engineering

Technologies to be implemented in Uganda this June

RICHLAND, Wash. – Three teams of engineering students at Washington State University Tri-Cities designed technological advancements that will address challenges pertaining to farming, education and agricultural business in rural communities in Uganda.

The projects were part of the students’ capstone engineering courses at WSU Tri-Cities where students are tasked with completing a year-long project that integrates many of the components of the students’ foundational engineering and related courses to solve either a real-world or simulated problem.

WSU Tri-Cities engineering projects for Uganda - solar lighting

Scott Hudson, WSU Tri-Cities professor of electrical engineering (left), helps his students solder a wire to a strip of solar-powered lights that the students designed for a remote community in Uganda. The lights will be implemented in the Kagoma Gate Village in Uganda this June.

The projects for the Ugandan communities include:

  • An aquaponic system that incorporates minimal water, fish and a growing medium to produce a recyclable and sustainable agriculture system
  • A solar-powered lighting system that will allow for additional educational instruction time in the evening and during other minimal daylight hours
  • A solar-powered mushroom dryer that preserves a local mushroom crop that will increase economic opportunity for the local community

Scott Hudson, WSU Tri-Cities professor of electrical engineering, and Messiha Saad, clinical assistant professor of mechanical engineering, serve as faculty mentors and advisors for the three projects, which were funded by Hudson on behalf of The Giving Circle. The Giving Circle is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which provides services and builds schools, sanitary facilities and more, to help disadvantaged communities around the world.

Hudson will also accompany a Giving Circle team to Uganda this June to help implement the new technologies to ensure their longevity and success.

The students spent their first semester predominantly coming up with a design for their projects and their second semester physically building the structures.

“What is great about these projects is that they will be directly implemented into communities that have a dire need for these technologies,” Hudson said. “Students are using their skill in engineering to design products that will serve an immediate need for a deserving community across the world. They’re solving real-world problems that will have a lasting impact.”

Aquaponic system for food sustainability

The Kagoma Gate Village in Uganda is located far from urban areas and utilities and is considered largely “off the grid,” Hudson said. Many people in the community don’t have access to their own farmland or can’t afford it, and water is in limited supply. An aquaponic system, which recycles water and fish waste to fertilize growing plants in the system, while allowing the fish to breed and then act as an additional food source, is a crucial technology that will do a lot of good, Hudson said.

WSU Tri-Cities engineering projects for Uganda - aquaponics

The WSU Tri-Cities student electrical engineering team poses with their aquaponics project that will be implemented this June in the Kagoma Gate Village in Uganda.

The WSU Tri-Cities student electrical engineering team, composed of students Amjad Al-Shakarji, Gabriel Fuentes, Trevin Schafer and Daniel Cain, had a lot of obstacles to overcome with their design, as many of the materials had to be inexpensive and either available in Uganda or easily shippable to the site. The team also had to conduct a tremendous amount of research, considering their backgrounds were limited in botany, hydrology, etc.

“It was an incredible learning process,” Schafer said. “We’re obviously not hydrologists or mechanical engineers, but we made it all work. A ton of our decisions in the design and construction were based off of research and collaborative ideas. It also helped that we worked really well together.”

The team’s design required the use of solar panels and battery storage, which is where the students’ skills in electrical engineering came to play. The students also developed an electronic system that allows them to monitor the effectiveness of the system remotely and track their data.

WSU Tri-Cities engineering projects for Uganda - aquaponics

The WSU Tri-Cities students’ aquaponics system utilizes a solar-powered pump to pump tilapia fish waste and recycled to plants that are planted in an above bin. The student’s design will be implemented in the Kagoma Gate Village in Uganda this June.

The way the team’s design works is as follows:

  1. Plants are planted in clay pellets atop the apparatus, where water is circulated to the plants via a solar-powered pump
  2. Tilapia fish live in a water tank and their waste is distributed to fertilize the plants growing at the top of the apparatus
  3. The fish then double as a food supply source, as they are native to Uganda and are easy to breed

Schafer said overall, the system uses far less water than that of traditional farming methods.

