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Everything is Connected
Five faculty. Five projects. One smart future.
Every few weeks you’ll see a strange contraption on a street corner in Beckley, West Virginia.
Every few weeks you’ll see a strange contraption on a street corner in Beckley, West Virginia.
It’s a box full of electronics strapped to a light pole. There’s a very tall, telescoping pole attached to it with what looks like a little white megaphone at the top. Sometimes you’ll even see passersby stooping, taking photos and examining the box to see what clues they might uncover about the device.
Then, as quickly and quietly as it appeared, it’s gone.
This happens over and over, and each time it does, there’s a chance the traffic at that intersection is going to get a little safer.
That’s because the device is a specialized traffic camera. Installed by WVU Tech civil engineering professor Dr. Amr Mohammed, it’s part of a multiyear project aimed at increasing traffic safety in the region.
Amr’s background is in transportation and traffic engineering. In this busier-than-ever chunk of human history, it’s his calling.
“The world is always moving. People and things are always moving. We’re always looking at how to improve how traffic moves and enhance the safety of people when they drive,” he said.
There’s a noble goal behind Amr’s experiments.
“We want to improve congestion because it has a price. That price includes fuel consumption, pollution and delays. It also contributes to anger and road rage, so congestion has a real price on our health and our lives,” he said.
There are higher costs, too.
“Almost 40,000 people die every year in the U.S. from traffic crashes,” he said. “These crashes kill more people than wars and other means of transportation, like airplanes, combined. So one of our goals in traffic and transportation engineering is to bring these numbers down.”
To meet that goal, Amr began on a hyper-local level, starting with that odd-looking camera. The device – a “scout” camera system – captures footage of how vehicle and foot traffic moves through a particular point.
Using that collected data, Amr and his team of students can determine the volume of traffic, how it moves, peak times and other points of interest. They can even watch for “near-misses” to calculate the potential danger of a current traffic pattern.
When the number crunching is complete, the group starts the real work: figuring out how to make an each monitored point safer.
Working with the city and local transportation agencies, Amr and his team use their findings to suggest alterations. They covered everything from traffic lights and stop sign placement to pedestrian crossings.
The first wave of research took place on campus. Students conducted studies on how to enhance traffic flow and make campus safer for those on foot. It was an intentional effort to get students interested in the work.
They did, and many of them have taken that fascination into the field with them.
“In any discipline,” said Amr, “if you link your work to your actual desires and issues, you’ll give it your best. If students enjoy solving a problem on their own campus, they will be very, very encouraged when they graduate to work in the same field and solve other problems.”
Now Amr’s working with a new group, and every few weeks, you’ll see them at some new intersection. Recently, they’ve been working with the City of Beckley on improved pedestrian safety at one of the city’s busiest intersections.
As he explains the system to his students and extends that camera into the fall Beckley air, a new chance to make things a little safer – and maybe a chance to save a life – goes up with it.
Fuel from what we have
While Amr is working to make transportation safer, is spending her time trying to fuel it in a smarter, safer way.
For the better part of a decade, she’s been working on creating a cleaner-burning bio-diesel fuel and a method for capturing the carbon dioxide our cars breathe into the environment.
You’ll find Gifty and a student researcher in a small lab on campus. There’s an odd assembly of things on the black table. There’s a lump of coal. There’s a brown, dried corn stalk with its wispy leaves still attached. There’s a bundle of dense grass and some large devices with blinking lights that have names like “thermogravimetric analyzer” and “gas chromatograph mass spectrometer.”
The student grinds some of the grass with a mortar and pestle. Next to the futuristic machines, it’s a strange mix of old world methods and modern technology. Some of the ingredients are combined in measured, minute portions and heated up in a process known as co-pyrolysis. Then a carefully orchestrated chemical reaction occurs that turns those rich organic compounds into a liquid.
“That liquid is bio-diesel and it has the potential to be used as fuel for vehicles, home heating and many other applications,” said Gifty.
