HOUGHTON — You hate to call Michigan Technological University a hidden gem, because it’s pretty good at making itself known, and it’s known worldwide in the engineering and scientific communities.
But maybe it does get drowned out a bit by its bigger brethren on the university scene downstate.
That’s why I love making it a point to come north — way, way, WAY north — to Houghton every time I do a Tech Tour, which the folks at The Engineering Society of Detroit are being nice enough to let me continue to do.
Friday, I got a daylong tour de force of Michigan Tech on Day Two of the ESD Fall Tech Tour.
The day started bright and early with breakfast at Suomi — Finnish nisu French toast for me. My companions were Jennifer Donovan, my host and Michigan Tech’s director of news and media relations; Steve Patchin, Michigan Tech’s director of career services; and John Lehmann, associate vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications.
In an earlier role with the university, Patchin launched Mind Trekkers, Michigan Tech’s major outreach program to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics among K-12 students through road shows and fun demonstrations. (See http://mindtrekkers.mtu.edu.) Now he’s adding Career Ambassadors, who are recent MTU co-op and internship students who will tell middle and high school students what it’s really like to work in STEM.
Patchin said companies are starting to identify and cultivate workers at a younger and younger age, because of the national shortage of STEM workers. One Michigan Tech student got an internship offer from a utility company early in her freshman year, “before she even had a GPA,” Patchin said. Yep, it’s getting competitive out there.
My next stop was the Michigan Tech foundry, deep in the lower levels of the Minerals and Materials building. There, associate professor Paul Sanders showed me around what may be the biggest college foundry in the state. Sanders works with novel formulations of metals — extra high-strength steel for a lighter car, for instance. But rather than change the shape of a steel structure to make it stronger like a mechanical engineer might, Sanders changes the molecules in the material to make it inherently stronger.
“The cool thing is, at Michigan Tech we can not only design stuff on the computer but also make it,” Sanders said. “That’s what sets us apart from other materials programs — the foundry.”
In an adjacent room is even crazier equipment that can heat materials up past 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or squeeze metals under huge pressures until they behave like toothpaste.
“We’re working on higher temperature metals for pistons and brakes, high-temperature nickel alloys for power generation, new steels for energy absorption in cars,” he said. Included is an alloy from a Detroit startup, licensed from Wayne State and being worked on by the University of Michigan — but they have to come to Tech’s foundry to actually make the stuff.
The foundry is also part of the Michigan Tech Enterprise program that sets up virtual businesses staffed by undergrads to tackle real-world problems for paying business clients. The Advanced Metalworks Enterprise is working on nanoparticle mixtures in metals, an advanced aluminum alloy without toxic beryllium, and making the most out of cheaper steel recycling for a company in Jackson.
Sanders said clients “pay us about $15,000 per project to assemble a four-person team and a mentor with some industry experience, and the students really come up with innovative solutions.”
Sanders is also part of Michigan Tech’s extensive summer outreach program to high school science teachers, who come to Tech for “camps” where they learn materials science and engineering.
“Nobody knows what materials science and engineering is,” Sanders said. “I didn’t know until I got to college. But if you can get high school teachers interested, they can teach it, and make their students aware of it when it matters, when they’re still deciding where to go to college and what to do.”
Sanders, a Wisconsin native, came to Michigan Tech as an undergraduate student, then worked for General Motors, then got a Ph.D. from Northwestern, then worked for Ford, before coming to Tech as a professor in 2009.
Next up was assistant professor Mo Rastgaar, winner of a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award for early-career researchers, who’s working on a better prosthetic ankle.
There are 1.7 million amputees in America, Rastgaar noted — included wounded warriors from America’s recent military conflicts and a growing number of older diabetes patients.
And the existing technology for replacing the lower legs isn’t very good, Rastgaar said. The artificial foot only moves up and down — it doesn’t roll from side to side or swing around in a curve.
So Rastgaar is designing a robotic artificial ankle and foot that moves much more like the real thing.
“We’re finding out the exact dynamics of walking in humans — turning and maneuvering — and using that information to develop the next generation of prosthetic and orthotic robots for people who lose limbs — essentially a powered prosthesis,” Rastgaar said. “This research is really going to help people.”
Rastgaar is working with a collaborator at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. on the effort. A native of Iran, Rastgaar came to Michigan Tech in 2011 after getting a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech and working as a post-doctoral researcher at MIT.
My next visit was assistant professor Feng Zhao, who’s working on stem cells, tissue engineering and biomaterials.
