Patrick Brown always wanted to be an astronaut. He may never make it to space, but the technology he’s helping to develop just may help humans reach Mars.
The University of Rhode Island chemical engineering student from Westerly, R.I. is interning at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. He serves as part of a team developing a new solid oxide fuel cell system lighter and more robust than anything in existence. Moreover, the system can take methane – which can be produced from natural resources on Mars – and convert it to hydrogen. That can power fuel cells that generate electricity. For it to work, the team must understand exactly how to extract hydrogen from methane and how to do it on a planet never closer than 34 million miles away.
“Sure, a chemist could explain how these reactions work,” Brown says. “But the engineering side tells you how these things fit together into a practical piece of technology you can bring into space.”
For Brown and the team, weight is number one. Today it costs NASA about $10,000 to place a single pound of material into space. That’s why hefty and limited power batteries are not an option for a Mars trip.
After weight comes sustainability and reliability. NASA cannot practically resupply a spacecraft hurling toward Mars. Using methane will eliminate the need for resupply trips. Meanwhile, a complex series of tests and prototypes will ensure the fuel cell and its attached systems can withstand the extreme temperatures and forces of space.
“I’ve learned it’s amazing how much work goes into making something that might not seem that complex,” Brown says. “You can’t just call AAA for a tow. It comes down to intensive testing and development to make sure it’s going to work.”
The preliminary work has yielded positive results and NASA asked Brown to stay an additional month in Houston. Plus, the team is vying for a spot on a Mars rover scheduled to be launched around 2020 and land on the Red Planet. Brown says if the team is selected, the fuel cell system will be loaded on the rover – sister to the Mars Curiosity – and receive the ultimate test of its abilities.
Even if the fuel cell never reaches Mars, Brown says the paid internship has been a field day for a space buff like him. In the office next door, researchers work on warp speed – travel faster than the speed of light. On the same campus, Mission Control keeps watch over the International Space Station.
To get to Houston, Brown applied for 15 internships at the space agency – the maximum number of applications allowed. NASA interviewed him for three positions and eventually selected him to intern within the Engineering Directorate in Texas. Brown brought a broad-based chemical engineering background – even if it did take him a while to settle on an academic career.
After high school Brown, now 27, joined the Air Force Academy, decided it wasn’t for him and enrolled at Colgate University. He drifted away from pursuing his passion for space and ultimately transferred to the University of Rhode Island, where he expects to graduate in December 2014.
Brown says he’s happy with his decision to attend URI and pleased it provided a foundation for him to intern at NASA, a place he hopes to work one day, exploring space, the final frontier.
“It’s the mystery of the unknown,” Brown says of his attraction to space. “We occupy the smallest piece of the physical universe and we’ve only been around the shortest time. The bulk of existence does not involve human beings.”]]>
June 30-July 25, 2014
9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Robotics and Programming Session
June 30-July 25, 2014
2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The Academy is designed for high school students who want to explore the possibilities created by engineering and explore the subject in a hands-on, engaging fashion. The Academy is offered every July at the Kingston campus. You can learn more about this year’s sessions and the weekend program that offers students opportunities to see regional engineering and cultural landmarks. Students may also earn college credit, scholarships and be eligible for on-campus housing during the program.
Forge friendships and meet others while exploring engineering.
Hands on activities and road trips make this an action-packed experience.
The Academy attracts students from around the world, offering a unique international experience.
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Wanting Engineering (WEGR) is not an engineering major code since it is not a degree. It is only available to students who are still in University College. This coding is used with students who are interested in engineering as a major, but do not have the background to begin as an engineering major (would not be admitted as an engineering major). It provides them with an opportunity to take courses that follow the freshman engineering degree pathway with the benefit of having an engineering advisor. Many WEGR students become engineering majors after successfully completing specific required courses (see below). The decision about if and when a student is ready to be changed to an engineering major is determined by the associate dean.
Note: A signed WEGR contract is required for this option. You must meet with the WEGR advisor regarding this contract.
Please review the items at each link shown below, which will provide you with important information that you need to be aware of. You also need to print out the curriculum and check sheets for your major and bring this information to all advising appointments.
