collisions, and bad rails. “I start the book by apologizing to the industry,” Bibel said. “Most trains don’t crash and are very safe.”

Another book. He is currently working on his third book, which focuses on airline disasters and is co-written with a certified Boeing/Airbus pilot. Bibel earned his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in 1987 and his master’s degree from the University of Michigan. He began his engineering career at Standard Oil Co., now BP (British Petroleum), and was promoted to head of the pressure vessel, piping and tankage group before working at NASA Lewis as a university researcher and summer faculty fellow. A consultant with Boeing, United Technologies and now the GAO, Bibel has been invited to speak at NASA, the Seattle Museum of Flight, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, the International Council of Aeronautical Sciences in Australia, the National Society of Professional Engineers, and many other academies and educational institutions. Although Bibel likes to figure out how to make complicated things simple, sometimes things truly are complicated. And that’s given him fodder for his books. “Aerospace really is rocket science,” Bibel said. “It can be hard to figure out simple explanations.”

UND Chemical Engineers part of U.S – China research collaboration

International NSF project could help reduce CO2 emissions from power plants. University of North Dakota Chemical Engineers Wayne Seames and Gautham Krishnamoorthy are co-principal investigators on a recently awarded international research grant to study barriers associated with oxy-biomass and oxy-coal combustion technologies and their impacts on producing electricity and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering Wayne Seams (left) and UND’s Ann and Norm Hoffman Associate Professor of National Defense/Energetics Gautham Krishnamoorthy.

This four-year, $1-million project is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and the National Science Foundation of China. The overall objective is to provide information to enable implementation of oxy-combustion of biomass and biomass-coal blends for power generation from power plants.  It’s a collaboration of the University of Utah (U.S. lead organization), UND, Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST – the Chinese lead organization) and Southeastern University (China). Seames is a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at UND, while Krishnamoorthy is the Ann and Norm Hoffman Associate Professor of National Defense/Energetics. Both men are faculty members in the UND College of Engineering and Mines. UND’s primary role in the international NSF project is to carry out numerical simulations to compliment the experiments carried out at partner institutions.

The science

In oxy-combustion, oxygen is separated out of air prior to its use in a steam boiler. This generates a nearly pure CO2 flue gas that is easy to reuse or sequester since the CO2 doesn’t have to be separated from nitrogen. The issue here is the “nearly pure” part of the flue gas. A portion of the CO2 is recycled back to the boiler because burning biomass or coal with pure oxygen generates temperatures that are too high for current boiler materials. However, replacing nitrogen with CO2 affects fuel combustion characteristics and ultimately influences burnout and ash deposition. Further, contaminants build up on boiler tubes, reducing heat transfer efficiency and causing corrosion.

This technology is attractive because it can simultaneously produce electricity and remove CO2from the atmosphere, using  conventional equipment.  But the technology requires a knowledge of ash deposition and heat transfer under biomass oxy-combustion conditions, which are the twin thrusts of this research. The team aims to (1) uncover deposition mechanisms and validate predictions of ash deposition rates and (2) understand how these impact boiler chamber radiation. The project also explores the use of pressurized combustion systems.

These proposed next generation systems may result in increased thermal efficiencies and reduced pollution rates compared to conventional combustors. Relationships matter. The groundwork for this partnership was laid nearly three years ago when Seames participated in a joint U.S.-Chinese workshop focused on sustainable combustion technologies.  At the workshop, Seames met Minghou Xu from HUST and they agreed to collaborate on future proposals. Xu was already collaborating with Utah’s Jost Wendt, who was Seames’ doctoral research advisor in the 1990s. They agreed to team up to develop the project.

Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Organizes a Three-day Symposium at the 252nd ACS National Meeting

Dr. Feng ‘Frank’ Xiao, a Civil Engineering Assistant Professor, will attend the 252nd ACS National Meeting (Philadelphia, August 21-25 2016) where he will organize and co-chair a three-day symposium on environmental sorption and advanced oxidation processes and present a paper on the interactions between heavy metals with environmental and engineered black carbon. The ACS National Meeting is one of the largest conferences in chemistry/biology and chemical/biological/environmental engineering bringing together ~15,000 attendees including professors, scientists, postdocts, students and other professionals. Dr. Xiao’s symposium has 46 oral presentations with two keynotes and 22 invited speeches by leading scientists in the field, including the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Science on Ice: BBC Reports on Jaakko Putkonen’s Research

The Wright Valley in Antarctica, a landscape similar to where Jaakko discovered million-year-old ice. Image is courtesy of Jaakko Putkonen at the UND Harold Hamm School of Geology & Geological Engineering. This is about science on ice. And as science goes, the headline in the latest issue of the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters triggers excitement: “Million year old ice found under meter-thick debris layer in Antarctica.” It’s a report from research conducted by geomorphologist Jaakko Putkonen, director of the UND Harold Hamm School of Geology & Geological Engineering, and a team that included one of his former graduate students, Theodore Bibby, now a Ph.D. who’s teaching and researching part-time for UND.

