By Leslie Wimmer
About 10 years ago, Phil Foster was on Galveston Island watching gas-powered cars drive back and forth along Seawall Boulevard. “I thought how progressive it would be to see gasoline-electric hybrid cars driving there instead,” says Foster, associate professor and coordinator of mechanical engineering technology in the University of North Texas College of Engineering. “Better yet, what if the cars didn’t rely on gasoline to be recharged? Hybrid cars that wouldn’t pollute the air with emissions from burning fossil fuels?”
Soon after, Foster began sketching out design concepts and fabricating parts in the engineering technology machine shop, ultimately creating the first ever liquid-cooled Stirling engine with a segmented rotary displacer. Stirling engines convert heat energy into mechanical power, rather than drawing power from the combustion of fossil fuels or from the power grid, which is itself heavily reliant on fossil fuels. In 2013, Foster was granted a patent for his invention, which is unique among Stirling engines in that it has only three moving parts, including the rotary displacer. This displacer consumes less energy than the reciprocating displacers found in traditional Stirling designs, he says.
"Stirling engines take heat energy from a difference in temperatures and, using a generator, turn that energy into electricity,” Foster says. “They are very efficient and quiet and use environmentally friendly energy sources, many of which are incompatible with internal combustion engines. They may hold the promise of replacing other engines, perhaps even smaller internal combustion engines.”
Research supporting sustainability is one of the hallmarks of UNT’s College of Engineering, which was formed by joining the engineering technology, computer science and materials science programs in 2003. Since its founding, the college has more than doubled its undergraduate and master’s enrollments, more than doubled its research award funding and nearly quadrupled its doctoral enrollments.
Located at UNT’s Discovery Park campus, a 300-acre research park in north Denton, the college added electrical engineering in 2005, and the combined mechanical and energy engineering program became the first of its kind in the nation in 2006. This year, the college marks the addition of biomedical engineering, the engineering field that is expected to become the fastest growing in the country over the next decade. The program will focus on biomedical instrumentation, mechanics and informatics.
“A great advantage of being a young, modern college is that we have the newest technologies available to researchers,” says Dean Costas Tsatsoulis. “This is great for faculty, but also for students, who graduate ready to use the industry’s most up-to-date equipment.”
Students also have the advantage of working with outstanding faculty researchers, who are developing new technologies and real-world solutions in multiple fields.
At UNT’s Zero Energy Laboratory — the only lab of its kind in Texas — director Yong Tao and his students focus on improving the environment as they work with the latest sustainable energy technologies and monitor how people use energy in their everyday lives. The lab, which opened in 2012, is a testing ground for solar and wind power systems, energy-efficient windows, sustainable building materials and energy monitoring systems.
Over the lab’s first year, Tao — a Distinguished Research Professor and chair of the mechanical and energy engineering department who also directs the PACCAR Technology Institute at UNT — worked to understand how humans use energy and what factors affect that use. The facility contains a working laboratory space and a test living area. Research participants visit the living area and use its kitchen, bathroom and bedroom space the way they would in their own homes. From the laboratory space, Tao and his students monitor the water and energy use data.
“Having data on how real people use real technology is important because, right now, most builders use simulation software to understand how energy is used in a home,” Tao says. “If we understand how humans use energy and use technology, we can design better appliances, materials and power sources in the future.”
Tao found that the cultural and geographic backgrounds of building occupants greatly impact their use of energy. For example, compared to China, the United States consumes more than five times the energy per capita.
“We also found that an occupant’s behavior is influenced by sociocultural environment, technology innovation, building design and local climate,” Tao says.
He received a $653,000 National Science Foundation grant, part of the NSF’s Research Coordination Networks — Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability program, to identify gaps in sustainability knowledge.
Tao will bring together researchers with backgrounds in engineering, construction, computer science, environmental science, business, architecture and social science to share data and fill in knowledge gaps.
“Uncertainty in human behavior — or why people use energy the way they do — can affect energy consumption by 40 to 60 percent,” Tao says. “We can design energy-efficient buildings and create new technologies, but without a strong understanding of these issues in human behavior, as well as government policy and business, those technologies won’t be put to their best use.”
