Tech Tour: A Tour De Force At MTU

Tech Tour: A Tour De Force At MTU

Great Lakes IT Report


September 27, 2009

By Matt Roush

If you're looking for hope about the future of Michigan, there's noplace better to start than Michigan Technological

Sure, the pristine setting on the Keweenaw Peninsula helps. But let's see, in eight interviews Saturday, all I  learned about was new technologies that are going to solve a big chunk of carbon discharges, revive America's steel and manufacturing industries, boost our car industry back to prominence, help keep our forests healthy, provide new sources of fuel, do a better job of detecting cancer and find dangerous space junk.

Heck, they're even working on making exercise more effective, comfortable and injury-free for fat guys like me.

My Saturday began bright and early at 8 a.m. with Jeff Naber, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering – Engineering Mechanics.  He's a veteran of nine years at Motorola in Detroit working on powertrain systems development, and Sandia National Laboratories before that on combustion research.

He's in charge of the Michigan Tech Alternative Energy Research Building in Hancock, a former garage that's been tranformed into a 3,400-square-foot high-tech engine testing paradise. Tech has close relationships with Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and AVL for research at the building. There's also diesel engine reserach for Cummins, Navistar and others under a $2.7 million Department of Energy grant.

Naber is also working on a project with the Engineering Society of Detroit to train hundreds of engineers from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Lear and the United States Army's Tank-Automotive Command on hybrid engineering. The classes meet once a week and are in collaboration with Wayne State University, and there's huge demand for the training in what looks to be the future of the auto industry.


Next up was Ann Maclean, professor in the School of Forest Resource and Environmental Science, who specializes in remote sensing, mapping and geographic information systems. A visit with her was pretty much paradise for a map geek like me.

Maclean showed me how satellite imaging and aerial photography can be combined with serious computer power to extract useful information and analysis from images.

Maclean is working on the area around a planned biomass-to-ethanol plant in the eastern Upper Peninsula around the old Kinross Air Force Base. She's figuring out how much biomass can be harvested -- and planted like a crop, with hybrid poplars and willows that mature in as little as 10 years -- in the immediate area within a few miles of the plant, in order to keep raw materials transportation costs down.

Soils and the wetlands status of the surrounding areas are also a critical part of the study.


I traveled down the hill to the office of Alex Mayer, director of the Michigan Tech Center for Water and Society, a man who's already an expert on the Great Lakes -- but who says there's still so much we still don't know.

Tech is spending $25 million to build the Great Lakes Research Center, which will hold 50,000 square feet of classrooms, laboratories, meeting spaces, computing power and more to "try to understand how the Great Lakes ecosystem works -- the bio-geo-chemical interaction of how the sediment interacts with the water and atmosphere above it," Mayer said.

What don't we yet understand about the Great Lakes? Plenty. Try this: "We don't yet understand whether Lake Superior is a source or a sink for carbon dioxide. If you want to set carbon budgets for the Great Lakes area, you need to understand how the CO2 moves back and forth between the lake and the air."

Or try this: There are currently only five buoys in all of giant Lake Superior collecting data on water and air temperature and chemistry. The Center for Water and Society plans to place a whole lot more -- for one thing, to better understand lake evaporation, the No. 1 source of water outflow from the lakes.

The center will also house a supercomputer for physical modeling of chemical changes in the lakes.

When it comes to the Great Lakes, Mayer said, there has been surprise after surprise after surprise, from algal blooms to crashes of the zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain. The center's research should provide answers to some of those surprises.

Also, the United States Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Laboratory has designated Michigan Tech’s new center as its Great Lakes research facility, which should lend it even more credibility.

Mayer said his department has also recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund having Michigan Tech Ph.D. students work with K-12 students on water research. The idea is to teach the Ph.D. students how to communicate complex scientific ideas to the students -- and by proxy, the general public -- while also getting the K-12 students excited about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


My morning ended with a visit with Haiying Liu, professor of chemistry, who is conducting fascinating research on fluorescent polymers, which have a variety of possible uses.

Liu's work uses the different carbohydrates present on the surfaces of various types of human cells with the fluorescent chemical to provide literally glowing identification of bacteria and viruses.