Note: Advisor evaluation and monitoring of student progress is done every semester. Based on your performance and progress, and at the discretion of the COE Dean, you can lose your WEGR status at any time. If there is no evidence of satisfactory progress during any of the 3 (three) semesters as described above, you may lose your WEGR status, and will not be allowed to enroll in any engineering courses. It will then be necessary for you to choose a major other than engineering.]]>
A long shower in Jordan is a luxury. The arid country’s water shortage means that water flows to most homes once a week, twice in a good week. For residents without stored water or money to buy bottled water, baths, laundry and everything else requiring H2O must wait.
Jordanian researchers seeking new water sources have turned to desalination – the process of removing salt from saline water. And they’ve looked to University of Rhode Island engineering Assistant Professor Vinka Oyanedel-Craver to develop nanoparticles to improve desalination efficiency and reduce costs.
With the backing of a $314,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development and $100,000 from the National Science Foundation, the project launched in early 2014 as a collaboration among researchers in the United States and Jordan.
In the United States, Oyanedel-Craver’s silver nanoparticles will be embedded in membranes used in the process that eliminates salt from salt or brackish water. The nanoparticles slow the growth of bacteria on the membrane. And because the particles are infused into the membrane, there is no need to shut down operations to clean the membrane.
“We can reduce the amount of bacteria that starts growing so the membrane works longer,” Oyanedel-Craver says. “You make it way more efficient and less expensive.”
The team is also seeking environmentally friendly nanoparticles composed of materials readily available in Jordan and nearby countries. That will keep costs down and allow their widespread use by government water suppliers and private well owners alike. The project calls for URI to develop the nanoparticles, the University of Toledo to infuse them in the membrane and the Georgia Institute of Technology to develop the fabrication process. The project runs until July 2015.
Muna Abu-Dalo, an associate professor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology spearheading the project, says the global alliance offers a powerful combination of expertise unavailable at any single institution. Each school brings its own specialty and for URI, that’s a long history in developing nanoparticles that turn dirty water into potable water. Oyanedel-Craver has led those efforts and been a notable presence at water engineering conferences around the globe.
“She’s very unique in her research and she’s very good at her research,” says Abu-Dalo, who met Oyanedel-Craver at an engineering conference in 2011.
The duo have found more in common since their first meeting. They are discussing applying the lessons from the desalination project to Oyanedel-Craver’s ceramic filters in use in rural Latin America. Separately, Jordan, housing more than 613,000 refugees, could deploy the low-cost, low- maintenance ceramic filters in refugee camps.
“We’re not just hoping to do research, but to also build capacity to do more,” Abu-Dalo says.
Working toward that goal, URI civil and environmental graduate engineering student Colleen Grinham, of Middleboro, Mass., will spend July in Jordan working with Abu-Dalo and her students. Grinham plans to teach Jordan researchers how to make the nanoparticles.
It will not be her first time abroad. As an undergraduate in the University’s International Engineering Program, she spent a year in Germany studying at the Technical University of Braunschweig and interning at Bayer. In all, she’s been to 29 countries through her studies and personal travel. Jordan will mark her 30th nation and first time in the region.
“Going places with a purpose is really important to me,” Grinham says. “With the Syrian refugees Jordan’s infrastructure and water resources are taking a toll. This work is especially important now.”]]>
Whether it’s keeping airplanes safe or keeping homes cool, University of Rhode Island students are on it. In late April, about a dozen student teams demonstrated their senior capstone design projects. Most teams partnered with industry and delivered real solutions to real-world problems.
Take, for example, Hope Global. The industrial textiles company wants to fit more spools that wind its finished material in its Cumberland, R.I. plant. Four mechanical engineering students studied the existing system and designed a new, skinner spool. The new model means Hope Global can fit three spools in an area where currently just two fit.
“By giving them an extra spool, the payback is less than a year,” says student Tim Johnson, who adds that the company plans to test the system in the coming months.
