Tech Tour Day Eight: MSU Flexes Global Research Power

EAST LANSING — For a lot of the visits on The Engineering Society of Detroit Tech Tours, I’m checking in with universities that you may not have realized have world-class engineering programs.

That’s not the case, of course, with the school that traditionally closes out the Tech Tour, Michigan State University. It’s just the one of Michigan’s Big Three research universities that’s a little harder for me to get to, being an hour-plus away from both my home and my office.

And MSU always astounds. And that was again the case for the final day of the Tech Tour — sponsored this year by another terrific research institution, Michigan Technological University.

I started my Friday in East Lansing at MSU’s Composite Vehicle Research Center (CVRC), a 14,000-square-foot office and lab that is part of the University Corporate Research Park, a 115-acre site adjacent to the southwest corner of MSU’s campus.

There, I met Mahmoodul Haq, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and group leader of structural joining and tailorable materials for the CVRC.

If that sounds obscure, well, it happens to be key to the future of lighter, stronger, safer vehicles, not to mention achieving the government’s 54.5 mpg standard for passenger vehicles by 2025.

Haq said the CVRC was founded in 2007 by congressional funding as a center of excellence for lightweight, durable, cost-effective and safe vehicles, military and civilian. There, seven professors from MSU’s mechanical, chemical and civil engineering faculty work, along with dozens of students from undergraduates to post-doctoral. It’s received more than $10 million in federal research funding.

The primary interest of the lab is fiber-reinforced polymer composites, with various nanomaterials added, that are lighter and stronger than metals. But for the most part, Haq said, they remain expensive. So an all-composite car remains an expensive niche proposition, like the BMW i3. For mass market vehicles, he said, there will be a combination of metal and composite. But how to join them? You can’t weld them. Even traditional fasteners don’t work because drilling a hole in composites causes “delamination,” loss of the very strength that composites offer.

Adhesives work, but are a one-time deal — they can’t be taken apart nondestructively. So Haq is working on advanced adhesives with special properties that can be taken apart — adding tiny bits of metal to them, for instance, that heat up and melt the adhesive when exposed to the right kind of electromagnetic radiation.

Haq said one recent advance in his lab is a composite that uses cotton gin waste as its fiber. The stuff is beautiful — it looks like granite — and it’s light and crazy strong. Haq said 2.5 million tons of the waste a year is currently burned, but it might just be turned into light, strong faux-granite sometime soon.

He’s also working on advances like nanographene composites that dissipate impact — better football and hockey helmets, anyone? — and composites with fiber optic sensors inside them to measure impact.

Besides better sports gear, applications include crash parts in cars and blast shields under military vehicles.

And Haq said the center has become an economic development bright spot at MSU too — because the demand for employees with knowledge of composites is so great, “I get calls for our graduates all the time.”


My next stop was MSU’s engineering building, where I met a young genius named Kamran Ali.

Whether we see it or not, we all move through a cloud of WiFi radio signals virtually wherever we go.

And Ali, an MSU Ph.D. student, wants to use it to control a computer without a keyboard.

Ali came to MSU after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of Lums in Lahore, Pakistan in 2013. He then began studies at MSU in the computer science lab of Professor Alex Liu.

“Wireless signals can be used to sense activities in the environment,” he said. “Everybody uses WiFi, and these devices are everywhere now — offices, homes, everywhere. We decided to see if we could detect small activities, like keystrokes, using WiFi signals.”

Turns out you can, and there’s video to prove it.  Ali sees a future in which we type on a piece of paper, or use our hands to scroll through an application, all without touching any actual computer components. Off-the-shelf devices pick up the way those motions disturb the WiFi signals that are already bouncing around the room, and are translated into the appropriate action.

“We only use commodity WiFi devices,” Ali said. “Today’s WiFi devices, to keep up high throughput, they continuously adapt to changing environment. Those parameters, if we extract them, and then apply signal processing and machine learning tools, can be used to detect activities.” Like whether your first or second finger is moving on a virtual keyboard. Or whether someone has fallen in a bathroom or hospital room.