“The main reason we chose this project as our final engineering capstone project is that it truly provides one of the best resources for the people of Uganda,” he said. “It may not be as heavy in electrical engineering as some of the other student projects, but this project will certainly do a lot of good.”

Al-Shakarji said the project has presented the team with significant challenges, but great rewards.

“It’s been challenging to add the component of having to keep something alive, but it’s something that the people in Uganda will find of real value,” he said. “It’s also something that can be easily expanded. Using a manual that is provided by our team and components that may be easily shipped to the country or purchased locally, anyone can recreate this system. The sky is the limit for expansion.”

Solar lighting for additional educational hours

The Kagoma Gate Village has no access to electricity, which limits the number of hours that are available to provide educational instruction, activities and more. That is why a WSU Tri-Cities student electrical engineering team has partnered to create a solar lighting system that will provide more educational hours to the villagers’ days.

WSU Tri-Cities engineering projects for Uganda - solar lighting

The WSU Tri-Cities student electrical engineering team poses with their solar lighting system (above) that will be implemented in the Kagoma Gate Village in Uganda this June.

The team, composed of students Pierce Jones, Daniel Deaton, Steven Goulet and Richard Dempsey, are creating a lighting system that will provide the same level of light as a standard U.S. office building and has the capability to store enough energy for at least two hours of light per night.

“Right now, the villagers are using kerosene lanterns, which are not only very dangerous, but also very expensive,” Hudson said. “When you think about the fact that these people are making an average of $1 a day, that can eat significantly into the family’s budget.”

Deaton said one of their main challenges was finding components that met their design requirements, allowing the lights to shine bright enough, while not making the system too expensive for the village. The batteries and

WSU Tri-Cities engineering projects for Uganda - solar lighting

The student’s solar lighting system uses a strip of LED lights powered by a solar energy system. The system will provide the same level of light as a standard U.S. office building and has the capability to store enough energy for at least two hours of light per night.

the solar panels, specifically, can be very expensive, he said. The system also had to be simple enough so that it could be recreated by other people in the region.

“Ideally, when this is all done, we want to have it where other villages can reproduce it at a low cost,” Dempsey said. “These are very hard working people that deserve to have a few hours of additional light that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”

Dempsey said their design, including the solar power components, can be reproduced for about $500.

“Our system is all very scalable and very linear,” Deaton said. “When it does get reproduced, we hope that the village won’t have to learn anything beyond that initial installation. We are creating a manual that provides all of the instructions for the installation.”

Mushroom dyer for economic growth

While Uganda has made great strides toward reducing the level of extreme poverty within the country, economic development remains a significant challenge due to lack of infrastructure and access to larger markets.

WSU Tri-Cities engineering projects for Uganda - mushroom dryer

The WSU Tri-Cities mechanical engineering team builds the frame for their mushroom dryer, which will be implemented this June in the Wakiso District of Uganda.

The Panache Cooperative in the Wakiso District of Uganda has been successfully growing oyster mushrooms, which are considered a delicacy in Africa. Preserving the mushroom’s shelf life, however, has posed a problem. Without extended preservation, exporting the crop to larger markets is impossible. That is why a WSU Tri-Cities student mechanical engineering team is constructing a mushroom drying device that uses minimal power.

The team, composed of students Sam Sparks, Rachel Estes, Keenan Moll, Ian Pierce, Lorraine Seymour and Joel Larson, was tasked with reinventing traditional commercially available dehydrators. Even the modest-sized versions, Pierce said, require significant electrical power, which is not available in the Wakiso District.

“The biggest challenge we’ve had to deal with is getting a mushroom, which consists of 90 percent water, down to 20 percent while dealing with the Ugandan climate that consists of about 70 percent humidity year-round,” Pierce said.

To combat that issue, the team created a device that utilizes a Lexan polycarbonate top that allows for the air to absorb solar energy and be superheated within the system. The system then uses solar components to promote air flow to help regulate the temperature, which ensures that the mushrooms don’t cook, and in turn, lose nutrients.