In UNT’s Center for Computational Epidemiology and Response Analysis, researchers are monitoring technology of a different kind. Simulated disease outbreaks spread across the center’s maps and display screens, helping faculty and students better understand how to respond to and plan for emergencies.
Armin Mikler, professor of computer science and director of the center, received an $800,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to work with other UNT and UNT Health Science Center researchers on the Response Plan Analyzer, or RE-PLAN. The computer-based system will help emergency planners identify vulnerable populations — for example, residents who have no access to vehicles during an evacuation or are unable to leave their homes due to health problems — and modify response plans accordingly.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandates that all counties prepare for adverse events, and our RE-PLAN system can serve as a very useful interface for identifying problem areas and better preparing for emergencies,” Mikler says.
Mark Fulmer is the preparedness planner for Tarrant County Public Health, which is working with the researchers on the project. He says the system offers a variety of interactive tools to help planners prepare for different scenarios, such as major highways becoming inaccessible and requiring the rerouting of resources.
“Plans are most successful when plenty of data is available for research and testing,” Fulmer says. “The RE-PLAN system’s benefits really boil down to it being a strong source of information we can use to evaluate and test plans, which is essential before any incident actually occurs.”
Down the hallway, computer science associate professor Yan Huang also is working on new technology that could prove helpful in emergencies — in this instance, through social media.
She is developing a location-based search function that will allow users of social media platforms to search for and find more information than ever before. On many social platforms today, users search for an event, such as a natural disaster, using keywords — for example “Earthquake in Los Angeles.” The problem with keyword-based searches is that only social media updates and pages with those exact words will be found.
Funded by a U.S. Department of Defense grant, Huang is developing a model for detecting events that incorporates check-in data, text data and hometown location from users’ social profiles. The model will predict user locations using postings and locations referenced in text on social platforms, and will rely heavily on how people connect and interact with each other on social networks. The work will be tested on data publicly available such as Twitter and Gowalla. She is working with Rada Mihalcea, former UNT associate professor now at the University of Michigan.
“A tremendous amount of information is being shared every day on social platforms, including information that is valuable to others, such as events, gatherings or natural disaster occurrences,” Huang says.
“With this algorithm, a user will be able to search for events, and results will include tweets or other social updates that may not explicitly mention a location.”
Across departments, College of Engineering faculty are researching ways to improve health and save lives. Narendra Dahotre, Distinguished Research Professor of materials science and engineering — and newly named fellow of the National Academy of Inventors — has filed a patent on a new laser technology he and his research associate at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras developed for cutting and shaping bone. It causes minimal damage, could speed up surgery and recovery times, and could lessen the amount of blood lost during operations.
“This laser technique is a revolutionary tool, and could replace many of the conventional metal tools that cause so much excess damage during surgery,” says Dahotre, who has researched laser technologies for nearly two and half decades. “The technique we developed allows for precise interaction of the laser beam with the matter it is cutting.”
Rajiv Mishra’s Center for Friction Stir Processing came to UNT in 2011. Mishra, professor of materials science and engineering, brought the center to UNT’s College of Engineering because of its faculty expertise and connections to industry partners.
The lab is part of a National Science Foundation-funded Industry/University Cooperative Research Center working to improve the performance of alloys through friction stir processing, an emerging technique for joining solid-state metals.
The process is environmentally friendly, energy efficient and versatile, and is of growing interest to corporations and industry partners including Boeing, General Motors, the Army Research Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and more.
In fall 2013, the College of Engineering custom-designed a $2 million lab space at UNT’s Discovery Park campus for the center. The 2,700-square-foot lab features specially designed workspaces for post-doctoral and graduate students and an equipment layout ideal for friction stir processing research.
“Often, researchers have to adapt or grow into their lab spaces, but we were able to customize this space so it flows ideally for our research needs,” Mishra says. “We have high-quality friction stir machinery and materials characterization machines, including a laser welding machine provided by the U.S. Army Research Office.”
The lab also features a number of solid-state joining machines, a friction stir spot welding machine provided by General Motors and an ultrasonic spot welding machine. The diverse equipment is a draw for potential industry and research partners.
