2050 fellows make significant progress in research

Over the past year, four PhD students in the College of Engineering have dedicated their research to engineering solutions that can improve the quality of life today and for decades to come.

Keenan Deutsch, CBE; Cara Dienes, IMSE; Eduardo Ibáñez-Sopeña, ECpE; and Zhonghua Xu, ME, were the first students to receive the college’s 2050 Challenge Fellowships, and since then their work has encompassed renewable energy, sustainability, energy and transportation infrastructure, and cellular mapping.

“These students are performing research that is aligned with the 2050 Challenge,” said Balaji Narasimhan, associate dean for research and economic development. “They have been remarkably productive during their fellowships, contributing journal papers, conference and poster presentations, and a book chapter.”

Biorenewable fuels and chemicals
Virtually all of the transportation fuel and chemicals that make our everyday lives possible are derived from crude oil. As global reserves of this nonrenewable resource dwindle, a renewable, nonpolluting solution, such as biomass, is becoming increasingly necessary.

The high oxygen content in biomass, however, creates a challenge for engineers, as they need to develop a solution to replace petroleum products that contain low oxygen content.

Addressing this challenge, Deutsch is studying catalytic hydrogenolysis, which is a method that removes oxygen from biomass. He is working with intermediates from biorenewable feedstocks to quantify the process and determine what factors are important to control during the reaction to get desired results.

“The big picture of our work is to understand viable constituents that can replace the carbon we currently get from fossil fuels to make products,” he explained. “In some form, biomass will be one of those constituents.”

As for using that biomass for fuels, Deutsch feels it has potential to be an effective option, especially in the Midwest. “I am really interested in the entire energy sector, and I realize that the best solutions may differ depending on regions and available resources,” he said. “The great thing about projects that tackle these issues is that we are always progressing towards something—even if it doesn’t work out, the field has learned something important.”

Sustainable renovations for greener hotels
Incorporating sustainable elements into hotel rooms can be a considerable cost saving for hotels, while also saving natural resources. It’s the time and potential loss of revenue during the renovations that can discourage some managers from making their hotels greener.

Partnering with a hotel firm to get practical insight, Dienes worked on an optimization model to determine the best schedule for the renovations. She took into consideration the hotel’s desire to maximize revenue during the renovation as well as the cost savings the hotel would see after incorporating sustainable design elements into guest rooms.

“In my experience, being an engineer is all about solving problems,” Dienes said. “These models provide managers with a plan that highlights the effectiveness of using zones for renovations rather than arbitrarily deciding where to do the work, and it provides them with optimal revenue possibilities.”

This work can be augmented to further models including expanding a hotel’s capacity after the renovations, allowing the hotels to grow with sustainability in mind.

“I like that my work can influence decision makers and assist them with handling innovations and change,” Dienes added.

A model of the energy and transportation system
Taking a cross-disciplinary approach, a team of engineers is working on a four-year project funded by the National Science Foundation called “The 21st Century National Energy and Transportation Infrastructures Balancing Sustainability, Costs, and Resiliency.” A leader in the project, Ibáñez-Sopeña is designing and developing software that will model energy and transportation investment plans at a national level through 2050.

The software simulates how energy and transportation systems work, incorporating information about capacities, investments, and costs gathered from several different sources.

Starting with a simple focus model, the team is using the state of Iowa as it works on the preliminary software program. “There is certainly an interest of modeling the entire country,” Ibáñez-Sopeña explained. “But each state has to be convinced of what will work best for them, and then we can work on putting the pieces together to expand the model across the country and to other continents.”

The project aims to mitigate carbon emissions and associated greenhouse gas effects on climate change. With sustainable and affordable national investment strategies for producing energy, the model will reflect price stability for all scenarios, including unforeseen, large-scale events impacting energy or transportation like the 2005 hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.

“Energy and transportation is an important issue across the world,” said Ibáñez-Sopeña. “There is no decision tool that takes such a broad look at the issue as a whole, and it really needs to be addressed.”

The potential of this work, according to Ibáñez-Sopeña, is a model that could give decision makers an idea of what’s best for everyone at the same time, with a vision of how the investment will affect society in the long term, rather than quick fixes that don’t endure.

Measuring properties of soft materials
In the nanoscale world, gaps exist when engineers try to identify pathways in materials and characterize microstructures. Using a scanning probe microscope, Xu plans to bridge these gaps with rapid broadband viscoelasticity spectroscopy. His work can help scientists gain a better understanding of important phenomena, including the cell healing process.

Through his research, Xu helped develop and integrate a new model-based iterative learning control to measure soft materials. He was able to accurately measure a soft sample by enabling excitation forces at an unprecedented high frequency range. After that success, he enhanced his methodology to reduce residual instrument dynamics effects.

This novel system identification method and control approach is applicable in a broad spectrum of nanoscience and nanotechnology fields. “As my research progresses, it can substantially improve the way we measure frequency-dependent mechanical properties of soft materials,” Xu said. “This includes polymers, as well as the variations of viscoelasticity of a single live cell.”

Xu will continue implementing these new methodologies to nanoscale applications, collaborating with researchers across campus. “Along with the methods I have already worked with, I plan to look for new system identification and control techniques to achieve rapid broadband measurements of these materials.”

More work to be done
The college, as part of its commitment to supporting important work that addresses the big issues that face the world today, will award a new group of students with 2050 Fellowships this fall.

“The impact of this first group of fellows demonstrates the benefits of supporting students as they address long-term challenges with important research,” said Narasimhan. “We look forward to seeing the continued progress of important research from these students and to awarding more fellowships that will reflect the college’s commitment to our 2050 Challenge vision.”

Related information
College of Engineering awards 2050 Challenge Fellowships
The 2050 Challenge