Ali says the technology could be the answer for places like bathrooms in hospitals, which want to know if someone has fallen, but privacy concerns prevent the installation of a camera.

Ali has used the techniques on both the 2.4 gigahertz and 5 gigahertz Wi-Fi band. And yes, the folks at MSU’s intellectual property arm, MSU Technologies, are on the chase for a patent on this technology.

Ali demonstrated the technology at MobiCom, an industry conference in Paris last month. Here’s a link to the paper. 


Next, I went down the hall at MSU engineering to the office of Dr. Leo Kempel, MSU’s engineering dean. A smarter guy you will not meet, and he’s also very approachable and down to earth. And like any good engineer, Kempel wanted to talk numbers, right down to the decimal point.

For starters, 1,000. MSU for the first time has more than 1,000 women in its engineering program, which Kempel said “is a big milestone for us.” MSU’s engineering program, now numbering a little over 5,000, is now at about 20 percent female enrollment. Kempel said he’s shooting for 25, “and 25 is just a number — 25 can be 30.” The key to filling the talent pipeline during an engineer shortage, Kempel said, may just be encouraging more women into the field.

Overall, “the college was nowhere near this size 25 years ago,” Kempel said. “I joined MSU in 1998 as an assistant professor. At that time, this was a different place. It was an excellent school, but it didn’t have the drive for research activity that we now have in all of our faculty. It didn’t have the drive for expanding the footprint of our programs across different groups of students like it has now. It didn’t have all the collaborations across campus and with other institutions like it has now.”

The next number was seven — weeks in the summer, for the Engineering Summer Success Academy, which brings at-risk students who want to pursue an engineering degree to MSU for intensive math and science courses. Kempel’s proud of that too.

The next number was 100 — MSU graduated more than 100 Ph.D.’s in engineering last year. “That’s important, because in engineering, if you look at statistics across the country, nine out of 10 engineering Ph.D.’s never teach a day in their life,” Kempel said. “They go work for BP and the U.S. government and the energy labs and Ford and GM and Dow. We’re really feeding into the economic development of Michigan.”

The next number was again 100 — Kempel said MSU is on track for 100 faculty searches over the next five years, due to growth and retirement. That means that by 2020, “40 percent of our faculty will have been here five years or less. And that means when you come here each year, you’re going to see different things. This will allow us to meet these expanding student demands and it allows us to build research clusters that really focus on what Michigan companies see as important to them. We have an opportunity now that realistically is not going to come around for a long time.”

So enough numbers for a minute. MSU is also a lead partner in a national composites manufacturing institute, and is about to open a 130,000-square-foot, $61 million bioengineering research building. And it’s attracting new endowments for faculty that allows it to attract senior faculty from other top-drawer engineering institutions.

The final number is big — really really big — data. Michigan State is opening up a new department in big data called the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering. It’s hiring 20 faculty to staff it. By next year it will be offering Ph.D. and master’s programs in it.

“People have asked, what is this department about? Two things,” Kempel said. “One is, truly the science of data science. It’s really in the eye of the beholder what it means. Talk to an accountant and it means different things than it does to a biologist or an astrophysicist. We want to go beyond the silos that data has been in.”

For example, he said, “Try looking at the junctions between consumer interest data you get from the scores to the regression testing of how long you expect products to last. What can we infer between the durability of a product vs. the buying decisions people make? How can we use that to better inform the trade space in investing a dollar in making something more durable vs. making sure the transition path to an upgrade is better? We’ll be extracting information from data across the beachfront of technology.”

The other area of study for the department, Kempel said, will be “how we develop very rigorous models of how things work, how to use high performance computing to do an exhaustive analysis of a given design. When you have a new airplane, airplanes have a lot of antennas on ’em now. The question is, when I have a structure, where do I put the antenna? The where matters, in terms of performance. People used to give a best guess, build an experimental structure, test, measure. Now can represent the airplane rigorously and the antenna rigorously. When I started in this business it took a lot longer to do the calculations than it took to do the test. This department will look at what is the next disruptional technology that will change the way we use computation of engineering data to inform designers and decisionmakers.”