Mishra works alongside university partners Brigham Young University, University of South Carolina, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and Wichita State University to conduct research for industry through the I/UCRC.
Dahotre says the technology would be ideal for such procedures as joint replacements, bone grafts, limb salvaging and removal of cancerous segments of bone. He also plans to develop a robotic system that would allow surgeons to operate remotely using computer controls for automation and precision.
Gayatri Mehta, assistant professor of electrical engineering, is working with a team of interdisciplinary researchers from UNT — Hyoung Soo Kim, Hualiang Zhang and Kamesh Namuduri from electrical engineering; Nandika D’Souza from materials science and mechanical and energy engineering; Tae-Youl Choi from mechanical and energy engineering; and Jakob Vingren from kinesiology, health promotion and recreation — to develop an electronic vest for athletes that can monitor EKG signals and alert emergency medical service personnel to impending cardiac events.
The group is working with a researcher from the Texas A&M Health Science Center and a physician from the Baylor University Medical Center to develop lightweight conductive fabric with sensors that can detect, amplify and interpret EKG data to determine if an athlete is experiencing cardiac-related abnormalities during sports events.
“This fabric would alert athletes, emergency personnel and others to potential cases of sudden cardiac arrest,” Mehta says. “If we can detect early signs, we are one step closer to preventing casualties.”
Focusing on the area of mental health, Rodney Nielsen, associate professor of computer science and engineering, is developing a companion robot that aims to help senior citizens overcome depression.
Nielsen’s Companionbot, the size of a large stuffed animal, would stay in a person’s home, monitor actions and language for signs of depression and intervene. The Companionbot focuses on dialogue, generating and answering questions, and monitoring participants for signs of physical, mental or emotional deterioration.
“If a person dropped a glass of water and said, ‘I do this all the time, this is all my fault,’” Nielsen says, “the Companionbot would respond with encouraging information and questions to get the participant to move the focus away from negativity.”
Nielsen’s project is funded by a nearly $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. He is working with researchers from the University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus, the University of Denver and Boulder Language Technologies on the project.
Opportunities for conducting research in the health field will increase as the College of Engineering opens its new Department of Biomedical Engineering. Students will be able to collaborate with faculty at the UNT Health Science Center and learn from experts.
“Our program will be unique in that students will develop a strong base of engineering fundamentals while working with faculty who are well known in industry and academia for their work in the biomedical field,” Tsatsoulis says.
The link to industry is strong in the college, where the emphasis is on research that offers solutions for real-world issues. For example, HaifengZhang, assistant professor of engineering technology, is teaming up with industry professionals and Stony Brook University to create a new self-powered temperature and pressure sensor that can operate underground and withstand the stresses of oil and gas drilling.
His research is funded by a Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) grant through the National Science Foundation.
“Developing this new sensor is very exciting,” Zhang says. “It will need to withstand the harsh, high-temperature environment of drilling a few hundred meters below the earth’s surface. Very few sensors on the market could survive that.”
Real-world problems also are the focus for seniors in the college, who are required to take a two-semester capstone course to apply the information and skills they’ve learned in a group research project.
A design by Adam Marlowe, Bryan Cotanch and James Parker has become the first undergraduate project in UNT history to earn a patent. The three engineering technology students, who graduated in 2009, created a brake system that signals brake lights to turn on when a vehicle slows down, even if the driver hasn’t touched the brake pedal.
Cotanch is now an electronics technician with the Federal Aviation Administration, and Marlowe is a systems integration engineer at L3 communications.
“Getting a patent on the design was huge for me,” Marlowe says. “It’s the No. 1 bullet under ‘accomplishments’ on my resume.”
Foster, who continues work on his patented Stirling engine, teaches machining and senior design courses in the engineering technology department and has helped hundreds of students with their projects since he joined UNT in 1982.
He also has seen firsthand the conception, birth and growth of the College of Engineering. While programs and enrollments have expanded, he says one thing has been constant.
“The entire engineering faculty remains committed to helping students acquire the education and research experiences essential to success when they graduate and enter into engineering careers around the world.”
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