All Zhao is doing is creating media that persuade cells to grow in such a way that they create structures that can repair damaged hearts. (Yeah, no big deal, since heart disease is the nation’s No. 1 killer.) Zhao is working on both laboratory-grown small blood vessels to be used in heart bypass surgeries — they might one day be grown from a patient’s own bone marrow, rather than harvested in painful, risky surgery from elsewhere in the patient’s body. She’s also working on “patches” made from cardiac cells that could be attached to a damaged heart to strengthen it.
She grows the cells on a scaffold that closely resembles the natural environment that cells grow in — even down to encouraging them to grow in an aligned structure, as a natural blood vessel does.
Zhao has numerous students working with her, at all levels — a post-doctoral researcher, a visiting scholar, two Ph.D. students, two master’s degree students, and “quite a few excellent undergraduate students.” And she offers summer internships for high school students and undergrads under Michigan Tech’s SURF — Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship — program.
Zhao also participates in a program at Michigan Tech called MICUP to ease the transition of community college transfer students, especially lower-income and first-generation college students.
More at http://fzhao.biomed.mtu.edu/.
Then it was time for lunch with Michigan Tech’s president, Glenn Mroz, and Dave Reed, vice president for research. Besides bragging about Michigan Tech’s undefeated football team and a hockey team with great prospects, Mroz and Reed also talked up this year’s incoming freshmen — as well as the returning undergraduate students. (After last year’s brutal winter, Mroz said he was afraid nobody would come back. I assured him the weather was only marginally better last winter in Detroit.)
Mroz is that rarity among college presidents, one who sticks around a while. Of course, you might expect that, given that he’s a Michigan Tech alum, and was a longtime professor, since 1980, before he became a dean in 2000 and then president in 2004. But still, it’s remarkable — today’s incoming freshmen were in the second grade when he took the helm at the school.
There was no postprandial letdown as the tech tour continued. And I can’t believe it was the first time I’d seen it, but I got a good long look at the Michigan Tech chemical engineering program’s absolutely amazing, multi-million-dollar Unit Operations Laboratory and Process Simulation and Control Center, which boasts 6,500 square feet and a three-story open bay dedicated to chemical-processing education.
The center gives students a real-world look at chemical processes, including separating materials like water and alcohol, and serves as a testbed for huge chemical companies like Dow Corning Corp., which has a catalytic process demonstration unit there.
John Sandell, an associate professor of chemical engineering (and fifth-generation Yooper, to boot), said the center teaches Tech students how to do everything from get peanut butter into the jar on the production line to run sophisticated chemical processes.
“These kids learn what a gate valve is, not just how to solve back-of-the-book problems,” Sandell said.
Sandell is also a dedicated outreach worker, giving hundreds of talks to students from elementary to high school about STEM careers. His current favorite is his second grade talk, “Engineers Don’t Drive Trains.”
Joining Sandell in showing me all of the amazing technology in the center were Caryn L. Heldt, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Tony Rogers, associate professor of chemical engineering. And if you’d like to take a virtual tour of it, check out www.chem.mtu.edu/UOLabTour.
Next it was a visit to Thomas Oommen, assistant professor of geological engineering, and his fascinating work in remote sensing of the dangerous aftereffects of earthquakes — and sensing of the moving earth in general.
Oommen has an amazing background, including degrees from Tufts University and the University of Alaska, and a five-year stint as an engineer in India, the Middle East and Afghanistan — the latter, where he was part of USAID efforts to build schools and clinics, including rebuilding Kabul’s only girls’ high school, which had been shut down by the Taliban.
At Tech, he’s working on reducing the hazards like soil liquefaction and landslides that occur after an earthquake. “My research involves how we can engineer to reduce the hazards, and where the hazards are,” he said.
Oommen’s research also tracks geotechnical assets — anything that holds highways and railways together, from embankments to retaining walls. He researches movements of those assets that might put infrastructure at risk.
“I’m looking to use remote sensing for inspections where budgets or accessibility prevent human, physical inspections,” he said. Those movements use satellite radar measurements that date back to the early 1990s to track changes in locations of objects as the ground that supports them moves. He also uses drone aircraft and helicopters to track land movements.
And some of his research hits Detroiters very close to home — like on the Lodge Freeway, where his measurements confirmed dangerous movements in a retaining wall near Meyers Road that led the Michigan Department of Transportation to close part of the Lodge service drive.
At Michigan Tech, Oommen also works closely with the Peace Corps Masters International program, that sends grad students overseas with the Peace Corps, where they help other countries — and gather valuable data for American researchers.
Next, it was another visit with David Shonnard, whose work with pyrolysis of wood chips to make biofuels has moved well beyond the stage it was in when I visited him several years ago.