WSU Tri-Cities engineering projects for Uganda - mushroom dryer

The WSU Tri-Cities mechanical engineering team constructs piping for their mushroom dryer that will be implemented this June in Uganda. The team’s goal was to be able to dry approximately 25 kilograms of mushrooms per day with their design.

“The design has to be simple so that they can build it there,” Seymour said. “It all has to be simple parts with simple assembly, which we were able to accomplish.”

Moll said their design should increase the standard shelf life of the mushrooms from 24 hours, which is standard for unrefrigerated fresh mushrooms, to several weeks or more for the dried product. The team’s goal was to be able to dry approximately 25 kilograms of mushrooms per day. The team’s modular design is scalable to accomplish that feat.

“The people in the Wakiso District will be able to use the dryers to dry their mushrooms and sell them as a local product to restaurants and other businesses, which will help them earn a greater living,” Seymour said. “I feel very rewarded to have participated on this project, because we’re creating something that will have a lasting value.”

Saad said the projects provided his students a tremendous opportunity to utilize their skills in engineering to provide solutions to issues across the world.

“These humanitarian projects provided unique opportunities for my students and gave them greater confidence and the skills to work in unfamiliar environments and across cultural differences,” he said.

Beyond implementation

In addition to installing the different devices within their respective communities this June, Hudson said his goal will be to meet with representatives of the Ugandan government, representatives from the universities, as well as other influential figures to see how they can spread their work to other regions and villages.

“These villages are at a zero level for technology,” he said. “Anything we can do to help is a big improvement, and by empowering Ugandans with technology that they can fix, adapt and implement themselves, it will have a lasting impact that will benefit individuals for generations to come.”

Hudson said The Giving Circle has been a tremendous partner. He said he plans to continue the partnership for future student engineering projects.

“The Giving Circle is in it for the long-term and it makes a lot of sense for us to make this an ongoing development project from WSU Tri-Cities,” he said. “This is hopefully just the beginning of a larger effort and partnership.”

RICHLAND, Wash. – Washington State University Tri-Cities will confer 372 degrees during its commencement ceremony beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at the Toyota Center, 7000 W. Grandridge Blvd. in Kennewick, Wash.

WSU Tri-Cities commencementDoors open at noon. The event is free to the public and tickets are not required.

Among those graduating, 313 students are earning their bachelor’s degrees, 46 master’s and 13 doctoral degrees.

Chancellor Keith Moo-Young will present the welcome address, the Chancellor’s Excellence Award for faculty and staff and will confer degrees. He will also present the Distinguished Alumnus Award to Gesa Credit Union CEO Don Miller. Michele Acker-Hocevar, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, will present introductions and recognitions.

Israa Alshaikhli, Associated Students of WSU Tri-Cities president, will give the graduate greeting, which will be followed by the student address by valedictorian Kylie Chiesa.

Six students were selected to carry gonfalons, which are colorful banners that represent the colleges, based on their academic excellence. Those students include:

• Dennis Bonilla, agricultural, human and natural resource sciences
• Ana Isabel Sandoval Zazueta, arts and sciences
• David Law, business
• Jasmine Gonzalez, education
• Lorraine Seymour, engineering and architecture
• Mercedez Gomez, nursing

WSU Tri-Cities graduating student Kayla Stark will sing the national anthem.

For more information, visit http://tricities.wsu.edu/commencement.

 

Media Contacts:

Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333, Maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu

RICHLAND, Wash. – Students will deliver presentations on their research, classroom projects and art noon-1 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, May 2-4, as part of the Undergraduate Research Symposium and Art Exhibition at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

WSU Tri-Cities Undergraduate Research Symposium and Art Exhibition

WSU Tri-Cities Undergraduate Research Symposium and Art Exhibition

The public is invited to hear presentations, explore topics, ask questions and give feedback.

