Ocean engineering Professors James Miller and Harold “Bud” Vincent appeared on CNN in April 2014 to speak about the search for the plane and the 239 people aboard. Miller took CNN reporter Rosa Flores out on Narragansett Bay to demonstrate how searchers listen for a “ping” from an airplane’s black boxes. Armed with a hydrophone (an underwater microphone), Miller and the CNN crew attempt to pick up the pings from a nearby device and witness how quickly the signal fades with distance. The search is also complicated by other sounds in the ocean emitted by sea life, the ship itself and even rainfall.
With little luck detecting pings from the black boxes, searchers have turned to underwater vehicles to explore the seabed. However, a recently deployed vehicle, the Bluefin-21, had to return to the surface because the ocean proved too deep. Vincent, a former U.S. Navy diver, told CNN that even if the vehicle reaches the seabed, silt may cover the plane making it all but invisible to sonar and camera imagery.
James Miller Shows How Pingers Work
Bud Vincent Discusses the Problem of Silt]]>
More than 47,000 people, 9,700 ships and 127 planes spent months cleaning up oil released during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet, four years later the tools to fight offshore oil spills remain remarkably rudimentary. Now a team of University of Rhode Island engineering professors is demonstrating novel approaches that could change the way we battle oil spills.
Led by chemical engineering Professors Arijit Bose and Geoffrey Bothun, the approach relies on nanoparticles each about a hundred times thinner than a strand of human hair. To study how these tiny particles can clean up oil, the professors have received $995,775 from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative established in wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Since their funding arrived in 2011, Bose, Bothun and their collaborators have published their results and small-scale pilot projects are now being explored to evaluate the potential for commercialization.
“On the downside the Deepwater Horizon spill happened,” Bothun says. “On the upside it motivated a lot of engineers and scientists to come up with new ways to fight oil spills.”
At URI, Bothun and Bose are taking complementary approaches to stop oil from forming globs that threaten wildlife and wash up on beaches. To emulsify the oil (break it into small droplets) and make it attractive to oil-eating microorganisms, Bothun has turned to silica and Bose to carbon black.
To investigate the ideas, the professors formed an interdisciplinary team that crosses departments and universities. URI civil and environmental engineering Assistant Professor Vinka Oyanedel-Craver is working with Bothun. Chemistry Assistant Professor Mindy Levine and Metcalf Institute Executive Director Sunshine Menezes are partnering with Bose. Researchers at Brown University and the University of Florida at Gainesville, along with students from URI and other institutions, round out the team.
Bothun’s research seeks to turn off-the-shelf products into oil spill cleaners. Currently, responders often rely on chemical dispersants, which are effective but their safety is questioned. So Bothun and his team of students turned to nanoparticles of benign silica (sand) and FDA-approved surfactants, which force oil to emulsify.
Teaming up with researchers at the University of Maryland and Texas A&M International University, Bothun’s group found that some nanoparticles and surfactants work very well alone or in combination with traditional dispersants. The team hopes that when loaded with nutrients, the compounds stop oil from forming slicks on the surface of the ocean and attract microorganisms that eat oil.
Down the hall, Bose and his team want to turn carbon black into the go-to dispersant. Generally considered safe, the particles emulsify oil, absorb toxic polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are widely available and are inexpensive.
Bose started researching the potential of carbon black to clean up oil while on sabbatical at Cabot Corp., one of the world’s largest producers of carbon black. In collaboration with researchers there and at Tulane University, Bose discovered carbon black is a powerful oil emulsifier.
“Nobody has used carbon black in this way,” Bose says. “It seemed like a good idea because it’s so widely available.”
The professors say both their approaches could be tweaked to assist with oil spills occurring in extremely cold water. That potential has taken on new urgency as oil companies express interest in drilling in the Arctic.
“The Gulf of Mexico spill that started this research was just one spill,” Bothun says. “Other spills are going to happen. Whether they’re close to us or not, we’re going to have to come up with ways to minimize the damage.”]]>
The United Nations says more people die annually from contaminated water than war. Polluted water is one of the leading causes of death for children and is wreaking irreversible harm to our world’s ecosystem. University of Rhode Island civil and environmental engineering student Maria Briones (’14) finds that simply unacceptable.