This process has been going on for the last six years. The research started with pine and hickory. Then it moved on to corn stover (the leftover stalks and leaves from a corn harvest). Now Gifty is using a type of grass called Miscanthus. It’s fast-growing, easy to come by and very dense in organics.
The coal portion of the mixture is also an important factor. Bio-diesel can be very corrosive because it contains a lot of oxygen, which can damage engines. Coal enhances the fuel by removing oxygen during the co-pyrolysis reaction. It also uses one of the most abundant fuel sources in the state.
“The project opens up a means to combine two of the important raw materials that
we have here in West Virginia – coal and biomass – to develop liquid fuel. The
biomass we are using is cellulosic biomass, which is really abundant and renewable,”
It’s also a chance to put the coalfields to work in a very different way.
“There’s a movement underway to convert old coal fields into spaces where we can grow this type of biomass,” said Gifty. They can be harvested every year. And if we have a way of converting the organics in these materials into fuel, there would be no need to import oil. Using cellulosic biomass also means we don’t need to depend on food crops as a biomass source, like corn.”
So now Gifty and her student researchers are trying different ratios of materials and different catalysts to get the best result. It’s a foundational effort.
“We are doing the basic research to determine the right conditions that will give us the best oil. We will publish our work and hopefully somebody else will be able to take that information and use it at a larger scale to produce oil,” she said.
When that happens, Gifty has an idea for the other side of that fuel consumption.
She’s continuing work on a project designed to capture the harmful carbon dioxide produced by burning fuel.
Her idea? A product that can efficiently pull carbon dioxide from an emission stream.
The technique uses adsorption. It’s a process where certain compounds stick to others (not to be confused with absorption, where one compound draws another in). Her goal is to create a solid that can get the job done.
“At the moment, what’s being used is a liquid. It’s very energy-intensive. It takes a whole lot of energy to release the CO2 in the liquid so that liquid can be reused. So adsorption is much easier because you don’t have to heat it to a high temperature to release that CO2, and you can reuse the adsorbent many times,” she said.
Like her work in bio-diesel, the project is foundational.
She and her team have so far created a compound that uses silica to adsorb the CO2. But silica is very compact and hard to move gases through, so the team had to synthesize silica in a polymer. (It gets technical here, but think of the polymer as sponge with its pores packed with silica.) This allows the gas to move more with much less resistance.
Pack all of that into a tube or column and you have a carbon dioxide filter that’s easy to use, less energy intensive and better for the environment. The end-product could capture CO2 emissions on everything from individual vehicles to large-scale power plants.
“We will always come up with byproducts that could be detrimental to the environment. To keep our environment healthy, we need a way to reduce how much pollution we put out there. It’s a small project, but having this knowledge out there that someone can use to come up with a better version is what drives the work,” said Gifty.
Updating the grid
As Gifty works to power our cars and clean up our power plants, Dr. Kenan Hatipoglu tinkers with a bank of electronics across campus. His passion is a smarter power grid, and he’s working to make that cleaner electricity much more reliable for everyone attached to it.
His current project is called “Dynamic Voltage Stability Enhancement of a Distribution System with High Penetration of Distributed Energy Resources during Emergency, Hazard, and Disaster Events to Improve Grid Resiliency.”
Yes, it’s a long name, but the aim is simple. When disaster strikes, the grid reacts to keep the lights on for as many people as possible.
Kenan’s process uses a control system that works with smart inverters all across the grid.
“The technique develops a centralized controller that collects information from different inverters. After reading through that data, it decides who’s going to contribute and who’s going to be idle. It’s all automated and optimized. So when there’s a disturbance, it can very quickly decide how to address the issue,” he said.
Here’s how it works: imagine a downtown area with a conventional coal or gas-fired power plant. There are also a few distributed energy sources (a wind farm and a few houses with solar panels). Now imagine that a storm hits that downtown area and creates a fault in the power system.