“Our undergraduates have opportunities to engage in hands-on experiences with research, scholarship and creative works throughout their undergraduate careers, starting with freshman survey courses through senior capstone projects,” said Allison Matthews, WSU Tri-Cities clinical assistant professor of psychology. “The Undergraduate Research Symposium and Art Exhibition highlights their accomplishments in discovery and advancing knowledge.”

Some of the projects that will be featured include:

  • Nondestructive nuclear inspection robot
  • SAE Aero Design – electric airplane
  • Solar Mushroom Dryer – one of three projects that will be implemented in Uganda
  • Social Problems and Service Learning
  • Freshwater Invertebrates from the Columbia Basin
  • Bioinformatic Approaches Further Research for Ovarian Cancer
  • Cinema Verite
  • Digital imaging

The sessions will be in Consolidated Information Center, Room 120, with Thursday’s presentations also in the Art Gallery. 

Disciplines covered will include the sciences, digital technology and culture, fine arts, English, history, political science, engineering, psychology, statistics and exploration and leadership.

RICHLAND, Wash. – A team from Washington State University Tri-Cities whose business plan is to commercialize a WSU-patented jet fuel technology developed by WSU Tri-Cities professor Bin Yang’s lab has advanced to the University of Washington Business Plan Competition’s “sweet 16” round.

Libing Zhang presents during the UW Business Plan Competition

WSU Tri-Cities’ Libing Zhang presents during the UW Business Plan Competition

According to the university website, the goal of the UW Business Plan Competition is to promote student ideas and new venture creation and provide an opportunity for business and science students to present new business plans to Seattle-area venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and investors.

The team, composed of Libing Zhang, a recent doctoral alumna, and master’s in business administration students Manuel Seubert and Taylor Pate, presented the process of taking lignin, a waste product in the cellulosic ethanol biorefineries and pulping process that is considered one of the most abundant renewable carbon sources on Earth, and turning it into an environmentally-friendly, cheap jet fuel that can potentially reduce the carbon emissions for commercial airlines.

The WSU Tri-Cities team advanced from an initial pool of 82 teams in the screening round of the competition, which was then narrowed to a pool of 36 teams in the investment round before the team advanced to the sweet 16. During the investment round, each team had approximately four hours of face time with entrepreneurs, angel investors, venture capitalists and competition alumni from the Seattle area.

Last month, the same WSU Tri-Cities team placed third at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge. Zhang is also the entrepreneurial lead on a National Science Foundation I-Corps lignin-to-biojetfuel project, which was awarded to Yang and his team.

Paul Skilton, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of management, and Yang are advisers for the WSU Tri-Cities team.

The sweet 16 round of the UW Business Plan Competition kicks off May 25, followed by the final round that afternoon. The final round is open to the public. Prizes will be awarded later that evening at the competition dinner at MOHAI in South Lake Union.

RICHLAND, Wash. – WSU Tri-Cities and the U.S. Department of Energy will hold their second lecture as part of a new series on the Hanford Site from 3-4 p.m. Thursday, April 27, in the East Auditorium on campus. This presentation will focus on the Hanford Site’s radioactive tank waste, which has become the site’s greatest challenge.

Single- and double-shell tanks
river protection logo Sahid Smith, lead engineer for the Low-Activity Waste Pretreatment System Project at the DOE Office of River Protection, will deliver the lecture. His lecture will cover how the single and double-shell radioactive waste tanks were constructed, in addition to the complex combination of 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste taking the physical form of sludge, salts and liquids that all have varying combinations of chemical properties.

Smith began his DOE career at the Richland Operations Office in 2007 as a general engineer, where he worked on the K-Basin Closure Project focusing primarily on the Sludge Treatment Project. He completed several rotational assignments in the Environmental Management Professional Development Corps Program in 2008, including assignments at the Oak Ridge Operation Office and Environmental Management Headquarters. Smith joined DOE’s Office of River Protection in October 2014. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in chemical engineering from Florida A&M University.

