Canada has a problem most countries would envy. Vast oil deposits cover an area bigger than Florida and contain an estimated 175 billion barrels of bituminous crude, making the province of Alberta home to one of the richest reserves on the planet, just behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Time magazine calls it “Canada’s great buried energy treasure.”
Trouble is, that molasses-like treasure lies locked in tar sands. Extracting it has meant cutting into ancient boreal forests, storage of vast amounts of polluted wastewater, and production methods that critics say release three times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil drilling. The Natural Resources Defense Council calls it “the world’s dirtiest oil.” Plans to pump the crude via the Keystone XL pipeline through the American heartland to Texas have ignited a fierce political battle between the Obama administration, which is blocking the pipeline, and congressional Republicans, who have made it a defining election-year issue. Canada’s government, meanwhile, has put its cooperation in the fight against global climate change on the line, opting to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol rather than make the required cuts in emissions.
Far from the noisy debates in Washington and Ottawa, a small army of engineers at the University of Alberta is pursuing what all sides would likely consider a worthwhile goal: make the manufacturing process more efficient, with both breakthrough technology and incremental daily improvements. So far, the efforts have resulted in innovations in areas from oil-extraction techniques to waste mitigation, helping the industry raise output, save energy, and cut both costs and the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per barrel.
Humans have been recovering bitumen from oil sands since paleolithic times for uses ranging from mummy preparation to adhesives to waterproofing. But liberating this extremely viscous form of petroleum on a large scale, when much of it is buried 75 meters or more deep, poses unique engineering challenges. “You shouldn’t think of the oil sands as a hydrocarbon fossil-fuel conventional industry, where you drill and recover and send it off to a pipeline,” cautions David Lynch, dean of engineering and a leading expert on oil-sands processing. True, the oil starts in the ground and gets distributed via pipeline. But “everything else in between is different.”
For deposits fairly close to the surface, the top “overburden” stratum of soil, rock, and other materials is stripped away and giant shovels scoop up 100 tons of oil sands at a time and dump their load into trucks. Hot water is added to soften the bitumen, and the mixture is transported by pipelines to a facility for extraction and eventual upgrading before the oil can be refined. About 80 percent of Alberta’s oil-sands reserves are too deep to mine economically, however. So scientists and engineers have developed a method known as Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage. In this process, two parallel horizontal pipes are drilled into reservoirs hundreds of feet underground. Steam injected into one pipe heats the bitumen enough to flow into the lower horizontal pipe and up to the surface.
Improving the whole operation has galvanized U. of A.’s faculty of engineering, where no fewer than 1,000 professors and graduate students are working on it full time. That kind of capacity “didn’t happen randomly,” notes Lynch. Over the past two decades, he says, public-private partnerships have provided research opportunities and matching grants to hire faculty “who can do fundamental work but also possess a background and have interests that could mesh with needs of the oil sands industry.” If industry puts up $1 million over five years, for instance, Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) will contribute the same, with the provincial government often kicking in funds as well. The researchers are building on nearly a century of pioneering oil-sands work. In the 1920s and ’30s, Karl Clark, chair of mining and metallurgy, developed a hot-water extraction process that, with modifications, is still used today to mine oil sands close to the surface. The first full-scale commercial operation didn’t start until 1967, however, and it took the Great Canadian Oil Sands company 11 years more to bring a second plant online. Why the delay? As Lynch explains, in the 1980s “oil was down at $10 a barrel while production costs were $30 a barrel — not a great economic proposition.” A decade later, the company seriously considered shutting down part of the operation. Only after oil prices vaulted in the early ’90s was Lynch able to persuade key oil-sands companies that universities could contribute to the profitability, efficiency, and environmental effectiveness of their operations. The first industrially funded research chair in oil-sands engineering was created in 1995, and “we started to grow one program after another,” Lynch recalls. Last year, the university added six NSERC-endowed chairs.
Many major oil-sands manufacturing innovations have benefited from U. of A. engineering expertise. Consider the introduction of hydrotransport, a process developed in the early 1990s by researchers from Syncrude Canada, a leading producer of bituminous crude from oil sands that has raised efficiency and reduced pollution. At the time, oil sands were moved by conveyor belts from mine to processing plant, where giant, cement-mixer-like tumblers would help begin the oil separation process. Syncrude researchers discovered that adding hot water to the oil sands allowed more efficient transmission by pipeline. By the time the oil sands reached the extraction facility, most of the oil already had separated from the sand and clay in transit. “Basically, you got two jobs done for the price of one,” explains Sean Sanders, associate professor of chemical and materials engineering at the University of Alberta, who holds the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Pipeline Transport Processes. “You get the material being moved from the mine to the extraction [plant], and at the same time the oil sands are being prepared so they can properly be separated.”