“It’s heartbreaking to me to know there are people that don’t have necessities such as toilets,” Briones says. “I think it’s a basic human right to have access to proper sanitation and clean water.”
The energetic 22-year-old from East Providence, RI has soaked up as much experience as possible in hopes of reducing deaths attributed to polluted water.
In 2011, she traveled to Guatemala with the URI chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World to assist a rural village with developing sanitation infrastructure. Briones assists civil and environmental engineering Assistant Professor Vinka Oyanedel-Craver with clean water research projects and interned with the R.I. Department of Transportation environmental division. She joined the Spanish International Engineering Program to gain the engineering and language skills necessary to work in Spanish-speaking regions, many of which suffer from severe water issues. After she graduates in May 2014, Briones hopes to join the Peace Corps while simultaneously pursuing a master’s in environmental engineering.
“Maria’s determination to use her engineering skills to make this world a better place is truly inspirational,” Oyanedel-Craver says. “When she traveled with me to Guatemala she not only performed engineering work but also prepared civil engineering lessons for local high school students. Students in the community still remember that activity.”
For Briones, the quest to deliver clean water is personal. Her family immigrated to the United States from Ecuador when she was a baby. Although Briones has known only a lifestyle where toilets always flush and clean water always flows from the tap, she frequently thinks of her extended family in South America who views such plumbing as luxuries.
“That could have been me,” Briones says.
Her family also lacks access to the educational opportunities available to Briones, who will become just the second member of her family to graduate college. It’s one reason Briones has pushed herself to excel in every fashion. During her academic career, she routinely took challenging course loads. She served as the first woman president of the University’s chapter of Theta Tau, the professional engineering fraternity. She was a resident academic mentor in the Engineering Living Learning Community and serves as an ambassador to foreign exchange students.
“We invest so much in education we have to make the most of it,” she says. “I find it silly when people don’t take every opportunity to make something of themselves because this is a perfect time.”
The opportunities for Briones have extended beyond the Kingston Campus. Through the IEP, Briones spent a year in Spain, studying at the University of Cantabria and then interning at the Center of Studies and Technical Research in Gipuzkoa. At both places, Briones spoke solely in Spanish, a language she never learned growing up despite her Ecuadorian roots. It challenged her, especially speaking rapidly about fluid dynamics in Spanish, but Briones viewed it as another opportunity. It’s a philosophy Briones expects to carry with her wherever she goes.
“People should challenge themselves,” she says. “Sometimes they will fail but if you prevail that’s what sets you apart.”]]>
U.S. online retail sales are expected to reach $370 billion annually by 2017, a number that eclipses the government budgets of more than 40 nations. Yet as consumers grow comfortable with e-commerce, computer engineering Associate Professor Yan “Lindsay” Sun worries it brings risks of sellers manipulating markets for profit.
Sun wants to bring order to a digital world where it is unclear whom or what review you can trust. And she’s doing it in a novel way, by using errors to identify fake reviews of everything from hotel rooms to socks.’
“In engineering we can’t avoid errors so instead we figure out if we can use them,” she says.
Sun’s research found that there should be no overall patterns across the reviews for a particular product. With that knowledge, she developed computer models that can analyze hundreds of reviews looking for patterns difficult to spot with the human eye. If the models find very few outliers (errors) to the patterns, the system raises a red flag.
Currently, the process is possible only in a lab setting. But Sun is working on a consumer version that would allow web shoppers to paste the address of a reviews page into a website that automatically analyzes the reviews for honesty. Such a system would require cooperation from major web retailers, which may be leery of how consumers would perceive the results.
Sun has another idea as well. Working with colleagues, she is applying game theory to designing a ratings system that encourages honest reviews. A seller that fakes reviews typically pays for inflated rankings, which increases the product’s price as the seller seeks to cover expenses. Sun wants to know at what point paying for reviews is not profitable.
“We want to make the whole e-commerce market healthier,” Sun says. “Instead of sellers spending money manipulating product reviews, have them spend money making their products better.”
The professor became interested in social computing when she realized the connections between the field and her expertise in signal processing. That field requires pattern recognition, directly translatable to analyzing hundreds or thousands of product reviews.
The topic also matches her passion of using engineering to make a tangible difference in an average person’s life.
