Air Force honors young researchers

Posted on 21. Jun, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Energy Independence, Engineering Physics, Issues, People, Research, Spring: Magazine

Three UW-Madison engineers are among 43 researchers to receive prestigious Air Force Young Investigator Research Program funding through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). The program is designed to foster creative basic research in science and engineering, enhance early-career development of outstanding young investigators, and increase opportunities for those investigators to recognize the Air Force mission and the related challenges in science and engineering. The AFOSR selected the recipients from a field of 242 proposals. Their funding periods range from three to five years.

Predicting vibration damage before parts become whole
With his three-year, $364,000 award, Engineering Physics Assistant Professor Matt Allen is developing analytical tools that will enable him to create simplified models for each panel of a hypersonic aircraft and then to predict how the vehicle will behave when those panels are assembled onto the aircraft. “Our work will help us to understand and predict the large-amplitude vibrations that would cause the panels to fail,” he says.

Allen currently is focusing on hypersonic vehicles; however, he also is considering other applications, such as cars and wind turbines, in which noise and vibration are important. “Our substructuring methods allow us to think of a system as an ‘assembly of parts,’ which can be advantageous, for example, in the automotive industry, where one company makes the electronics, one company makes the frame, one company makes the seat, and so on,” he says. “With these methods, you can predict how noisy the vehicle will be after all of those parts are assembled, or whether it might have a resonance that will cause things to break prematurely.”

Making waves with high-power materials
Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Nader Behdad is studying a class of synthetic structures known as metamaterials. The structures are composed of layers of metals, dielectrics and other materials that, when layered together, function as a distinct material as far as an electromagnetic wave is concerned.

When a wave hits a material, what happens to it is determined by the material’s index of refraction. By creating particular patterns in a synthetic structure, Behdad is able to engineer functional indexes of refraction out of materials robust enough to survive very high power levels. These structures are a promising alternative to current materials that cannot withstand mega and gigawatt levels of electromagnetic power.

Behdad  is designing structures that could be used in high-power phased-arrays, radar systems and satellites. He also plans to study antenna apertures that can shape electromagnetic pulses, and which structures could act as shields against enemy electro-magnetic pulses. He also is exploring ways to make high-power devices more flexible in terms of producing a variety of complex waves with different frequency components.

Bacteria fuel sustainable diesel
A Petri dish set on a windowsill may not look like a production plant for diesel and jet fuels, but if the dish contains a special type of cyanobacteria, which take in sunlight and carbon dioxide and “spit out” a fuel precursor, that’s essentially the case.

A cyanobacterium is a photosynthetic organism that uses carbon dioxide to grow and produce alpha-olefins. This ability makes the bacterium a promising alternative to Escherichia coli, which is commonly used in bacterial biofuel research but requires sugars or other carbon sources to grow and produce biofuels.

Chemical and Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Brian Pfleger is developing a sustainable approach for creating diesel and jet fuels by engineering a particular cyanobacterium that naturally produces hydrocarbons, called alpha-olefins, which are structured like the molecules of existing diesel fuels. This means the microbial products could be blended with petro-diesel and be used in existing fuel infrastructure. Pfleger will explore ways to alter the bacteria’s DNA that is responsible for alpha-olefin production. These alternations will make a bacterium produce a higher volume of alpha-olefins than it would on its own.

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