Shonnard focuses on using wood byproducts to make biofuels, he said, because Michigan State concentrates on agricultural byproducts — and the western UP has far more forests than cornfields.
Shonnard’s initial process, heating the wood chips and diluted acid very quickly to 200 degrees Centigrade, produces a sugar called xylose, which he said is valuable, but only a few microorganisms can make use of it. But now he’s working on a secondary process that uses the same enzyme fungi use to break down fallen trees to create glucose, a much more versatile and easily used sugar that can be distilled into biofuel.
Shonnard’s research is also focused on using genetic engineering to breed trees with a higher lignin content, since the lignin left over after biofuels conversion has a ton of energy content, and can be burned to run the entire wood-to-biofuel conversion process, making it not just carbon-neutral, but carbon negative — the process will take more carbon out of the environment than it puts in.
And he’s working on another project that uses a thermal process to produce “pyrolysis oil,” a chemical with many of the same properties as petroleum crude oil — and which is just as versatile, and shows the potential to be convertible into gasoline. And he’s working on pyrolysis of chunks of used tires, which appears to produce gasoline-like ring molecules along with the basic rubber building blocks of tires, a sort of recycling-plus.
Shonnard and Ph.D. student Bethany Klemetsrud are working on far more than just wood to fuel, too. They’re involved in an entire process, from forestry faculty engineering better trees for biofuel production, to mechanical engineers to test the resulting fuels in engines, to environmental engineers to study overall sustainability of the process, including the effect on local biomes of large tree plantations — even anthropologists to study how local populations might react to this new industry.
Shonnard is also involved in reaching out to high school teachers for summertime enrichment experiences, hoping they’ll bring the word about these technologies to young students and get them to consider STEM careers.
Are you tired yet? I was getting that way, when I visited Shiyan Hu, a pure genius of a young professor of electrical and computer engineering and another of Tech’s winners of a CAREER Award. Hu is working on computer chips that replace copper wire with copper nanotubes or graphene to eliminate the delay that bugs up some of today’s fastest computer chips (because their wires are now mere nanometers wide). And he’s working on true healthcare labs on a chip. And then there’s his latest passion — the risks of smart homes.
What is a smart home, Hu asks? Basically, internet-connected everything — appliances, heating and air conditioning systems, laundry gear, electric vehicle charging.
Hu says all those neat applications that mean you can wait to start your laundry until the price of power goes down at midday also mean someone might hack your washing machine.
Worse, that someone might hack thousands of even millions of washing machines, turning them all on at once — and crashing the power grid.
“I’m working on identifying those attacks and defending against them,” Hu said. “I’m using machine learning to techniques to find out when smart appliances have been fooled into making wrong decisions, identifying spikes and anomalies.”
More about Hu at www.ece.mtu.edu/faculty/shiyan/ and more about his research on smart homes at www.ece.mtu.edu/faculty/shiyan/SmartHomeCybersecurity.htm.
I ended the day with a visit to the robotics lab of assistant professor Nina Mahmoudian, which pepped me up with a lot of enthusiasm about something every kid (and just about every grownup) thinks is cool — robots.
Mahmoudian’s Nonllinear and Autonomous Systems Laboratory was established in 2011, when she got to Michigan Tech. It’s researching the use of robots for novel applications, such as restoring power to areas devastated by natural disasters,
“We’re seeking solutions for the effective use of robots in complex environments like disaster relief, where it’s not easy to predict what’s going to happen,” she said. “We’re developing robots and software to bring down costs, increase endurance and increase efficiency.”
Included are unique underwater gliders that don’t have propellers. Instead, they’re propelled by water — tiny battery-power motors pull water in and push it out, and the “wings” on the glider make it rise and fall as it’s pushed through the water.
The lab has received funds from the Office of Naval Research to develop a fleet of the underwater gliders for a variety of applications.
And it’s working on a fleet of land-based robots to help deploy a microgrid for cell towers or a field hospital after a disaster.
Mahmoudian is also involved in Michigan Tech’s summer programs for middle school and high school students, who build simple gliders and test them in the lab.
So that was my day — from 8 a.m. to after 6 p.m. — at Michigan Tech. Can you believe all the cool stuff that’s going on way up here?
In a perfect cap to the day, I watched the Michigan Tech Huskies dominate the Michigan Wolverines (lot of that going around these days, unfortunately for fans of the Blue), 4-1, in front of a sellout crowd of 4,466 in MacInnes Arena. There’s just no quit in these Huskies, whether on the ice, in the classroom or in the laboratory. And what a drop-dead gorgeous setting, hundreds of miles away from it all, up in God’s Country. I’ll be back, I promise.