Linking to DOE

The DOE and its contractors are actively recruiting interns and staff in a broad scope of professional and technical jobs. Linking DOE operations with faculty, students and the community, this series focuses on opportunities and key challenges to be solved by today’s and tomorrow’s workers.

The lecture will be broadcast live at WSU Pullman, WSU Vancouver, WSU North Puget Sound at Everett and WSU Spokane via the campus AMS video streaming service.

 

Media Contacts:

By Maegan Murray

A team from Washington State University Tri-Cities placed 17th recently during the SAE Aero Design Competition in Fort Worth, Texas.

WSU Tri-Cities - SAE Aero Design Competition

The WSU Tri-Cities mechanical engineering team poses with the airplane they designed and competed with at the SAE Aero Design Competition.

The team, composed of senior mechanical engineering students Erik Zepeda, Austin Shaw, Ryan Hagins, Matt Kosmos, Arich Fuher and Jose Espinoza, spent five months designing and constructing their airplane. The plane spanned seven feet long and had a wing span of eight feet.

The team said they chose a different design from WSU Tri-Cities teams who competed in years prior, and that their design was also different from many teams competing.

“Most of the other designs were pretty square, but we wanted to go with a more aerodynamic shape,” Shaw said. “We got numerous compliments on the design of our plane.”

During the competition, the team had a very successful first flight, placing fourth in the first round. During their second flight, however, the team had some electrical problems, which they weren’t able to remedy mid-air and the aircraft crashed.

“Even with that crash, we ended up placing 10th in the flight category,” Shaw said. “If we hadn’t crashed, we probably could have placed in the top five teams. That was disappointing, but everything else went really well.”

In addition to their 17th overall placing, the team placed 23rd in regular class design, 22nd in regular class presentation and 18th in regular class most payload transported.SAE Aero Design Competition - Spring 2017

All of the team members said despite their disappointing second flight, they all thoroughly enjoyed the design process, as well as the competition.

“It was a pretty cool experience, especially since it was our senior project,” said Zepeda. “I had never thought about aerospace engineering before, but now I’m thinking about it as a possible career direction.”

All the team members said the project presented them with excellent preparation for their future careers as engineers, regardless of the field of engineering they each go into.

“It definitely gives you good experience for taking on a large engineering project, as well as working with different people, scheduling, meeting deadlines and making presentations in front of judges,” Fuher said.

SAE Aero Design Competition - Spring 2017The design project was part of a senior capstone course taught by Messiha Saad, WSU Tri-Cities clinical assistant professor of mechanical engineering and faculty adviser for the campus’ SAE Aero Design team. Saad said the competition provides the opportunity for his students to learn the mechanics and importance of teamwork, project organization, scheduling, system and product design, product testing, cost analysis and project reporting.

“Through this design project and competition, my students are able to demonstrate and develop their engineering skills set in a real-world environment with real deadlines and stiff competition,” he said. “I am very proud that my students demonstrated the ability to successfully compete with students from some of the top-rated engineering programs in the country.”

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – A team from Washington State University Tri-Cities took third place among 21 teams at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge’s finals this week for their creation and business model presentation of a technology that converts lignin, a natural byproduct of plant-based materials, into biojet fuel.

Photo courtesy: Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship
Libing Zhang talks with people at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge.

During the challenge, interdisciplinary student teams define an environmental problem, develop a solution, design and build a prototype, create a business plan that proves their solution has market potential and pitches their idea to 170 judges from throughout the Northwest who have expertise in cleantech, as well as to entrepreneurs and inventors, at a demo-day event.

The WSU Tri-Cities team, composed of postdoctoral researcher Libing Zhang and Manuel Seubert, a master’s in business administration student, advanced to the finals from an initial pool of 29 teams during the first round of the competition.

Paul Skilton, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of management, and Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of biological systems engineering, advised the team. The WSU Tri-Cities team also worked regularly with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to prepare for the competition.

The team was presented with the Starbucks $5,000 prize for their third-place ranking in the final round of the competition.