There's also a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop detection of cancer cells with cancer-hunting peptides with fluorescence attached.

That could lead to easier marking of cancer cells, so surgeons and radiation therapists target only cancer cells. The technology can also be used to guide chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells alone, ignoring nearby healthy cells and reducing the unpleasant side effects of chemo.

The technology is being tested in mice by a Huntsville, Ala. research lab, CFD Research Corp. Liu is also working with
a Santa Barbara, Calif. cancer center, the Burnham Institute for Cancer Research. Liu is assisted by four graduate students.


Then it was off to lunch with Michigan Tech president Glenn Mroz and vice president for research David Reed at a Michigan Tech bar and restaurant whose name has spawned generations of lies -- The Library. (As in, "tell Mom I'm at the library.")

Over a turkey burger and Diet Coke -- hey, I was fairly good -- we talked about the STEM focus of Michigan Tech. Some 3,200 of its 6,000-plus students are in engineering programs.

The school still struggles to attract women students -- currently it's 26 percent female -- but it has students from literally dozens of countries around the world.

The school is also a major catalyst behind the Houghton-Hancock area's high tech business incubators. Michigan Tech has bought a former Upper Peninsula Power Co. building on the waterfront downtown. The first floor, about 10,000 square feet, will be the region's fourth incubator. The second floor will mostly be rented. The third floor will contain Michigan Tech's research administration, accounting and human resources departments.


My afternoon began at the Michigan Tech gym complex with Karen Roemer, an assistant professor in the school's recently added exercise science program.

She's working on research on how exercise equipment, as manufactured today, simply doesn't "fit" overweight and
obese people, which further discourages them from exercising.

A simple rowing machine, for instance, has foot pads so close together that it increases strain on an overweight rower's lower back. An overweight person's physiology also places strains on the knee joint on the machine.

Roemer's Ph.D. work at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany modeled the knee joint, and showed that simply by moving the foot up and down a short distance, knee strain could be reduced up to 11 percent when using a leg press machine.

Roemer is in her first year at Michigan Tech and is clearly thrilled to be there.

"The whole Department of Exercise Science here is just three years old," she said. "I'm the first professor of biomechanics here ever, and that gives me the opportunity to build it up the way I like it."

The way she likes it is a hugely sophisticated lab with six expensive infrared cameras arranged around the room. Experimental subjects wear reflective data points that are scanned by the cameras, analyzing their motion -- much the same way computer generated motion is created in movies like "The Matrix."

With Roemer Saturday was Terri Smythe, fitness director of AspirUs Keweenaw Hospital in Laurium, who is also a trainer for a rowing machine manufacturer and coach of the Michigan Tech crew team -- and a former world class competitive rower herself. She's thrilled that Roemer's work will enable the overweight to get more out of exercise without risking injury -- which can only help them lose those pounds.


From the inner space of weight loss and personal training, I moved next to outer space -- literally. I met with four members of the Michigan Tech Aerospace Enterprise team, who are designing a small Earth satellite that will help authorities track dangerous space junk.

Michigan Tech's Enterprise program has students create virtual businesses that perform projects for real-life business clients in a variety of industries.

In this case, the Aerospace Enterprise is competing in the United States Air Force's Nanosatellite competition. The program has 11 student teams around the country design a small, affordable satellite with space-to-space imaging that will track other satellites and space debris, as well as contain a model to calibrate the ground-based telescopes that monitor space junk.

The students receive $100,000 to build their satellite in the Air Force, but are allowed to raise more from private sources. The satellite has a weight limit of 65 kilograms, or  about 140 pounds, and the judging will take place in 2011.

The enthusiasm of the students was totally infectious, and I had a blast talking to Tom Venturino, a mechanical engineering senior from Appleton, Wis., Phil Hohnstadt, a mechanical engineering sophomore from Shelby Township, Aaron Wendzel, a mechanical and electrical engineering senior from Benton Harbor, and Edmond Meyer, a mechanical and electrical engineering senior from Newport.

The Aerospace Enterprise is also working on the High Altitude Autonomous Research Platform, an autonomous glider designed to take pictures up to 35,000 feet, and the Cansat Project, a university competition that sees the students design and build a rocket payload that must return to earth at a determined speed, right itself once it lands, and transmit data all the while.