Newsworthy? You bet! The team’s serendipitous discovery of previously unknown ice beneath a thick layer of dirt captured attention beyond the scientific community. The BBC, one of the world’s leading broadcasting companies, called Putkonen this week, wanting to know lots more about his team’s discovery in Antarctica’s dirt-covered Ong Valley and Moraine Canyon, one of the continent’s remotest—and ostensibly “ice free”—areas. Putkonen’s research team used a seriously high-tech tool to make their buried ancient ice discovery: a shovel. Putkonen, an expert in polar and high-mountain landscapes, stated earlier that the original goal of this particular research was to collect more data and more samples. The project aimed to describe changes in the Antarctic landscape over time; some of that may reflect natural climate change while other indicators may help scientists understand more about human-generated climate change as we;; as landscapes on Mars.

“As geomorphologists, our aim is to understand how the Earth’s surface evolves over time,” says Putkonen. But the team’s discovery of a buried ice layer has led to more questions about the Earth’s climatic evolution. “This glacial ice was buried under a two- to three-foot-thick layer of dirt, essentially rubble,” Putkonen said. “The ice contains bubbles of air, dust particles, pollen, and because it’s preserved under the layer of dirt, it doesn’t melt like the other ice in Antarctica, which, exposed to solar radiation, can melt at the rate of three to four inches in a year.” Mars connection. “We’re beginning to get an understanding of the Martian landscape,” Putkonen said. “And it appears that there is quite a bit of buried ice on Mars, similar to what we see in Antarctica. There’s no way to directly study those buried Martian glaciers at this point. But here on Earth we can gain an understanding of the geological processes by studying buried glaciers in Antarctica, which are the closest terrestrial analogs to those of Mars.”

Combatting Cyberattack : All in a days work

Assistant Professor Prakash Ranganathan (right) with student Eric Horton (left) holds an UAS. A UND lab is trying to make the world’s growing fleet of unmanned aircraft and electric utilities less susceptible to malicious attacks that could spell widespread for the public. You could say electrical engineer Prakash Ranganathan and his team of researchers at the University of North Dakota’s Secure Cyber Physical Systems and Data Sciences Laboratory are the elite special forces on a high-tech battlefield. It’s their job to identify vulnerabilities that make the world’s growing fleet of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and the nation’s electrical utility grid susceptible to nefarious cyberattacks. Their mission, in the end, is to protect the public from a ubiquitous and hidden foe that’s becoming more dangerous and tech-savvy every day.

Ranganathan’s efforts have been recognized by North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott, who asked the UND assistant professor to work collaboratively with University System partners on cybersecurity research as part of the chancellor’s newly unveiled Nexus ND initiative. As associate lead, Ranganathan works closely with cybersecurity initiative leader Kendall Nygard, professor of computer science at North Dakota State University. Ranganathan’s lab is on the second floor of UND’s Harrington Hall, part of the College of Engineering and Mines.

In the Air. Most recently, Ranganathan and his team have been conducting cyber-security research for private-sector partner Rockwell Collins Corp., based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The goal of the project is to build defense mechanisms, through software algorithms, that fend off cyberthreats in UAS environments. As part of this project, Eric Horton, an electrical engineering undergrad, has been investigating cyberattacks on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) datasets. GPS is the worldwide navigational and timing utility that provides accurate positioning services to publics on the move, as well as civil and defense agencies. It’s also a critical component of UAS tracking and navigation. “As an essential element of the global information infrastructure, cybersecurity of GPS faces serious challenges,” Ranganathan said.

Some important public systems even rely on GPS as a security measure, but civilian GPS, itself, has no protection against malicious acts such as “spoofing” — security breaches caused when satellite signals are altered to provide erroneous location and timing data. Ranganathan says this kind of spoofing can be a major threat to homeland security, and his research team is trying to understand the nature of these attacks and make civilian GPS more secure. “We’ve developed a means to GPS spoof (UAS) and are now looking into several methods to defend against the spoofing attacks,” he said. “Initial tests provide encouraging results.”. Ranganathan and his research team are confident that this work will accelerate the development of defense technology against GPS-based attacks. And with the help of Roger French, a UND alumnus and lead Rockwell Collins engineer on the grant project, UND researchers will be a big part of that surge.

Simulated Attacks. Part of the research collaboration with Rockwell Collins is an opportunity for UND undergraduate students to complete a capstone course in cybersecurity. Currently, Ranganathan is advising five electrical engineering students in the capstone course: Kevin Casagrande, Joshua Friederichs, Clarissa Gonzalez, Tanya Humphries and Zachary Tindell. A fun and valuable component of the capstone course is the development of a “UAS environment” that lets students experience simulated cyberattacks and defenses against them for fixed and rotary-wing UAS. The project is structured so the students are broken down into teams: a Red Team (Attack) and Blue Team (Defense).