U. of A. engineering educators helped hone the idea. Initially, the extraction process used water heated to 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Jacob Masliyah, professor emeritus of chemical engineering, demonstrated that the temperature could be reduced without any decrease in effectiveness. The less energy needed to heat the water, the lower the carbon dioxide emissions. “It was all done using fundamental scientific principles and techniques,” Masliyah recalls. Using “very sophisticated instrumentation,” his research team was able to show a sharp reduction in adhesion force between bitumen — the tarlike oil — and sand when processed with water at 95 degrees. “The industry can now comfortably operate its processes at a temperature of just above 102 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Masliyah. For his work in the oil-sands industry, the Baghdad native was elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 2011.
Inside the pipeline
Today, fellow engineering professor Sean Sanders is working to further boost the efficiency of hydrotransport. He wants the oil-sands industry “to see the pipeline as a reactor” where conditions can be changed to improve bitumen extraction. “For 20 years, people in industry have said, ‘Once it’s in the pipeline, what can you do?’” explains Sanders. “But if you know what’s happening in there, you can know exactly when to add air, or a process additive, or vary the mixing intensity, or something that will help make the process more efficient.”
Another challenge Sanders hopes to conquer: changing mining methods to reduce or eliminate the use of monster trucks, a huge source of carbon dioxide emissions. Each Caterpillar 797 used to transport oil sands from strip mine to processing plant can carry close to 400 tons on its 13-foot wheels. The trucks also produce roughly 25 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by oil-sands operations.
Eliminating trucks goes in lock step with what Sanders calls remote extraction, or “designing a mobile preparation facility that would follow the shovels around.” Currently, hydrotransport pipelines are 1 to 3 miles long. Shorter, more mobile pipes would reduce that distance to less than 600 yards. Sanders hopes to develop a rapid-conditioning process that is “robust enough to work on all kinds of ore,” which can vary widely in quality even within a few hundred yards at one mine site.
Further efficiencies are being sought on the receiving end of the hydrotransport lines, where oil is separated from dirt in huge reservoirs known as primary separation cells. Five stories high and 70 feet in diameter, one such tank at the Suncor plant processes 50,000 barrels of oil a day from the slurry of oil, sand, and clay that comes in. Plant operators face a problem, however. Pumps suck out water and sand from the bottom of the tank, leaving a middle layer of clay, water, and oil. The crude floats to the top where it is skimmed off, but the mixture underneath constantly shifts. Any oil sucked into the exit pumps ends up in tailings ponds, meaning lost revenue and more pollution. But adjusting the speed of the pumps is part art, part science. Enter chemical and materials engineering professor Sirish Shah and doctoral student Phanindra Jampana. The pair designed an image-based sensor that used sophisticated algorithms and a digital camera aimed through a viewing window into the tank to analyze 10 video clips per second and adjust the pumps. The result was a 50 percent reduction in the inadvertent flow of bitumen into tailings ponds — about 1,600 barrels of added oil production per tank. Shah and Jampana won a 2011 award from the Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Foundation for their work.
The path to oil-sands innovation also includes setbacks. Before Shah’s work, for example, the industry had spent several million dollars on techniques that proved unreliable and ineffective, such as using gamma radiation to pinpoint the interface level, notes David Lynch, the engineering dean.
A $3 million fine
One of the most vexing oil-sands engineering problems over the past 45 years has been what to do with wastewater and sludge. It takes at least two barrels of water to extract a single barrel of oil. That oil-tainted water cannot be returned directly to its source, the Athabasca River and its tributaries, so it ends up in huge holding ponds. The water can be treated and recycled. The sand settles to the bottom. Much of the clay, however, forms a relatively stable suspension with 15 percent solids and the consistency of yogurt. These “mature fine tailings” (MFT) will not settle and thus cannot be dredged. So they accumulate in ever expanding tailings ponds — 65 square miles’ worth and counting. “The first barrel of MFT from 1967 is essentially still with us,” says Lynch. That alarms environmentalists, who point to a 2008 accident in which 1,600 ducks died after landing in a toxic pond. The company, Syncrude, had to pay a $3 million penalty, one of the largest fines for an environmental offense in Canada’s history. Beneficiaries included a University of Alberta bird migration project and the Alberta Conservation Association.