Typically, those solar and wind resources would disconnect during emergency events. Hatipoglu’s system would instead adjust the smart inverters on those wind and solar sites. These sources would support the grid where needed, keeping power on for customers who would otherwise be sitting in the dark.
“This project aims to keep electrical energy running with minimum interruption to people experiencing extreme conditions. It is targeting for uninterrupted power to people when it is needed the most,” he said.
The project has been in progress for half a decade. It got a big boost this summer when Kenan was selected for the Department of Energy’s Visiting Faculty Program at the prestigious Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. (It’s the home of the Manhattan Project, the world’s first medical isotopes, the first successful bone marrow transplant and some of the planet’s fastest super computers.)
At Oak Ridge, Kenan spent ten weeks working in the power and energy systems group alongside some of the brightest minds in his field.
“We spent time talking about different aspects of my project and some of the ongoing projects at the lab. Sharing ideas and working with colleagues to find possible solutions was the best part of my experience at Oak Ridge,” he said.
He also spent time conducting simulations of his project in Oak Ridge’s modern labs. He learned best practices for finding research funds. He even conducted an intensive literature review using the lab’s vast research resources.
“After reviewing this state-of-the-art research, I found ways to better incorporate solar panels into the power system. It allowed me to bring in solar units from wherever they are located within the system to boost the resiliency of the grid,” he said.
He also learned about new solar panel standards developed by the DOE and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
“Ten years ago, we just wanted solar panels and, if there was an issue, it was okay if they just shut off. Now we have found that this approach is not good for the grid. That excess in power is causing issues in the grid system. This is one of the reasons the DOE is investing in this kind of research. They’re trying to make the controllers – the inverters – in those units more intelligent,” he said.
So now Kenan’s back on campus with a head full of ideas.
He’s currently developing plans to build a micro-grid lab on campus. It will allow student researchers to simulate the process on a small scale.
“We’re going to analyze cyber security issues and control issues. Trying to imitate a grid and trying to find ways to show different grid phenomena to students and create some algorithms and innovative ways to address them,” he said.
For the last seven years, Dr. Mingyu Lu has been working on a method of harnessing that clean, reliable power – all without wires.
Ming is an expert in microwave circuits and electromagnetic fields. He’s been chasing the dream of wireless power transmission throughout his career.
Microwave transmission is a field that’s been in development for a very long time. Microwaves are already used in radar applications and to shuttle information to and from the satellites orbiting Earth. Using these same microwaves to transfer energy is a bit trickier, and scientists the world over have been working on the issue for half a century.
Ming wants to use that same concept to power devices like smart phones.
“Wireless power transmission, if accomplished successfully, would make mobile electronic devices truly portable. Cell phones offer us tremendous mobility and flexibility in terms of wireless communication. However, the convenience my cell phone offers me disappears when I charge my cell phone using wires. A cell phone is not a truly portable device if it has to rely on wired charging,” he said.
The concept is already at work in many American homes. Wireless charging pads work by transmitting energy without wires, but you still need to be in contact with something that’s plugged into the wall.
So Ming has been working on a way to transmit energy over much longer distances. (In a field that deals in electrons, Ming says “long-distance” is measured in single-digit meters.)
His work has landed him some collaborative opportunities. He received a grant from the National Science Foundation and has been working alongside a researcher from the University of Houston.
So far, he’s published a number of technical papers on his research. He’s even built
a prototype system to test
“When the first system was assembled, it was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, though my first system was very primitive. The wireless power delivered to the wireless power receiver was as low as one milliwatt,” he said.
That’s about the same amount of power it takes to run a hearing aid. And while that doesn’t seem like much, it’s a step in the right direction.
Ming says there’s a lot of work to be done in the field, which is frustrated by a number of issues.
“My research has three major challenges. The first one is how to improve the efficiency of wireless power transmission. The second one is how to avoid the potential biological hazard to human beings. The third one is how to avoid possible interference to other electrical and electronic systems,” he said.