Protecting the Grid. Supported, in part, by a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Ranganathan’s lab also is working with electric utilities to address security challenges for tomorrow’s more technologically advanced power grid. Others involved in the project are co-principal investigator Naima Kaabouch, associate professor of electrical engineering, and  Arun Sukumaran Nair, an electrical engineering Ph.D. student advised by Ranganathan. Ranganathan explains this so-called “smart grid” is a massive and complex electrical utilities network of millions of interconnected devices utilizing advanced information and communication technologies. Here, Ranganathan’s research team is focusing on synchrophasors and phasor measurement units (PMUs), which make real-time monitoring, control and data analysis of the electric power grid possible. At the same time, however, PMUs can make smart-grid systems vulnerable to cyberattacks. This past summer, an undergrad exchange student working in Ranganathan’s lab, Erwan Olivio from France, developed encryption and decryption algorithms with the GPS data embedded in synchrophasors, which showed signs of improved network security.

Other students doing important work on the smart grid project in Ranganathan’s lab are electrical engineering grad students Nick Gellerman, Ranganath Vallakati, Anupam Mukherjee, Mitch Campion, Vedaste Mutambuka and Radha Krishnan. In addition to Rockwell Collins and the NSF, Ranganathan’s research sponsors include the Wells Fargo Foundation, North Dakota Community Foundation, UND Research Development and Compliance Office, and NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research funding agencies. According to the NSF, work such as that being undertaken in Ranganathan’s lab is expected to transform the way people interact with engineered systems just as the Internet has transformed the way people interact with information. All that, and they’re protecting the world from cyberattacks that could spell doom for global defense capabilities and public utilities. All in a day’s work for the UND team. By David Dodds

Cracking the Code

It took almost eight years, but researchers from the University of North Dakota’s College of Engineering and Mines (CEM) and the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) have been granted a U.S. patent for a process that creates renewable jet fuel from crop oils, among other sources. The new U.S. patent, titled “Method for Cold Stable Biojet Fuel” (U.S. Patent 9206367), was issued on Dec. 8. The inventors are Wayne Seames, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Ted Aulich, EERC principal process chemist for fuels and chemicals. “This was the first of five patent applications UND submitted related to the production of transportation fuels and commodity chemicals based on a technique known as cracking, and the fourth one that’s been approved,” Seames said.

For these patents, the cracking technique is applied to one or more feedstocks from a class of oils known as triacylglyceride (TG) oils. TG oils include crop oils, oils from algae and oils from some bacteria. The cracking process uses high temperatures and an oxygen-free environment to decompose the large, complex TG molecules into smaller molecules that are more useful for the production of fuels and chemicals, according to Seames. Crop oils can be edible like soybean or canola oil, or inedible like camelina. The UND researchers have demonstrated that a range of product material from the cracking reactor can be processed into a renewable fuel that meets all of the American Society for Testing and Materials and military specifications for petroleum jet fuel, including a freeze-point specification of 47 degrees below zero Celsius.

In a more recent related development, UND secured a U.S. patent to produce benzene, toluene and xylenes, the so-called “BTX” aromatic compounds out of the same kind of renewable materials used for the jet biofuel.  The named inventors for this technology are Seames and Brian Tande, a fellow UND professor and chair of the University’s Chemical Engineering Department. “BTX compounds are the starting materials for many polymers, resins and elastomers on the market,” Tande said. “The most common method for the production of BTX is the catalytic reforming of propylene and/or propane, which is typically produced from crude oil.”. Because UND’s new technology allows these critical chemicals to be produced from renewable feedstocks, it increases the green content of the final products and reduces the overall carbon footprint for production, Seames said.

The U.S. Patent Office approved the patent, No. 9,273,252, “Production of Aromatics from Noncatalytically Cracked Fatty Acid Based Oils,” on March 1. Seames said production of these more environment-friendly chemicals involves the same cracking process used to produce renewable jet fuel and can be made with the same crop oils or other feedstocks.  In fact, both inventions can be combined together to increase the diversity and economic potential of TG oil cracking. When combined with UND’s previous patents in this area, a robust biorefinery can be constructed that produces a wide variety of green fuel, chemical and material products. The initial concepts for each of these patented ideas were developed under grants from federal sources.  Once the concepts were shown to be viable, the technology was developed to a commercially usable status as part of the SUNRISE BioProducts Center of Excellence (COE), which was funded by the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

The SUNRISE BioProducts COE is the applied research and development arm of the Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education, or SUNRISE, supercluster program.  While administered out of UND, SUNRISE is a multi-university, multi-disciplinary research center with investigators from UND, North Dakota State University and others. The patent application development and approval process for both of these inventions fell under the direction of Michael Moore, associate vice president for intellectual property commercialization and economic development at UND. The University is actively seeking to license this suite of technologies for rapid and widespread commercialization. By David Dodds.

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