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Opportunity and the Ripple Effect

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Yogen stood in the lab in Cleveland. It had been seven days since he started the simulation. The computer ran for a full week crunching numbers before it was ready to reveal its findings. The system worked, the computer said. “Good news,” he thought to himself. But there were some spikes in the data that didn’t look promising. 

“That’s how this goes. This is how research works.” He started punching in the parameters for the next simulation. The next big wait.

Half a country away, Austen Robinson was sitting in a control room in Texas. The massive screen crackled to life as he rifled through his notes. The image showed an empty chamber with lots of hardware and tubing. Then an astronaut floated into view and looked right into the camera.

“Hey. What’s up, guys?” the spaceman asked.
Yogen’s tree
Dr. Yogendra Panta is fascinated with the fluid dynamists of old. Newton. Bernoulli. Even DaVinci. 

“He wasn’t actually a fluid dynamist, but he understood fluids. In his art, he showed things like turbulence in sea waves and wind drag in his machines. He imagined everything about fluid behavior. It was way before his time,” said Yogen.

Fluid dynamics are everywhere. The water that sustains us. Less obvious, the air we breathe.

“It is really important to maintain thermal systems in everyday things. Even our bodies do this. We can’t even survive without those two,” Yogen said.

So fluid dynamics impacts how we live, how we move, how we regulate temperature and just about everything else around us. It’s Yogen’s passion, and it’s also how he found himself in Cleveland at that supercomputer.

Yogen works on a prototype in the lab.Dr. Yogendra Panta works in a lab at the Glen Research Center.

For the last two years, he’s been part of a summer program tackling research at NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center. The facility is known for its contributions to aerospace science. It’s where NASA developed the liquid hydrogen rocket that got us to the moon. It’s where researchers and scientists specialize in aerospace propulsion, space communications and materials that can withstand extreme environments. And it’s where Yogen has logged countless hours trying to build a better jet engine cooling system.

“Turbojet engines release a tremendous amount of heat, which can cause them to wear down or malfunction. One of the easiest ways to cool them is to use a fan, but it’s not always enough. We’re focusing on a heat exchanger where we circulate cold water to cool the engines,” he said.

Yogen and his team were tasked with establishing design guidelines for turbine blades that feature integrated cooling. That included designing, modeling and prototyping test devices. 

His team landed on the concept of pulsating heat pipes. The system uses tubes filled with a special coolant that can quickly draw heat away from an engine as it’s in use. Half gas, half liquid, the coolant works by constantly changing its state – or “pulsating” – as it evaporates and condenses. It’s a system already in use in small-scale electronics, and Yogen saw it as a solution to fitting a big job into a small space.

Yogen started by examining different pipe configurations. Then he would build digital prototypes and run computer simulations.

“We had to factor in pressure, cavitation, turbulence, viscosity, thermal conductivity and the amount of liquid in the computer modeling simulations. The point was to figure out how the cooling system could remain in a steady state during use,” he said.

For the first ten weeks, that was Yogen’s focus. Work up simulations, run them and see what came out.

“Some of the simulations didn’t turn out to be stable, but that’s part of the process,” he said.

The team was running into issues with their simulations. But remember, fluid is everywhere. Nature is bursting with examples of efficient fluid systems. So Yogen turned to nature and to VINE – the Virtual Interchange for Nature-Inspired Exploration. The organization collects and documents data from various organisms and ecosystems.

“They have sets and sets of data on natural movements. How to mimic an insect. How to mimic a butterfly. How to mimic the flight of hummingbirds. They use those data to experiment with different devices. They’re looking at using the flight mechanics of hummingbirds to collect weather data on Mars,” he said.

Yogen didn’t need a hummingbird. He needed a tree.

“What we’re trying to do is circulate the flow of that pulsating fluid through those branches, like roots or blood vessels, mimicking nature,” he said.

The group settled on a multi-branch system and got to work running simulations. Two branches. Four branches. Eight branches. In his second ten weeks, Yogen worked with electrical engineers, material science experts, data science pros and specialists in turbomachinery. His team produced more than two dozen physical prototypes and harvested test data from each one.

“We’ve had really promising results,” he said. Still, it was painstaking work.

“There was a moment when we were successful in modeling the multiphase system that was really satisfying for our group,” he said. “We were struggling to make the modeling properly and to validate with experimental results for over a month or so.”

The group persisted and found a few configurations that looked like they might work. It was a cap on what Yogen says was an incredible experience. There’s a lot more work ahead, but he says the cornerstone is laid. He’ll continue working on the project, and he expects other researchers will add pieces to the puzzle.

“This is an initial idea that we’re building a foundation for. You don’t just get something like this with the snap of a finger. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of minds and effort to bring it out into the world.”

A story starts in Beckley
Yogen has always been a teacher.

“It’s not the best for making money,” he said laughing, “but it’s the best for having satisfaction in your life.”

He’s been at WVU Tech for half a decade, but his teaching career spans a lifetime.

“Back in Nepal, I taught right after I graduated from high school. After finishing tenth grade, I taught ninth and tenth graders. I taught in the college I graduated from,” he said.

Yogen says that drive to teach is fueled by two things: exploring the world around him and then sharing his findings with his colleagues and students.

One of those students is Beckley-born Austen Robinson, a mechanical engineering major who took Yogen’s dynamics class a few years back. The two worked well together.

Dr. Yogendra Pants (left) stands in an engineering lab with Austen Robinson (right).Dr. Yogendra Panta and Austen Robinson in a WVU Tech engineering lab.

“Dr. Panta really inspired me to stay in mechanical,” Austen said. “I was still bouncing around and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was behind, but his teaching and who he is inspired me to stay.”