More about the department at


My head was fairly spinning after talking to Dean Kempel, but I very quickly got in a straight line. Just like the ion beams that will be accelerated to half the speed of light in MSU’s new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, which by some measures will be the world’s most powerful linear particle accelerators when it goes online in 2021.

I got to tour the cavernous, $730 million FRIB with Todd Elkin, an integration engineer with the FRIB. The main particle chamber, where exotic ions of various elements will be accelerated to half the speed of light, is 35 feet underground and 600 feet long. Being inside it is a bit like being in an exceptionally long unfinished gymnasium — in a sub-sub-sub basement.

Gigantic magnets will bend the particle beams as radio waves accelerate them. Then they’ll be smashed into various targets. The collisions create reaction products, and among them are rare isotopes requested by experimenters. A series of magnets will select the desired isotopes for study and send them to the experimental area. There, scientists use detectors to measure their unique properties and interaction with other nuclei.

At ground level is an equally huge chamber. One part of it will get the beam going. Another part of it will house hundreds of advanced computers to guide the experiments and crunch the resulting data.

Construction of the more conventional, “civil” part of the project — the huge concrete tunnel for the linear accelerator, and the support buildings on the surface — began in March 2014 with excavation of the former parking lot site. It’s progressed rapidly since, and today it’s one heck of a big building.

Another genial genius, Thomas Glasmacher, runs the place as project director. He squeezed in a few minutes’ chat between other meetings — hey, a $730 million project is a big job. Glasmacher said the civil project is 10 weeks ahead of schedule. “The building is making really good progress,” he said. “We appreciate the good work by the trades. We also appreciate Smith Group and Barton Malow, who have been very accommodating to the scientists’ desire to optimize the schedule so we can take early occupancy of the building to make an ion beam with the ion sources in 2016. That would be a full year ahead of schedule.”

And, a fun fact about the FRIB’s operation — it uses pretty much plain old FM radio waves to accelerate the beam. “It’s just like a radio station, only a lot of them,” he said. “The pieces we buy are frequently just adaptations of commercial stuff. The RF we use to accelerate is 80.5 megahertz. It’s close to FM, close enough that we can just buy commercial FM equipment and have them tweak the frequency.”

But don’t worry. There will be tons of shielding around the FRIB, so you’ll still be able to listen to MSU’s radio stations.

When it’s running, the FRIB will use 14 megawatts of power to create, accelerate and guide the ion beam. MSU currently has peak use of about 60 megawatts, and the power plant has 100 kilowatts of capacity, so there won’t be any dim lights either.

Glasmacher said about 450 employees will work at the FRIB when it goes online, along with another 300 or so students. He said the project is still hiring mechanical engineers.

Glasmacher said the FRIB conducts fundamentally different science than the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. That device, he said, “looks at the quark level, what makes up the protons and neutrons. We look at the nucleons. We don’t break up the protons and neutrons into their constituent parts. We want to figure out what holds the nuclei together. They want to figure out what holds the protons and neutrons together.”

MSU has a long history of atomic research, and is the nation’s No. 1 graduate nuclear science program. It’s had a cyclotron — a machine that accelerates particles in a circle, like a racetrack — since 1965. And its most recent cyclotron, completed in 2001, was the world’s most powerful rare isotope facility until 2007.

More at And here’s a link to an inspiring video about MSU’s 50-year history in particle accelerator research.


And so I left Michigan State University and ended the Tech Tour on a terrific high note. I’m grateful to Michigan Technological University for sponsoring the tour and making the whole thing possible. And I’m stunned at the talent, depth and diversity of Michigan’s growing engineering and science institutions of higher learning. We really are headed in a great direction as a high-tech state.

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