Advancing biofuels

Zhang, team leader for the challenge, said the main benefits for their technology is that it takes lignin, a waste

Photo courtesy: Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship
Manuel Seubert presents at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge.

product in the biorefineries and pulping process that is considered one of the most abundant renewable carbon sources on Earth, and turns it into an environmentally-friendly, cheap jet fuel that can potentially reduce the carbon emissions for commercial airlines.

“I see several advantages of the technology and hope we can scale it up for commercialization, which will help commercial airlines to achieve their goals in reducing greenhouse emissions,” she said.

Developing a commercial product

Seubert, team co-leader for the challenge, said their goal with the competition was to capture people’s attention for the value of their technology, while using the experience as a learning opportunity for their future in developing the lignin-based jet fuel product into a commercial business.

“The next challenge is to secure funding so that we can scale it up to an industrial scale,” he said. “We are

Libing Zhang displays a container of lignin

Photo courtesy: Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship
Libing Zhang displays a container of lignin

actively looking for funding sources at this point and are thinking about establishing a limited liability company, which will allow us to pursue small business grants.”

Zhang said raising awareness about the product was a crucial part of the competition experience.

“We want people to know that the technology for converting lignin to biojet fuel has a commercial value,” she said. “It is encouraging knowing that people care about the technology and see its potential for reducing the carbon footprint. Now, we hope to take the technology to the next level in the business world.”

Zhang is also the entrepreneurial lead on a National Science Foundation I-Corps lignin-to-biojetfuel project, which was awarded to Yang and his team.

Skilton said the project represents an excellence illustration of the cutting-edge, hands-on programming students experience at WSU Tri-Cities.

“This is an example of the kind of integrated project team work our MBA students come to WSU Tri-Cities to do,” he said.

The Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge is the creation of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship in the Foster School of Business, in partnership with the University of Washington’s College of Engineering, College of the Environment, Clean Energy Institute, College of Built Environments and the Department of Biology.

Contacts:

Libing Zhang, WSU Tri-Cities recent doctoral graduate and postdoctoral researcher, libing.zhang@wsu.edu

Manuel Seubert, WSU Tri-Cities master’s in business administration student, manuel.seubert@wsu.edu

Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333, maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu

RICHLAND, Wash. – Washington State University Tri-Cities is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy to host a new lecture series focusing on the Hanford Site and the DOE’s current and future missions at the site.

The kick-off lecture covers the history of Hanford and begins at 3 p.m. March 27 in West Building room 256 at WSU Tri-Cities. Students, faculty and the community are welcome for the presentation.

As a large percentage of the current workforce becomes eligible for retirement in the next five years, the DOE and its contractors are actively recruiting interns and staff in a broad scope of professional and technical jobs. Linking DOE operations with faculty, students, and the community, this series focuses on opportunities and key challenges to be solved by today’s and tomorrow’s workers.

Carrie Meyer, director of public affairs for the DOE’s Office of River Protection, will present during the first lecture on March 27. She joined the Office of River Protection in 2007 and has 23 years of experience in communications, marketing, information management and public affairs in government, engineering and nuclear power industries. She has completed assignments for the assistant secretary of energy for environmental management and the secretary of energy, focusing on congressional interactions, policy, tribal nation engagement and communications.

The lecture on March 27 will be broadcast live at WSU Pullman, WSU Vancouver, WSU North Puget Sound at Everett and WSU Spokane via the campus AMS video streaming service.

For more information, contact Tish Christman at 509-372-7683.

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found a new way to define the molecular structure of cellulose, which could lead to cheaper and more efficient ways to make a variety of crucial bioproducts.

For the first time, researchers revealed the differences between the surface layers and the crystalline core of cellulose by combining spectroscopy processes that use infrared and visible laser beams to analyze the structure of molecular components. The findings appear this month in Scientific Reports, an online open-access journal produced by the Nature Publishing Group (http://www.nature.com/articles/srep44319).

The spectroscopy processes are known as Total Internal Reflection Sum Frequency Generation Vibrational Spectroscopy (TIR-SFG-VS) and conventional SFG-VS.