Not only did Austen stay in the field, he decided to specialize in aerospace engineering. He’s now at WVU wrapping up the degree. Because of that chance encounter, he says he’s gained some incredible working experience– a ripple effect of following his mentor’s advice and chasing down opportunity.

Two astronauts walk into a gym
Austen had already started fall classes on the Morgantown campus when he got the call. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas (you know: “Houston, we have a problem”) was offering Austen an internship for the semester.

“I dropped all my classes. Then I drove 20 hours – halfway across the country – to Houston,” he said.

“It was totally worth it.”

Austen was assigned to the exploration exercise lab where engineers develop and maintain exercise equipment for astronauts on the International Space Station. He wound up working with a mentor on a data analytics project for the ISS’s Advanced Resistance Exercise Device. The machine uses vacuum tubes to simulate weight so astronauts can do resistance exercises in zero gravity.

His job? To streamline how coaches and doctors on Earth receive exercise data from the device.

“When the astronauts do exercise on the ISS, that data gets sent down in raw form. It’s important for our engineering team to track to help us do maintenance on machines and to make sure astronauts are doing the right amount of repetitions,” he said. 

Austen demonstrates a squat exercise movement on the ARED machine.Austen demonstrates exercises on a test ARED device.

Austen spent the bulk of his time in the internship writing software from scratch. His program retrieves that raw exercise data from the space station and turns it into a polished report that details the type of exercise and the number of repetitions for each astronaut that used it. 

His experience went well beyond coding, though. During the internship, one of the vacuum cylinders on the device malfunctioned, so it was sent back down to Houston for repairs. It was a lesson in detailed engineering. It was also a lesson in patience.

“We completely stripped it apart and refurbished it. It took us two months because we had to write up documents for each step. Each piece is verified through the space hardware program. You had to report on each individual screw you removed and where you put it,” he said.

During the process, the team had to create detailed maintenance procedures so astronauts could perform repairs in orbit. Austen had to visit the astronaut training facility and perform the procedures on actual ARED devices. So, the next time the device went up, it came with detailed instructions.

It didn’t always go as planned.

“Something went wrong with one of the procedures on a different machine. There was a detent plate and we couldn’t get two-point contact. It wasn’t going well, so we had to go to mission control and walk the astronauts on the ISS through the process on a live stream,” he said.

And there, in that room along with five or six NASA engineers, a kid from Beckley chatted with astronauts who were hurtling around our world at more than 17,000 miles an hour.

“I was just trying to keep my cool,” he recalled. “It was absolutely surreal to be talking to them one-on-one.”

The entire experience was so powerful that Austen applied for a second internship over the summer. He landed in the same unit and continued his work in software, helping one of his mentors with the OnePortal program, which will serve as the main user interface software for all exercise equipment in the future.

“In the summer of 2020, this software is scheduled to fly to the ISS and become the new ARED software,”he said.

He also revisited the ARED with a mission to find ways to enhance the device. Working with a team of interns, Austen helped develop a new way to ensure astronauts were doing their exercises correctly.
Austen Robinson (top left) with the NASA team.Austen and the NASA team.
“My project aims to provide a non-invasive form check while exercising. Using load sensors that are already on ARED, we can calculate the user’s center of pressure while exercising, providing live feedback to the user as well as ground analysis to the trainers and engineering support team,” he said.

The team was inspired by the Fit Balance Board, a popular Nintendo Wii accessory.

“Another intern and I spent a week doing just math equations. We spent time drawing free body diagrams and deriving equations that would use values from the ARED’s load cells and calculate an X and Y value – the center of pressure. After finding our equations, we developed a program that could read the actual data from ARED,” he said.

The system is about more than making sure an astronaut is doing proper squats. Austen wants to impact astronaut life as they go beyond orbit.

“The project is based around the idea of making crew life as autonomous as possible, which is crucial for future exploration missions as message communications to Mars can take up to 20 minutes each way. Any way we can use technology to help the crew while exercising will be crucial as the trainers and other support on the ground will not be able to communicate daily as they do now,” Austen said.

Moon rocks
When the Apollo 11 crew came back from the moon in 1969, they brought home rock samples that changed the way we understand how worlds are formed. Samuel Lawrence, a NASA planetary scientist, calls those specimens the “Rosetta Stone of the solar system.”

President Nixon understood the gravity of the stones and what they meant for humanity, so he sent samples to every nation in the world.

Yogen and Austen have held to that spirit of exploration and sharing.

Yogen brought back a wealth of knowledge on how to perform complex research, best practices for distilling and delivering data, contacts in his field from all over the world and even the kind of technology in use to help researchers do their jobs more effectively. He’s busy sharing that experience with colleagues and students. He’s implementing new technologies in the classroom. Inspired by his experience, he’s encouraging others to chase those opportunities.

“I learned so many things that I can bring back to WVU Tech. I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of this in the classroom. We have to spread the word. Our students and our faculty are capable of so much. They can do this kind of work and they can do it well and gain experience,” he said.

Austen came home a different person.He found a passion for the human aspect of engineering. He learned valuable lessons in leadership, teamwork and networking.

“I learned so much and met so many people. Without a doubt, this has changed the trajectory of my career,” he said.

He’s continuing his work with the OnePortal program remotely, and he’s using his experience to encourage others.

“It’s something that can change you. Just keep applying, even if you don’t think you have a chance. And make sure to make the most of it if you get lucky enough to get an offer,” he said.

For both men, there’s palpable awe and enthusiasm for their fields. There’s a sense that seizing opportunity can transform everything.

And as the two share their own moon rocks with those around them, they do so with a new mantra.

“Learn something. Bring it back. Share it,” said Yogen.