CoE alumnus performs pioneering research, assists developing nations

Combining a deep passion for engineering with a strong desire to support advancement in developing nations, Nathan Johnson, a 2004 graduate of the College of Engineering, uses his technical skills to aid development in some of the poorest regions in the world.

It’s a pattern that started early in his academic career.Nathan Johnson

After completing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in philosophy, Johnson continued his education at Iowa State, entering the mechanical engineering master’s program. At the same time, he fulfilled his passion for philanthropy by becoming involved in campus organizations such as Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).

In 2008, Johnson began working toward a second master’s degree in international development, a specialization of the interdisciplinary graduate studies major.  Through this program, students can combine three major areas of interest—for Johnson, those areas were sociology, anthropology, and economics.

This was also when he began traveling to developing nations, conducting research on energy-use practices. While abroad, Johnson noticed that many researchers were focusing their studies on indoor air pollution caused by poorly ventilated kitchens and the use of indoor wood fires. Few were studying the effects of burns, cuts, scalds, and loss of property due to unsafe cooking technologies and unsafe cooking practices. Focused primarily on wood cookstoves, he says that safety is often overlooked when considering options to improve the lives of poor individuals, particularly in rural villages.

A curiosity for cookstove safety drove his master’s research, spurring travel to Honduras and collaborations with several international partners who applied his safety research on four continents. Throughout this busy time, he also began taking courses toward his PhD in mechanical engineering at Iowa State.

“As a result of that work, I found that technical design addresses only one part of implementing a successful solution in a rural village,” Johnson explains. “I recognized I couldn’t design a sustainable option without a deeper understanding of societies and their needs.”

He adds that one of the biggest failures in this field is something referred to as ‘drive-by development,’ which occurs when individuals or organizations believe they understand the needs of a particular village in a developing country. They then attempt to fulfill those needs by bringing different forms of technology to that community and never returning.

“There are two problems with this method,” says Johnson. “First, there is no up-front analysis to scope and compare options on how well they meet local needs and constraints, which is the first part of what my thesis addresses. Second, it takes more than one visit to a village to introduce and refine a design solution.”

He goes on to explain that many of the new systems implemented in these villages are generated with the assumption that the capabilities of the people in the developing nations and the environment of these communities is much like that of the western world, which is simply not the case.

His next step was to confront these issues with a broader analysis to determine where problems begin when designing energy-related products for developing countries. Finding that many issues originate during problem identification, his dissertation followed this concern and proposed methods, data, and strategies for identifying needs and comparing energy options in these communities.

Johnson completed his PhD in 2012 and obtained a fellowship with the National Science Foundation and American Society for Engineering Education as a Small Business Postdoctoral Research Diversity Fellow with HOMER Energy LLC in Boulder, Colorado. HOMER Energy provides services, software, and tools for professionals and researchers in the energy industry who desire to optimize micro-grid power systems that use traditional and renewable energy sources.

With HOMER Energy’s 20 years of experience in hybrid energy systems analysis and micro-grid design, Johnson utilizes his dissertation research in projects that investigate micro-grid power systems and the energy dynamics in rural villages.

“I focus on understanding village energy dynamics and quantifying the affect of human, natural, and technical systems on the energy supply and use in society,” he explains. “It’s important for developers to first understand where and how a community uses its power.”

His approach will help improve the design of sustainable energy systems for villages, as engineers can compare different energy options while assessing the impact and cost of each.

Johnson is also developing a new energy management software package at HOMER Energy to add operational capabilities to the organizations outstanding design experience.

“I find this project very exciting because it uses statistical forecasts to measure variability surrounding renewable power supply and consumer power use,” he says. “It’s a challenging problem that is getting more and more national focus from companies.”

Building a power system and energy management logic that matches power use to renewable supply is relevant to off-grid solutions for developing countries and grid-connected solutions in developed countries.

Outside of his research, Johnson is involved in Engineering for Change, an organization that originated from those he had been a part of during his time as a student.

“Joining the organization was a logical step toward synthesizing the skills and viewpoints from the many disciplines necessary for designing technology and helping humanity,” he says.

Recently, Johnson presented a webinar for Engineering for Change, discussing his dissertation and work at HOMER Energy. He focused the information on understanding village energy needs, identifying design problems, and comparing different energy options. He says the more he can spread the word about this inclusive approach, the more effective efforts will become.

He adds that his experiences at Iowa State provided him with the solid foundation that drives his success in the field of engineering.

“The unique part of Iowa State is that it supports in-class theory with out-of-class opportunities through international programs and engineering campus organizations,” says Johnson.

While his fellowship with HOMER Energy was originally a one-year appointment, his work has generated additional funding to allow him to continue with the organization, using his talents to advance developing nations with sustainable energy technologies.