Making biofuels, bioproducts cost-competitive

Bin Yang, co-author and WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of biological systems engineering, said cellulose is one of the most abundant organic compounds on Earth. Understanding the cellulosic biomass recalcitrance, or resistance to degradation, at the molecular level is a key step toward overcoming the fundamental barrier to making cellulosic biofuels cost-competitive, he said.

“Cellulose is commonly known as a product that is difficult to break down and convert into other useful products,” said co-author Hongfei Wang, former chief scientist in the physical sciences division at PNNL and current professor of chemistry at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Using our nonlinear vibrational spectroscopic technique, we can resolve some questions associated with the recalcitrance of cellulosic biomass and, in turn, more efficiently convert the product into a usable commodity.”

Yang said that although plant cell walls are complex and dynamic, recent advances in analytical chemistry and genomics have substantially enhanced understanding of cellulosic biomass recalcitrance while simultaneously highlighting the remaining knowledge gaps.

Understanding structure opens industrial possibilities

“This discovery is significant because it not only challenges the traditional understanding of cellulose materials, it provides further insight into the surface and bulk chemistry of cellulosic fibers, building on a novel spectroscopic tool to characterize such structural differences,” said Arthur J. Ragauskas, Governor’s Chair in biorefining for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is an expert on the subject, but not involved in the research.

He said the discovery of the nonuniformity and the structure of cellulose in the study can improve the efficiency of industrial application of cellulose.

“The discovery may lead to modification of the current definitions of the different types of cellulose structures,” he said. “This discovery represents yet another instance of the importance of spectroscopic observations in transformative advances to understand the structure of the cellulosic biomass.”

Libing Zhang

Libing Zhang, co-author and postdoctoral researcher at WSU Tri-Cities, called it a privilege to participate in such a significant discovery while utilizing such advanced technology, especially knowing that it could have a profound impact on the advancement of bioproducts.

“We can use the application of this technology to fundamentally understand the conversion process of nearly every cellulose-based product in the future,” she said.

Researchers at WSU and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at PNNL collaborated on the study. Yang’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Young Faculty Award and the SFG capability and expertise at EMSL, an Office of Science user facility of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research of the U.S. Department of Energy, made the study possible. It is DOI:10.1038/srep44319.

Zhang, Yang, Li Fu, a William Wiley Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow formerly at EMSL, and Wang conducted the research.

 

News media contacts:
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-640, binyang@tricity.wsu.edu
John Nicksich, EMSL communications, 509-375-7398, john.nicksich@pnnl.gov
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-333, maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

Before LIGO announced that it had made its second-ever observance of gravitational waves last year, further proving Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, Daniel Cain was one of the few who already knew.

Cain, an engineering student at Washington State University Tri-Cities, took on an internship experience at LIGO Hanford last summer where he worked with engineers in

WSU Tri-Cities student Daniel Cain

WSU Tri-Cities student Daniel Cain

radio frequency technology. He spent the summer building devices that would help filter and decipher radio waves, which would help prevent interferences and disruptions with equipment that had a larger role in the gravitational wave detection technology.

LIGO made their second gravitation wave detection on Dec. 26, 2015, but it wasn’t until July 15, 2016, that they made the detection public. A large part of the gap in time, Cain said, is that scientists must sort through a multitude of data to ensure that their detections are accurate and that they hadn’t picked up a false positive from another source.

While Cain’s internship experience didn’t deal specifically with the gravitational wave detection technology, it still had an impact on safeguarding the equipment that will continue to be crucial in the whole effort.

“While the radio waves don’t interfere with gravity waves themselves, they interfere with other electrical equipment, such as the laser controls,” he said. “My job was to help them make sure that radio interference doesn’t affect their detections.”

Cain will present his project at WSU’s Academic Showcase from 9 a.m. – noon March 27 in the Compton Union Building at WSU Pullman.