Even so, Ming’s drive is steady. He
plans to work on the project for the foreseeable future.
He’s working alongside students, too, and finds that doing so often provides him with valuable help and insight.
“Several students helped me a lot since I joined Tech. For instance, Corbin Adkins, who graduated in the spring of 2018, made fabulous contributions to my research. Meanwhile, I believe he found his efforts rewarding: his research helped him win the NASA Undergraduate Affiliate Fellowship in 2017,” said Ming.
It’s a collaboration Ming plans to continue as he searches for answers to
his “big three” issues and expands his prototype system.
Keeping up the momentum
So we’re driving cleaner cars in a safer transportation environment with phones we wirelessly charged on our super-smart power grid.
For Dr. Kimberlyn Gray, it’s all about helping the next generation find their footing.
She’s the coordinator for many of WVU Tech’s STEM outreach programs. She has been working to increase access to STEM exploration at the elementary school level, where young scientists and engineers often find their passion for the field.
Her most recent project involves creating in-class activities that are easy to recreate, portable and impactful. It’s an effort to help cash-strapped elementary school teachers deliver lessons on computer programming.
“What we found as we started this is that elementary teachers are really eager to expose their students to STEM fields and coding concepts, but had no practical experience with the material,” she said.
So she and a colleague, Dr. Stephany Coffman-Wolph, started putting together activities. The goal? Help teachers bring computer science into the classroom without relying on computers.
They began in 2014, working alongside a local fifth-grade teacher to test their activities. After a few years, the team expanded into the fourth-grade, further refining their activities.
And they’re great activities. In one, students learn about how computers work by creating special bracelets that spell out their initials in binary code. In another, they learn about ciphers, passwords and data security. In a third, it’s all about networking.
“We have an activity that uses locked boxes, keys and prizes in the boxes. It explains how we package and protect information when we send emails or data through the internet,” said Kimberlyn.
Keep in mind – teachers deliver these activities without computers. That means students are learning the principles of programming before they lay hands on a keyboard.
A few years into the project, Stephany accepted a position at the University of Texas, Austin.
But the band didn’t break up, and the program kept growing.
“Now that Stephany is at another institution, we have been able to expand the populations we can work with and our resources,” said Kimberlyn. “For instance, Stephany did a separate project to help teachers teach computer security for high school students. We were able to incorporate some grade-appropriate ideas into our workshop.”
With a full suite of age-appropriate, cheap and portable activities, the team began brainstorming ways to get their projects into classrooms.
“For the last year, we have been working to write up these activities in a format for K-12 teachers to use in their own classrooms,” said Kimberlyn.
The pair published conference papers with instructions for teachers. They even presented a workshop at the American Society of Engineering Education conference in Salt Lake City, Utah to share their techniques.
They also developed a packet of information that teachers can pass on to one another. It makes the project self-replicating, scalable and adjustable for the audience.
“Each activity gives a basic time to do the activity, materials needed, a description of the concept and a step-by-step guide. We also included an FAQ with responses from classes and questions that students have asked in the years we have done this. Each activity includes information for older or more advanced students as well. Many of the activities can be used to build or refer back to previous ones but don’t have to,” said Kimberlyn.
Now the concept is spreading, but that doesn’t mean the team is done.
Kimberlyn said that the pair plans to expand their workshop offerings. They’ve applied for a grant. They’re even preparing to collect data and share the educational outcomes of the project on a more formal level as it progresses.
It’s all part of keeping that momentum going. There’s another Kimberlyn out there, after all.
There’s another Kenan, Gifty, Amr and Ming, too.
And when we find ourselves in those days where smart grids and homegrown fuels are so common that there’s nothing left to talk about, we’ll be writing about a new researcher. One who found her passion in a fifth-grade classroom because of those who came before her. One who, while spelling out her name in ones and zeros, found out how everything is connected.