Tech Tour Day Seven: WMU Tech Ranges Far And Wide

Tech Tour Day Seven: WMU Tech Ranges Far And Wide
September 30, 2009/The Great Lakes IT Report

I have a kid at Western Michigan University, so I have a rough idea that they\'re involved in some pretty neat high-tech research.

But it turns out I knew only enough to make me dangerous, and the Broncos are involved in a whole bunch of stuff that could eventually make our lives much easier, better and more productive.

My Wednesday in Kalamazoo began with John Patten of the college of engineering, who\'s creating a whole new form of machining -- micro laser assisted, in which a powerful laser is directed down the center of a cutting tool, actually shining through its transparent diamond tip. The laser light heats the material to be cut and makes it more pliable and easier to machine.

It's being eyed particularly for semiconductors and ceramics, which are very brittle and very difficult to machine.

Patten and his four student assistants -- three Ph.D. candidates and one nontraditional adult bachelor\'s degree student -- are working with a Japanese company on the technology. Patten said WMU presented a paper on the technology two years ago at an advanced laser application conference in Boston, and the company, Adamant, "ran across the paper and contacted us. So I tell students now that you never know what will happen when you go present a paper."

The technology is also being used in defense applications, including a perfectly smooth silicon carbide mirror to be used in an airborne military laser weapon system.

The technology could also be used to improve pre-processing of silicon wafers for electronics, as well as use silicon carbide in place of regular silicon for electronics, since silicon carbide can stand up to far higher temperatures. Applications could include wind turbines, hybrid vehicles and more.

"We\'re working to bring traditional machining methods to materials where it is currently either too expensive or time consuming," Patten said.

Patten\'s work is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, Argonne National Laboratories and the Department of Energy.

Patten also showed me around WMU\'s fuel cell lab, which besides the usual benchmark work on fuel cells is working with WMU's famous paper engineering department on turning the waste from paper processing into methanol, and processing that into hydrogen.

Patten, a lifetime advocate of renewable energy, also has a personal research project going at Western -- a plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius whose electricity is provided by a wind generator at the WMU engineering campus. He got funding from the university and the Consumers Energy Foundation for this one. The car\'s also equipped with smart grid communications technology that will eventually allow it to feed power back to the grid on request. The car gets the equivalent of over 200 mpg, Patten said.


Patten\'s Prius took me to McCracken Hall, one of the 1950s vintage science halls on WMU\'s central campus, where Joel Kendrick operates a pilot papermaking and paper recycling plant.

The machinhery was built in the late 1950s and shows it, but Kendrick is working with today\'s latest recycling technologies using it.

"This is the only campus in the world that can go from pulp to the printed page to recycling and back to pulp," Kendrick said.

Included in the work is a project with Starbucks and Global Green and its Coalition for Resource Recovery to develop a cost-effective way to recycle Starbucks coffee cups, an astonishing two billion of which wind up in landfills each year.

Kendrick recently participated in a forum and workshop hosted by Starbucks in Seattle, and at the end of June he presented WMU pilot plants\' new recycling certification process at an event in New York City attended by a who\'s who of the paper, recycling and fast food industries.


From McCracken Hall it was over to the spectacular Walwood Hall office of Cheryl Roland, executive director of university relations -- it\'s part of an old refurbished dormitory, tons of character, third floor up in the trees -- for a meeting with Nora Berrah, physicist and international research star, who\'s about to spend the rest of the semester in the San Francisco area watching a high-tech X-ray machine -- actually a fourth generation light source -- take very detailed pictures of molecules, searching for the secrets of how they break apart and recombine.

"What we try to do is understand matter in a very fundamental way," she said. "To do that we probe it with light. Light in many different forms. It can be lasers, it can be with synchrotron radiation."

Berrah\'s trip will be to a new research laboratory at Stanford University, part of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. She said the new free electron laser will give very short very intense pulses of light.

"This will be revolutionary in the sciences," she said. "We can understand what matter does in real time. When we do experiments at the molecular level now things are static. This light will allow us to see a little bit of motion ... like a fast camera. We can see how proteins fragment and recombine. How bonds are broken and how they are formed. This is fundamental to everything in life."

And besides biology, Berrah said the instrument will shed new light -- quite literally -- on process in nanostructures and materials, and will allow us to better understand magnetism -- a basic force of the universe whose mechanism we supposedly brilliant humans still can't explain.

Berrah, a native of Algeria, has been at WMU since 1991, coming from the Argonne National Laboratory.

So what keeps her in Kalamazoo?

"I like the flexibility Western has given me," she said. "And the leadership, the presidents we\'ve had, have wanted Western to become more of a research institution. That is the nature of my job, I have taken that seriously, and have gone after the grants."

And gotten them. She\'s just won a new, $3 million award to conduct her research at Stanford, including new instrumentation to detect and image molecular structures.

She\'s also committed to undergraduate education -- she likes to teach freshman physics -- and works to increase the number of women in physics, backed by the NSF in this endeavor.

And last summer, Berrah hosted 600 phsycists from 45 countries all over the world in Kalamazoo for the  International Conference In Photonic, Electronic and Atomic Collision. She said the scientists were charmed with Kalamazoo -- and it didn\'t hurt that they had a gorgeous summer weekend to take them to southwest Michigan\'s wine country and its beaches at South Haven.


My day in Kalamazoo ended in Battle Creek -- precisely, the WMU Aviation Campus, which is the former Battle Creek Airport, on a 9,000-foot runway.

Aviation professor Lori Brown showed me around a new and unusual simulator -- the interior of an MD-80 passenger compartment, with a door to a nonexistent cockpit up front and a door to the tail cone in the back.

This simulator isn\'t intended to train pilots. Instead, it's intended to study the use of wireless communication devices that flight attendants and flight crews can use to deal with hijackers and difficult passengers.

Brown\'s research looks at communicating with the cockpit and air marshals during in-flight emergencies as well as crew communications problems triggered by factors like fatigue that can lead to miscommunication-induced safety issues.

Brown was also nice enough to show me around the aviation college\'s hangars, flight simulators, offices, the former airport tower, and the totally cool high-tech training planes the WMU student pilots are lucky enough to get to fly.

All in all a productive learning-filled day. Hope you feel as positively as I do about the work of the Broncos.

Posted on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 (Archive on Wednesday, October 07, 2009)
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