“I could talk to anyone on the street as long as they are over eight and under 80 and they would understand and appreciate what I do,” Sun says.
Sun never set out to study the topic. As a child, she tagged along to her mother’s research lab in China, where her mother worked as a physicist. The particle accelerator and the taste of innovation captivated Sun. When she headed to college, her mother bemoaned how her lab needed more computer and electrical engineers to design better research equipment. With that on her mind, Sun entered college pursuing those fields.
She later attended the University of Maryland seeking a master’s degree. Intrigued by the opportunity to undertake research, Sun switched to a doctoral program at a professor’s urging.
“I’ve always been a curious person,” she says. “I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. program was, but I didn’t want my curiosity to end after my master’s degree.”
After earning her doctorate, Sun set her sights on joining academia where she could research and inspire the next generation of engineers. She turned down three other offers to come to URI in 2004, attracted by the University’s environment of fostering research and collaboration among disciplines.
“I still have a lot of curiosity,” she says. “I really appreciate that I am at URI because my department is really supportive and I have freedom to pursue different research.”]]>
Overall, 90 percent of the undergraduate class reported holding a job or furthering their education. In an economy still finding its footing, our high number shows the tangible value of an engineering degree from the University of Rhode Island.
When we spoke with graduates in the months following graduation, they displayed enthusiasm for their new careers or academic careers, appreciation for an opportunity to make a difference and gratitude for an education that trained them to learn how to learn.
Our survey of 90 percent of the class found a diverse set of job responsibilities, employers and graduate schools. It validated the importance of our curriculum that provides a broad understanding of engineering and continuously adapts to the changing needs of employers and graduate schools.
Twenty-four graduates also provided the University with the biggest compliment possible by choosing to attend graduate school here. Graduates also went to Ivy League institutions and one, Eily Cournoyer, is studying at University College London on a Fulbright.
We’re immensely proud of the Class of 2013 and expect the graduates to shape the world in big ways over the coming years.
The Class of 2013 includes engineering graduates who received B.S. degrees in December 2012, May 2013 and August 2013. Graduates were contacted at Commencement or by phone between May 2013 and February 2014 and asked about their employment or educational enrollment status. The survey, conducted by the College of Engineering, had a 92 percent response rate.]]>
In the coming years, naval architects will rely on University of Rhode Island engineering alumni like Maggie Craig (’13) to ensure they deliver the most efficient, fastest and reliable ships to the U.S. Navy.
Craig is on a team at ocean technology firm Navatek that is reinventing the ship design process by developing powerful modeling software. The Hawaii-based company opened its first East Coast office in Rhode Island in 2013 in large part to tap the expertise of the College of Engineering and its graduates. In less than six months, the company has hired eight engineering alumni – almost half its local staff – and four engineering interns to aid in the development of the software and the science behind it.
“The URI alumni and interns are hard workers; they are self-motivated and they’ve learned to work in teams,” Navatek Chief Scientist David Kring says.
As a team, the alumni focus on hydrodynamics, a branch of science that studies fluids in motion, such as ocean waves. While they may look simple, ocean waves are actually extremely complicated. Rogue waves and tsunamis can disrupt otherwise perfect modeling techniques. Yet, waves play a huge role in the stability and efficiency of ships.
Craig says the work is exciting, tangible and directly connected to her URI education.
“I think the biggest realization coming here is that I learned all these subjects and now they’re all wrapped up into this one big project,” Craig says.
Designing the software requires drawing on topics from structural engineering to calculus to computer programming languages C++, Fortran and Python. When the Navatek engineers need help, they call URI ocean engineering Professors Stephan Grilli and Jason Dahl.
In 2013, the professors and company collaborated to win research funding from the Office of Naval Research to refine the software. It was one of the first examples of a partnership born from a memorandum of understanding encouraging research collaboration between the University and Navatek.
“This work is stimulating because it is rewarding and useful,” Grilli says. “Just as important, we directly benefit from the industry’s experience in identifying and prioritizing the key and important problems to work on. And finally, our students have immediate job opportunities.”
Navatek was the biggest single employer of Class of 2013 engineering graduates, and operates one of the most robust paid internship programs for ocean engineers.
Navatek Lead Scientist Neal Fine says hosting interns allows the company to evaluate and train prospective employees while encouraging research in the ocean engineering field. That’s important for a company operating in a niche field dependent on well-trained engineers.