Engineers are exploring ways to shrink the tailings ponds. One method under evaluation involves spreading the clays in thin layers to promote evaporation. Researchers also see promise in the use of large centrifuges that can wring water from the tailings like a washing machine. Other methods being studied include adding a polymer to help suspended particles coagulate into a denser mass and expel water, making the sludge easier to handle, and recombining the MFT with sand. The tailings would bind with the sand’s microscopic holes to create a weightier material that would settle more swiftly to the bottom of the holding pond. “The science is well known, but the application of the technology is difficult,” says Jacob Masliyah. “It’s like having a drug that will cure you of a disease, but how do we administer that drug effectively?” Fellow engineering professor Ward Wilson adds, half-jokingly: “We could make vineyards and ski hills if you want; it’s all a matter of cost. What gives you the best physical performance at what cost?”
One solution to the water problem is not to use it in the first place. The Center for Oil Sands Innovation (COSI), a U. of A. research facility set up in 2005 to find breakthrough technologies for oil-sands production and upgrading, is investigating nonaqueous extraction. (“Only engineers could find their heart beating faster at the mention of ‘nonaqueous extraction,’” jokes David Lynch.) The mission has some urgency. “People have been focused on the problem of tailings for a long time, and so far there is no really satisfactory answer,” says COSI scientific director Murray Gray. “Our approach is to step outside of that box and ask: What are completely different approaches that may have merit?” His team is experimenting with solvents and other additives to remove the oil from the tar sands without leaving behind highly concentrated residue and creating an even bigger environmental problem. If successful, he says, the remaining mixture of sand grains and clay particles could be easily handled as a dry powder and returned to the mine site for speedier reclamation. “You don’t have to build these huge ponds to hold sludge for decades,” explains Gray. “It completely changes everything.”
COSI also has focused on upgrading the oil — processing extracted oil so it has more value for the refinery. Currently, upgrading requires high temperatures generated by furnaces and the addition of hydrogen gas. Both increase air pollution. COSI researchers are examining ways to reduce operating temperatures, pressures, and the amount of hydrogen needed. “Basically, how to do it cheaper, better, and with less energy consumption and less carbon dioxide production,” sums up Gray.
Canada’s research engineers seem confident of designing more efficient systems to wring every possible drop of liquid treasure from Alberta’s vast tar sands. Less certain is their ability to make oil-sands extraction clean enough to win acceptance on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.
A Medical Side Benefit
Oil-sands technology has led to some serendipitous spinoffs. Take the optical work that University of Alberta engineering professor Sirish Shah and doctoral student Phanindra Jampana pioneered as a way to improve the extraction process in primary separation cells. The work caught the eye of physician Patrick E. Duffy at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Washington, D.C. Or rather, it caught his ear.
Duffy met Shah at a wedding reception in Oregon. The two started talking about their careers, and when Shah mentioned his imaging work, Duffy started thinking about how it might be applied to his field of expertise: malaria detection. According to the World Health Organization, malaria kills nearly a million people worldwide every year. Manual microscopy used to be the gold standard for diagnosing malaria; an operator would examine blood-smear slides and count the number of red blood cells infected by parasites. This time-consuming diagnostic method is prone to human error, however, even in experienced hands. With the help of graduate student Yashasvi Purwar, Shah came up with a way to eliminate inconsistent results using the digital-imaging process he developed to improve oil-sands yield. After three years of testing and fine-tuning the technique, they arrived at a faster and more cost-effective way to detect infection. Shah published the results of “automated and unsupervised detection of malarial parasites” in the December 2011 issue of Malaria Journal. “It’s truly amazing to realize the breadth of applications of imaging analysis and systems,” Shah says.
It’s not easy to remain a mere face in the crowd at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of this 13,000-student school on the edge of Baltimore, is known for his impressive recall of student names. On daily walks across the red-brick campus, he greets students by name – introducing himself to those he hasn’t yet met – and asks what they’re working on or how they did on a recent test. “He just knows the path so many of the students have taken,” says Warren DeVries, dean of UMBC’s College of Engineering and Information Technology. “He seems to have everybody’s curriculum and progress in the back of his mind.”