Preventing disruption

Cain said in order for scientists and engineers to detect gravitational waves at the facility, they use a number of very sensitive, very sophisticated instruments that detail intricate waves that, until 2015, had never been physically observed. Cain said the lasers used to detect the waves, which require a vacuum-sealed environment, also necessitate a range of equipment that prevent and decipher between even the slightest of environmental factors, which could lead to a false positive.

“The moon passing around the earth causes the earth’s crust to flex,” Cain said. “It changes the shape enough that they have to worry about it being a disruption to their monitoring equipment. The scientists and engineers at LIGO have to monitor a lot of environmental factors, from wind, to seismic activity, to even spring runoff from the mountains.”

Similar disruptions could occur with other vital equipment at the facility.

Cain said what they wanted him to create was a circuit that would take the output of their radio receivers and tell LIGO engineers how strong radio waves were in a way that could be turned into a digital number that they could easily read and categorize. Knowing the radio signal strength would help them eliminate false positives.

A learning experience

Cain said the difficult part of his initial study and creation of radio monitoring equipment is that radio waves are so fast that normal circuits can’t rate them accurately.

“The tiny things that wouldn’t interfere with normal circuits, interfere with radio,” he said. “It makes the engineering problem more challenging.”

Additionally, he said, most radio wave-reading equipment use the logarithmic decibel scale, which is effective for increasing equipment range, but not so convenient in understanding what the wave is doing, exactly.

Part of a radio wave device that WSU Tri-Cities student Daniel Cain made for LIGO during his internship last summer

Part of a radio wave device that WSU Tri-Cities student Daniel Cain made for LIGO during his internship last summer.

“Almost all radio equipment is logarithmic, which is why they wanted my design to work because it wasn’t logarithmic,” he said. “It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but would have made their data processing a little easier.”

Cain created two prototypes, the first of which had a few design issues, which he corrected using new and modified materials. His second prototype worked, but its main issue was that it couldn’t pick up weaker radio signals.

“It became very accurate,” he said. “The output had to be between zero and two volts, and it was in the 90th percentile for accuracy. It could detect the higher-strength signals very well. But the tiny signals, which are weak and easily blocked, it didn’t detect very well.”

Cain ran out of time for his third prototype. He was successful, however, in modifying one of their established device designs to do what was asked of him, but it remained in logarithmic scale, which was still an issue. But his efforts were not all lost. One of Cain’s major feats came by accident in the final stages of creating one of his devices.

“I figured out that one of the antennas for their radio receivers was broken,” he said. “It isn’t something they are always watching, but it is something they have to check. They told me they probably wouldn’t have found out it was broken until they were about to look for gravitational waves for real, which would have forced them to reassign an engineer to fix the problem. They told me it was almost worth the whole summer finding that.”

Applying school to the real world

Cain said even though he ran into some issues during his internship and wished he would have more time to develop the technology, the learning process, alone, made the whole summer a worthwhile experience.

“I learned so much,” he said. “I put to use a lot of things that I learned in school and I had to learn a lot of things from scratch. The practical experience, alone, I would recommend to anyone in an engineering program.”

Daniel Cain, left, and engineering classmate

Daniel Cain, left, and a classmate work on a device during an engineering lab course.

Cain said the body of knowledge in engineering has grown to be so large that it is becoming not possible to teach a student everything they need to know during an undergraduate education.

“It is not really possible to bring an undergraduate to the level of knowledge of the industry, which is where things like internships come to play,” he said. “Having the experience this summer means that some of the mystique surrounding engineering is removed. That is one of the main reasons why internships and practical experience is so important. It gets you out of the school mindset and into the real-world mindset.”

Cain said it was also incredibly rewarding to work with world-renowned engineers that have truly made a mark in history, but at the same time, are as down to earth as the next person. They were always willing to “help out the ultra noob,” he said with a laugh.

“The engineers were all really nice,” he said. “They all took pity on me as the new guy, helped answer my questions and offer their advice. They were all quick to help explain things that you wouldn’t normally learn in school, but that everyone else knows in the industry. That was the most valuable part.”