Not far away, two loadmasters from the Rhode Island National Guard 143rd Airlift Wing reviewed a student-designed proximity warning system for aircraft. As aircraft taxi on the ground, the system monitors the surrounding area. When the plane approaches a nearby object, the system emits a series of lights and sounds. The closer the object, the more intense the sound and light.
The students submitted the project as part of a competition held by the Federal Aviation Administration. The device took first place in the nation with FAA and industry officials saying it had market potential and was economical to install. (See full story.)
Separately during a presentation on campus, visitor and National Guard Master Sgt. Chad Gurnon called the device a long overdue idea. Airplanes navigating congested airports are prone to clipping their wings against other aircraft or structures. More than a scratch, such collisions cost millions of dollars in damage to military equipment.
“This is an awesome idea,” Gurnon says. “For what it would cost, it would save so much money.”
Industrial and systems engineering student Lawrence Higgins pointed out another positive. The device could allow planes to park closer together and save space in hangers, which are expensive to build and maintain.
Keeping large structures such as hangers the right temperature was the charge of another team. Amtrol executives asked students to invent a better way to filter out air and debris from water-based heating systems. The oxygen in the air lowers efficiency and dirt clogs pumps and values.
Amtrol also asked students to invent a system that would not infringe on any existing patents. And, of course, it had to be affordable.
Students developed a stainless steel mesh wound around a pipe. The mesh forms a layered grid that filters the water. To prove it worked, students built a model and printed two of its components on the college’s 3-D printer.
Mechanical engineering student Chris Shillings said the project put him and his peers closer to industry than ever. The group visited Amtrol’s Rhode Island testing and manufacturing facility and worked closely with company engineers.
“It was definitely a tough assignment but it was a great experience to really step into industry and see their process,” Shillings says.]]>
The car, standing about a foot tall, relied on a camera and software programmed by students to zip along a racetrack without human intervention. The car completed the course in 17.7 seconds, faster than 27 other teams at the annual Freescale Cup in Rochester, N.Y. on April 19. The team now heads to South Korea in August to compete against 19 teams from around the globe.
“It’s amazing,” team member Geoffrey Mcelroy, of Lincoln, R.I., said. “I was so excited when we won. I can’t believe I’m going to Korea. It is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”
Mcelroy will be joined by teammates Cory Jalbert of Coventry, R.I., and David Cipoletta of Chepachet, R.I. The three were classmates in a senior computer engineering course taught by computer engineering Professor Qing Yang. The professor offered students a choice for grading: take a series of traditional exams or design a robotic car and take one exam. Six students opted for the later, fielding two teams that competed in Rochester.
“This is a good opportunity to inspire students to do real design,” Yang said. “The best way to learn is by doing something.”
The students programmed a 32-bit microprocessor to interface with the camera, motor, battery, wheels and sensors. They added intelligence by creating algorithms that learned from previous mistakes and kept the car on the curving and hilly 100-foot track.
“Even if the track had been constantly changing, the car would have been able to adapt and handle it,” said Jalbert, who served as the team captain.
The students also learned from last year’s team that placed second. They worked long hours to ensure this year’s intelligent car was faster than last year’s car, which clocked in at 19.5 seconds on a test track. When trial runs came in faster, the team pushed for even faster speeds, at one point working more than 16 hours straight to finalize the design.
The teammates will continue to tweak this year’s car ahead of the world championships even as two of them graduate. Fittingly, both are pursuing careers in the automation industry. Jalbert has accepted a software engineering position at Vecna Technologies in Massachusetts with hopes of moving to its competitive robotics division. Cipoletta, currently working part time at Eagle Electric in Rhode Island, is weighing two offers, both from engineering companies involved with automation and machine intelligence. And it’s very possible the students may find themselves designing the next autonomous vehicle.
“This was essentially a kit version of the future car or robot that can drive itself,” Cipoletta said. “We learned a lot.”]]>
“Everything is what you make of it,” Calderón says. “That’s the gift I received from my mother: the importance of preparing for the future.”
He is inspired by his late mother, Silvia Franco, who left her home in Guatemala seeking a better life in Providence. She died of breast cancer in May 2013.