That kind of personal attention is a big part of UMBC’s culture, which Hrabowski describes as “inclusive excellence.” The combination of making people feel welcome and supported, while setting high expectations that they will both produce good work and be able to communicate clearly about it — has put UMBC on the map, as have its strength in undergraduate teaching and record of graduating students, particularly minorities, in the STEM fields. The school’s success is particularly relevant now amid a White House-led drive to improve undergraduate retention in science and engineering.
“He’s always pushing us to be able to talk about what we did,” says Malcolm Taylor, who graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s in computer engineering and is now in his third year pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “If he’s with someone, he’ll say (to a student), ‘Tell him what you’re doing.’”
Taylor, a recent National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship winner who is working with GM on safe and secure hardware systems for cars, says he chose UMBC over other universities because of the community and support system it offered. Taylor was a member of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a signature UMBC initiative focused on helping high-achieving students, especially minorities, become leaders in science and engineering by preparing them to earn Ph.D.’s in the STEM fields.
The program was launched in 1988 by Hrabowski – then vice provost – with a half-million dollars in seed money from Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff to support African-American men committed to achieving Ph.D.’s in science, engineering, and math. Its graduates have gone on to earn, collectively, 81 Ph.D.’s, 25 M.D./Ph.D. degrees, and 92 M.D.’s. Expanded to include women in 1990 and all races in 1996, its 2010-11 roster of 230 students was 51 percent African-American. Nearly 300 of its 700 graduates are currently enrolled in a graduate or professional degree program. The school boasts that Meyerhoff scholars were five times as likely to pursue STEM Ph.D.’s as students who were offered a spot in the program but attended college elsewhere. UMBC, where 45 percent of students are STEM majors, has seen the highest number of African-American graduates go on to Ph.D.’s in STEM fields of any predominantly white institution.
The Meyerhoff program had already brought accolades to Hrabowski and UMBC when Prism profiled him in 2002. These included a U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring in 1996 and the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education in 2001. That the tributes keep coming is a measure not just of his success but also of America’s persistent problem of educating underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields. Last year, Hrabowski was awarded the Carnegie Corp.’s Centennial Academic Leadership Award, as well as the “Top American Leader” award from the Washington Post and Harvard University. He was profiled on 60 Minutes, and Time named him one of the Top 10 College Presidents. In December, he was one of 12 college leaders who met with President Obama to discuss college affordability.
The 61-year-old Hrabowski jokes that the accumulating awards just means he’s getting old. He deflects credit to the students, faculty, and staff of UMBC. “All I’m doing is telling their stories,” he says. “This is a place not short on inspiration.”
A Young Achiever
Nor, for that matter, is Hrabowski. Descended from rural Alabama slaves and a Polish slave master, from whom he got his surname, Hrabowski grew up amid the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. When he was 12, he joined in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Children’s March” and spent five days in jail. An only child whose mother was an English teacher, he relished academic challenges; he recalls getting “goose bumps” when solving word problems. He entered the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, at 15, graduating with a degree in math at 19. At 24, he had earned a master’s in math and a Ph.D. in higher education administration and statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Hrabowski became president of UMBC in 1992, and has served more than a decade longer than the average for college presidents. Diane Auer Jones, a former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education and UMBC grad who considers Hrabowski a mentor and friend, says he could have left many times for bigger-name institutions and for presidencies with higher salaries. “He has really stuck with his project,” she says.
The Meyerhoff Scholars Program focuses on building a sense of community and family among the scholars (this year, there are 70 freshmen) while providing them financial, academic, and social support. Students get involved in research with faculty members and with companies in the UMBC research park, which prepares them for graduate school and shows early on what kind of careers are possible in science and engineering fields.
A six-week summer “bridge” program helps the scholars bond and introduces them to the expectations of college work from the get-go. Some unique aspects make it seem more like boot camp than summer school (the Meyerhoff program director is a Virginia Military Institute grad). Students go from 7 a.m. to midnight with no free time. They can’t use cellphones or personal computers, and must move from place to place as one group.
‘A Big Difference’
Rather than compete with one another, the scholars are expected to collaborate. They seek each other’s help for study groups, especially when coursework gets challenging. They also offer encouragement and a network of like-minded people on campus pursing similar goals.
The all-Meyerhoff meetings at the beginning and end of the semester are called family meetings, and in this 230-person family, everyone is known by name. That’s because, by the end of the summer bridge program, all of the scholars must stand up and say the name of everyone in their 60-plus person cohort.