Next up was physics professor Miguel Levy, and all he's done is figure out a way to slow down the speed of light.

Yeah, you read right. Levy's magnetic photonic crystals can actually trap photons, particles of light, inside of structures, where they bounce back and forth for a while before moving on. Given the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that while is only a few nanoseconds, "but that still let you do some interesting things," Levy said.

Like what? Well, like fine-tune optical data networks, which have a tendency to overload. Slowing down incoming data-bearing light keeps those bottlenecks from happening, helping the network continue to perform at peak levels.

Levy is also working on very fast on-off optical switches that could be used to control data transmissions.

Levy came to Michigan Tech from Columbia University in New York City.


I don't want to say that Michigan Tech saved the best for last, but the technology I saw late in the afternoon from Jiann-Yang "Jim" Hwang, a professor of materials science and engineering, had simply mind-blowing implications.

Hwang started his presentation by pointing out four major challenges to American society -- the fact that 60 percent of our oil is imported, the American steel industry is not competitive, carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to climate change, and manufacturing in general is losing employment.

"This technology solves all these problems," Hwang said, not at all modestly. "We say it is big because it is big."

What Hwang proposes is fairly straightforward -- his UP Steel, a spinoff of Michigan Tech, converts biomass and iron ore into gasoline and steel. The biomass replaces coke as the carbon reductant for steel production, while the iron ore provides the oxygen needed to turn biomass into syngas and eventually gasoline.

The heat source for the reaction is microwaves. Hwang's bench-scale steel mill is roughly the size of a microwave oven. The ingredients are heated to produce molten steel by the magnetrons of six home microwave ovens arranged around a chamber.

Hwang and his research team have received a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Public Service Commisson to develop the technology further, and he's seeking other grant funding.

He said it would take about $60 million to develop a commercial scale steel mill using his technology.

Somewhat ironically, Hwang said, gasoline would be the most valuable product of the mill, not the steel itself.

Hwang said the UP is a natural spot for such biomass-and-microwave-based steel production, because it is rich in both
iron ore and biomass.

By the way, more information on all these folks I met with -- and their research -- is available at Michigan Tech's Web


Still shaking my head at the implications of Hwang's work, I headed over to Sherman Field, Tech's gorgeous little
football stadium, to watch an outgunned Tech team get crushed by Grand Valley State, the No. 1 ranked team in
the nation in Division II football. (I'm visiting Grand Valley later in the Tour, so I can't say a thing!) It was the first night
game ever at Sherman Field, which got lighting just this year. Then it was back to the Best Western Franklin Square Inn to write all this up while it was still fresh in my mind.

Tech Tour Day Four: More From MTU

I got even more good tech news from Michigan Technological University over a breakfast at the famous Suomi Restaurant in downtown Houghton on my way out of town Sunday.

Over a breakfast of french toast Finnish style, and then in their laboratories, I met with Ryan J. Gilbert and Jeremy Goldman, two assistant professors of biomedical engineering, and their latest research, which has the promise to alleviate some very serious human suffering.

Gilbert, a native of Barryton who did his college work at Case Western Reserve University and Georgia Tech, is working on a variety of biomaterials that could be used in medicine, including a hydrogel that will serve as a guide for the regrowth of nerve cells, which could eventually be used to offer new mobility to those with spinal cord injuries.

Gilbert is also working on materials to coat bio-electrodes so they aren't rejected by human tissues -- and they'll even prompt nerves to bind to them. Tiny electrodes are used in a variety of medical treatments, and are also being studied as another treatment for paralysis.

Goldman's research aims to help those suffering from a complication of surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes -- unpleasant and disfiguring swelling around the area where the lymph nodes were removed. The swelling occurs because the lymph fluids don't go away when the lymphatic plumbing is removed -- it just backs up in the area of the body where it's generated because it can't move. He's studying various molecular mechanisms of natural lymphatic regrowth, to create new lymphatic pathways.

Both these profs indicate the way Michigan Tech is branching out into new kinds of engineering -- and offer significant economic development potential for Michigan.

Posted on Friday, September 25, 2009 (Archive on Friday, October 30, 2009)
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