“As an industry we have a big problem losing students to other fields,” Fine says.
To fight that, the company is developing a ship design competition for high school students and has sponsored the College of Engineering’s Autonomous Surface Vehicle Team that designs and races a self-driven boat. Navatek engineers advised the team on its design and its Hawaii-based shipyard modeled some of the components.
Regardless of how the team fares in competition, Navatek executives say they hope the experience excites students about ocean engineering and its ability to parlay into other research areas.
At Navatek, the company is using lessons from the field to improve the efficiency of wind turbines and also to develop a method to use low-temperature plasma reactions to create fuel from carbon dioxide.
All that work required more lab space and in early 2014 the company moved a few hundred feet into a new 20,000-square-foot office complete with a low-speed wind tunnel.
As the company spends money to expand, forges more connections to URI and talks about hiring more engineers, URI President David M. Dooley says it shows the impact of collaboration with industry.
“In just a short time our partnership with Navatek has created jobs, kept talent in Rhode Island and offered real-world educational experiences for our students,” Dooley says. “It’s a fitting example of the power of a university and a private company working hand-in-hand.”]]>
The Spanish International Engineering Program is helping President Barack Obama strengthen ties with Central and South American countries. The president selected URI as one of four schools across the nation to join his 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative. Under the program, URI will send engineering students to study in Chile and welcome Chilean students to campus. Separately, a team of engineering students and faculty from URI and Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso will head to Valparaiso, Chile to create portable anaerobic energy systems for sustainable energy.
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry joined members of Rhode Island’s congressional team for ceremonies at the U.S. Department of State in January to praise the Spanish International Engineering Program, its director Megan Echevarría and Winifred Brownell, dean of URI’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“The IEP is all about removing students from their comfort zones where they can be challenged to experience new cultures, new ways of thinking and new approaches to solving problems,” Echevarría says. “In the long run, this is the best way to build bridges among nations and address the challenges of our time.”
Probing nanoparticle safety for the National Science Foundation
As the world rushes to use nanoparticles in everything from disease treatment to oil spill clean up, the impacts on the environment and human health remain uncertain. Recognizing the importance of understanding these effects, the National Science Foundation recently awarded civil and environmental engineering Assistant Professor Vinka Oyanedel-Craver a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award.
Oyanedel-Craver will use the five-year, $432,000 award to study how bacteria respond when exposed to rare earth element oxide and metal nanoparticles. Such nanoparticles are used as contrast agents during MRI examinations and as agents to prevent
odors in clothing, among other uses. When released into the environment, these nanoparticles may change how bacteria function. Because bacteria recycle environmental nutrients and some cause disease, their reaction to nanoparticles is of great interest to Oyanedel-Craver and the NSF.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization relies on science and technology to protect the security of its member nation. For two years, ocean engineering Professor James Miller held leadership roles at the organization’s Centre for Marine Research and Experimentation in Italy. Miller spent a year as the head of the research department supervising a multinational research staff. He then served as deputy chief scientist undertaking strategic planning and coordination with NATO leaders.
Miller, who returned to the United States in 2013, says the trip re-energized him. “When you go off for a while you think new thoughts, you think differently,” he says. “You see more things, you see the world.” The professor has already incorporated some of the research he saw on underwater acoustics into his teaching and research at URI to provide students a big picture of the field.
Happy first anniversary
The college congratulates two faculty wrapping up their first year at the University of Rhode Island. Assistant Professor Ali Akanda joined the department of civil and environmental engineering while Assistant Professor Samantha Meenach joined the departments of chemical engineering and biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences.
Professor Akanda arrived as part of a University initiative to research global water security. An expert in computer modeling of
water supplies, floods and droughts, Akanda combines research in water security, climate change and global health to create early warning systems to benefit public health. Originally from Bangladesh, Akanda is passionate about water and climate issues in the developing world.
Professor Meenach is focused on developing new drug delivery systems capable of penetrating physiological barriers such as tumors and mucus barriers in the lung. The interdisciplinary research will lead to next-generation medical treatments. A native of Kentucky, Meenach was drawn to URI by the opportunity for a joint appointment and the close-knit collaboration among colleagues and departments.]]>