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Pictures From a Poster Session

To engineers, every problem is just a solution that hasn't occurred yet, our Michael Haederle learns at the El Paso innovation conference.

The final block of speakers at UTEP's Building Partnerships and Pathways to Address Engineering Grand Challenges Conference are managers of federal science and engineering programs from agencies like NASA, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, Sandia National Laboratories and — gulp — the Missile Defense Agency.

Many of the presentations cover the how-tos of applying for federal research grants and contracts, while some also address programs for student internships. But a few of the managers share intriguing facts about what their agencies do.

Greg Rorrer, a program director of the Energy for Sustainability program at the National Science Foundation, says the funded research includes nanostructured semiconductors like nanocrystals, nanowires and nanotubes, dye-sensitized solar cells and organic photovoltaics,

Over at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Robert Romanosky, the advanced research technology manager for Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory, says their mission is all fossil energy, all the time (fossil fuels provide 85 percent of the U.S. energy supply), he says.

"We have an extremely strong relationship with the power industry, since we're looking at power generation," he says.

One NETL division, the Strategic Center for Coal, is funding innovations at existing power plants, coal gasification technology, advanced materials research for turbines, solid oxide fuel cells, carbon dioxide sequestration and advanced fuels (extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels). The big-ticket items include the Clean Coal Power initiative ($800 million) and FutureGen, a power plant that will emit nothing ($1 billion).

Check out the first three reports from the "Building Partnerships and Pathways to Address Engineering Grand Challenges" conference El Paso, Texas:
Grand Assemblage Addresses Grand Challenges
Changing the Equations for Carbon, Biomedicine
Tell Me Where It Hurts, Mr. Highway

Richard Schwarz is deputy director for innovation in advanced technology at the Missile Defense Agency, which is developing ballistic missile defense systems.

He doesn't mince words about their mission: "If somebody launches something, we need to know that," he says. "We need to know if that is something we care about. We have to get that information very quickly to somebody who has a very serious decision to make."

Given the sensitivity of the agency's mission, principal research investigators must be U.S. citizens, he says, somewhat apologetically. Research contracts can total $300,000 a year for two years, he says, with the option of a one-year extension for an additional $200,000.

Not all the fun is happening in the public sessions, though. The poster presentations encompass a bewildering array of technologies.

The titles alone are intriguing:

• "Sustainable Hydrogen Production: Study of the Hydrolysis Step in the Copper-Chlorine Thermochemical Cycle."

• "Undersea Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide."

• "Microbial Power House: Design and Optimization of a Single Chamber Microbial Fuel Cell."

• Analysis of Fluid Structure Interactions Occurring in Deep Vein Thrombosis.

• Thermal Models of Railroad Wheels and Bearings.

When I wander through the poster display area, I bump into Raimondo Betti, a professor of civil engineering at Columbia University, who is clutching a handful of steel wires. One is shiny and new looking, but the rest are gnarly and corroded.

The rusted bits came from the main cable of a suspension bridge somewhere in the New York City area, he tells me (he won't disclose which one). "This happens when the steel comes into contact with moisture," he says.

It happens when the wires are bundled into thick cables that are clamped every couple of feet. Even though the cables are tightly wrapped with wire and painted, moisture can get inside the cables at the points where vertical suspension wires attach, he says.

His poster, titled "Monitoring the Structural Health of Aging Suspension Bridge Cables," includes photos of cables in cross-section showing lots of corroded wires. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to picture one of those rusted cables snapping - with catastrophic consequences.

Given that it costs $100 million to replace a single cable, the problem is how to tell when a cable has become unsafe due to serious corrosion, Betti says.

He has come up with a system for inserting a variety of small electrical sensors inside the cables. Some detect changes in electrical impedance characteristics of rusting steel and transmit the information in real time. Other sensors measure indirect factors, such as temperature, pH and humidity.

"It's a good thing someone is paying attention to this stuff," I tell him. He smiles modestly.

There's lots of cool stuff in the exhibit room (where the organizers have cleverly placed the coffee and soft-drink table). Standing within easy reach of cans of Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew, a laid-back trio of mechanical engineering professors from California State University, Northridge, mans a display of its latest projects.

A monitor behind the table plays video of Cal State Northridge's outdoor rain forest, nurtured by carbon dioxide and water vapor emitted from four 250-kilowatt natural gas-fired fuel cells. The cells came online in 2008 in answer to a statewide mandate to move toward renewable and alternative energy, says S.K. Ramesh, dean of the college of engineering.

His colleague, Hamid Johari, chair of the mechanical engineering department, explains how the fuel cells use natural gas as a source of hydrogen, which combines with oxygen to generate heat (the cells create hot steam at about 700 degrees). But the carbon in the natural gas is emitted in the form of carbon dioxide, along with water vapor in the form of lower-temperature steam.

Not wanting to vent the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, Johari oversaw a team of students who figured out how to collect the waste gas from all four fuel cells and pipe it and the steam into the rain forest, which occupies a one-third-acre tract on campus.

The cooling steam rapidly turns into a wet mist that irrigates the plants, while carbon dioxide, which is denser than air, settles near the ground, where the plants use it in photosynthesis.

"The plants like the water and the CO2," Johari says. "The overall efficiencies are very, very high with this unit."

Ramesh says the project also drew on the talents of biology students, who selected the mix of plants in the rain forest, and art students, who decorated the cylindrical distributors that emit the fuel cell waste products.

He notes that California is requiring that one-third of the energy used by its institutions come from renewable sources by 2020. "This is a step to get there," he says.

C.T. Lin, a faculty member in the Cal State Northridge Assistive and Rehabilitative Technology Program, directs my attention to another exhibit with a photo of a guy wearing a high-tech net of EEG sensors (it's easier to say EEG than "electroencephalography," which is the technology for measuring electromagnetic waves generated by brain activity).

With the help of neuroscientists, Lin and his students are developing a system for reading the EEG signal in the wearer's motor cortex, then translating these signals into directions to operate a motorized wheelchair.

Basically, Lin says, the user simply has to think about moving the chair and it will move. Meanwhile, the chairs will be equipped with an onboard laser range-finder that detects obstacles and tells the chair to maneuver around them.

This makes the chair suitable for people who suffer from cognitive disability, as well as impaired mobility, he says.

That's it from El Paso. Thanks for checking in!

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