“It’s something simple, but it makes a big difference,” says Taylor, the Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. candidate. “If you know everybody’s name, you’re not afraid to say hello. It forces you to come out of your shell and talk to people. It’s hard to forget somebody’s name if you’ve had a meaningful interaction with them.”
A data-driven decision maker, Hrabowski made sure the Meyerhoff program always had a research director. As a result, UMBC has two decades worth of data on the program’s best practices, which it shares with other colleges and uses to improve academics on its own campus, says LaMont Toliver, the Meyerhoff program director.
One thing UMBC has learned is that the No. 1 reason people drop out of STEM fields is they didn’t do well in the coursework. So UMBC is changing how courses are taught. Based on best practices from the Meyerhoff program, UMBC is now in the middle of major course redesigns in STEM and other areas to help build community among students, demand active engagement from faculty members, and involve students in research. In engineering, for example, a revamped introductory course has students doing industrial design projects in teams. Besides contributing to the nation’s workforce, gains in student success will benefit UMBC’s bottom line: Each time a student needs to retake an introductory class, it costs the university $1,600.
“It’s clear to us, if we can help students succeed … in the first two years of work, the student will remain in science and engineering, at least through the bachelor level,” Hrabowski says. Holding his iPhone, he shows a video of a redesigned first-year chemistry class. Students are scattered around a room in tables of four, talking and writing on whiteboards. “It’s loud, it’s collaborative, it’s engagement,” he says. “Everybody has a role. Somebody’s project manager, somebody’s serving as a scribe, somebody’s the provocateur, and they change roles throughout the semester.”
No one can sit in the back of this class. All students must talk about their work, and an individual’s grade is partly dependent on the others in the group. A sign at the front of the class that divides up team duties declares: “Learning Is Your Responsibility.”
The collaboration has carried over into the library, where individual carrels have been replaced at the students’ request with group study tables and booths, plus whiteboards that can be rolled around the room. To Hrabowski, this is what college life should be all about: “At UMBC the party is in the library.”
Kathryn Masterson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
UMBC’s Guide to What Works
- Widen the pool of faculty candidates to increase diversity and provide students with role models who look like them.
- Partner with business and industry to create research opportunities for faculty and students; offer summer research possibilities.
- Encourage study groups and tutoring.
- Provide personal advising and counseling.
- Link students with professional mentors in their field.
- Enlist faculty as mentors and advisers.
- Expect everyone to share responsibility for helping minority students graduate.
- Encourage student “ownership” of their program, engaging older students in interviewing younger applicants.
- Make clear what students should expect and what’s expected of them.
The academic engineers who toil in the field of sanitation, especially sanitation for the poorer citizens of the world, used to find that their field carried about as much cachet as a fly-ridden latrine. But not anymore.
In July of last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced eight grants totaling $3 million for university engineering projects to “Reinvent the Toilet.” The first round — for prototype development — will culminate in a Toilet Fair in Seattle this August and further grants to commercialize the most promising technology.
“Usually we battle to get master’s students involved in sanitation,” says chemical engineering lecturer Katherine Foxon of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. “Now they come to us saying, ‘Got any projects for me to do on Reinvent the Toilet? … Will I get to shake Bill Gates’s hand?’”
The foundation’s concern, of course, is not the prestige of sanitation engineers but the health of the world’s 2.6 billion people who have no hygienic sanitation. “Only about a third of the world’s population have flush toilets linked to sewers,” says Frank Rijsberman, director of the foundation’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene program. More than a billion people defecate in the open. Others use latrines that attract disease-carrying flies and are sometimes emptied into alleys and waterways. More than a million children die of diarrhea every year, largely as a result of such problems. “We don’t have a technology that you or I would choose to use today,” Rijsberman adds. “We need something that doesn’t yet exist.”
EVAPORATE, COMBUST, AND GASIFY
“Reinvent the Latrine” might better capture the work taking place at the universities. None of the engineers involved is proposing technology to expand sewerage lines and connect billions of new flush toilets. Such systems are simply too expensive and wasteful. Chris Buckley, another KwaZulu-Natal chemical engineer, points out that the dry weight of the average person’s feces is a mere 11 kilograms per year. Toilets demand 18 metric tons of water to transport those 11 kilograms, however, dispersing pathogens in 18,000 liters of water in the process. “Flush toilets are not a sensible idea,” he concludes.
Instead, the eight engineering projects, from Switzerland to Singapore, propose to evaporate, combust, microwave, pyrolyze, and gasify human waste, creating useful end products in the process. Buckley, a jocular academic with a bushy gray beard, quips that the goal is to convert excrement into “drinking water, fertilizer, and salt for your fish and chips.”