“It was my mother who was a pioneer. She didn’t want to be limited. She was very independent,” Calderón says. His twin brother Michael is a Rhode Island College junior studying nuclear medicine technology. His father Lionel died accidentally in 2008.
“I have been challenged more than I expected by both my field of study, engineering, and the hardships in my life; one of which includes the loss of my parents. I have been faced with tremendous difficulties, and have used these difficulties to improve myself; in both character and management,” Calderón said this fall in a speech thanking scholarship donors.
The 2010 valedictorian from Central High School was selected by URI for its Talent Development program, which provides economically disadvantaged students with a rigorous pre-college summer program followed by consistent academic advising.
“Chris took on the challenge of advancing his opportunity for higher education in the Talent Development program with sheer will, dedication, hard work and discipline,” said his TD advisor Gerald R. Williams. “He entered the TD program with focus and determination. I am very proud of him and all that he has accomplished. This young man clearly understands the importance of how attaining a college degree will and has opened doors for him that he could have only imagined and will soon realize.”
Calderón says the TD advisors “do care, and they celebrate your achievements. They provide opportunities for growth. They’re always pushing you to excel.”
Calderón recalls feeling upset about “bombing” his first chemistry test. “I know you’re a great student. You can do this. You just need to evaluate your approach,” Calderón remembers Williams telling him.
Pulling out his smartphone, Calderón reads a text message from a TD counselor that reads, “Hey, you should look into this leadership workshop.”
Calderón demonstrated leadership as the URI chapter treasurer of the national civil engineering honor society Chi Epsilon, and the president of the URI chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. As a 2013 summer intern with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, he gained experience working on the relocation of Interstate 95.
Prior to URI, Calderón was active in and received long-term guidance from mentors at two organizations aimed at academic success for low-income Providence public school students: The College Crusade of Rhode Island and Inspiring Minds.
Calderón says his personal drive motivates him to follow his dreams and goals: “I’ve got to do the right thing. I need to get it done as best I possibly can.”]]>
“I like to tell people that I don’t want to make the motor of a car, I want to make the seats,” said Powers, a Cumberland native. “I think it’s more interesting to make something that has to account for the human; it’s more interesting to design something that is really focused on the user. When the average person uses a product, how easy is it for them to understand what’s going on? Do they have to read the manual or can they just do it?”
Powers carried that user-focused perspective throughout his URI career, especially in his German language education. The recipient of the University Award for Excellence in German, he quickly developed proficiency in speaking German and eventually became a German tutor and chaperoned a student trip to Germany with two URI professors.
“I took German 101 and after one semester I could speak more than after four years of French in high school,” Powers said. “It just seemed to click.”
He spent a year in Germany as part of the URI International Engineering Program, studying at the Technical University at Braunschweig and interning at rail company Deutsche Bahn. And while he was there, he enrolled in a Goethe Institute class in German and passed a high-level exam demonstrating his proficiency and fluency. One professor said he “absorbed German language and culture like a sponge.”
“I really loved that year in Germany. I got to travel to a lot of places, I met some people who I’m still in touch with, and I learned a lot of interesting things, including some skills that I didn’t expect,” he said. “If you want to learn to be better at small talk, networking or giving presentations, try doing them in a different language. That made it so much easier to do them in English.”
At Deutsche Bahn, Powers worked mostly on computer modeling of train systems, and he followed that up with an internship at the Rhode Island offices of Supfina Machine Co., a company he calls “half American, half German” that builds superfinishing machines for clients like General Motors.
But Powers’ college career wasn’t all work and no play. He also played saxophone in the URI Big Band for two years and competes on the URI ultimate Frisbee team, which traveled throughout the region and as far as Florida and Georgia to compete against other universities.
With just a few weeks before he graduates, Powers is focused on the next steps in achieving his career goals. He is deciding between several graduate schools to which he has been accepted for master’s degree programs in industrial engineering, and he eventually will seek a job in the ergonomics field.
“I’ll be taking some psychology classes and biomechanics classes so I can design products that incorporate how people think and how we move,” he said. “Whether I end up designing keyboards or chairs or whatever, I just want to make things that work the way you want them to.”]]>