At Caltech, Michael Hoffmann has plans that make Buckley’s hyperbole seem not so far-fetched. Hoffmann, a professor of environmental science recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and his research group are incorporating solar photovoltaics, hydrogen fuel cells, and semiconductors into a small-scale waste treatment reactor.
The self-sustaining system is designed to create its own energy while destroying pathogens and producing fertilizer and sanitized water that can be recycled for flushing. One of the requirements of the Gates Foundation is that the toilet systems need neither plumbed water supply nor electricity from the grid.
Caltech’s toilet plan is based on more than a decade of work, for which Hoffmann and his group have been awarded three patents. The research began with the goal of improving upon conventional electrolysis to produce hydrogen from water. Hoffmann experimented with semiconductor-plated electrodes to replace platinum and other expensive metals, which operate normally within a very limited range on the pH scale. When he found that the resulting reactions were producing hydroxyl radicals – extremely powerful oxidizing agents – Hoffmann expanded the scope of his research into electrochemical reactors that can purify industrial wastewater.
ELECTRICITY FROM EFFLUENT
Now, with a nudge from the Gates Foundation, Hoffmann, along with a senior scientist, a postdoc, and four other Caltech students, is adapting this technology to treat human waste. He is already confident that his reactors, powered by solar photovoltaic panels, can oxidize organics while producing disinfecting hypochlorous acid as a byproduct from chlorides in the wastewater. The hydrogen released will be stored and then converted into electricity by fuel cells at night to keep the process going. The team is even developing new lithium-based batteries to serve as a secondary backup when the sun fails to shine.
Hoffmann’s high-tech approach could cost several thousand dollars to build a processing reactor that might service 500 slum dwellers using public toilet facilities in their community. “If your goal is highly sophisticated technology using latest advances in chemical engineering, but at very low cost, that is a little contradictory,” he warns. Still, Hoffmann points out that the system may have virtually no operating expenses. The Gates Foundation wants toilets that cost no more than five cents per person per day.
At Stanford University, mechanical engineering professor Reginald Mitchell is also adapting his research to the effluent effort. For 25 years, Mitchell has been applying his combustion and gasification expertise to improving energy production in converting coal and, more recently, biomass, into electricity and hydrogen. Heated in the absence of oxygen, pyrolyzed biomass releases syngas fuel and leaves behind “biochar,” which can be used to improve soil while sequestering carbon. But until the Gates Foundation stuck its nose into the issue, no one, to Mitchell’s knowledge, had attempted to pyrolyze excrement.
In partnership with the Climate Foundation and his Stanford students, Mitchell plans to develop a self-sustaining process that dries and then pyrolyzes the waste using the heat from the combustion of syngas previously released during pyrolysis. One of the questions yet to be answered is whether the system can derive enough energy from waste alone without an external fuel source. Urine would be kept out of the process until the end, when its nutrients would be used to enrich the fertilizing properties of the biochar. If the members of the group receive further funds to test their prototype, they plan to put it to work in Nairobi, Kenya, processing at least two tons of human waste a day.
A BYPRODUCT: DISTILLED WATER
All eight Reinvent the Toilet projects separately process urine and feces, which gives the KwaZulu-Natal team an almost unfair advantage for real-world experimentation. Within an hour’s drive of the university engineering department, the Durban municipality, known as eThekwini, has installed 75,000 urine-diversion latrines, making that city a magnet for toilet tours. “Durban is a center of innovation in dry sanitation,” says Rijsberman. Even his boss, Bill Gates, has inspected Durban’s urine-diversion latrines. Buckley has one installed at his home.
A urine-diversion latrine divides the toilet bowl into front and back sections, or, as Buckley has nicknamed them, “urinal and arsenal.” Separating liquids and solids allows feces to dry and lose their smell, while urine soaks away into the ground in most Durban installations. Inside, the latrine is virtually odor free.
But in their current design, eThekwini’s urine-diversion toilets are only a first step toward the toilet of the future. For one thing, their solid contents have to be emptied and buried once a year. To do this requires space, and the buried waste may continue to harbor pathogens, even though it has been biodegrading for at least a year. All of the Reinvent the Toilet projects plan to employ high levels of heat to kill pathogens. Finally, the nutrients, especially those in urine, are wasted.
Buckley’s team at the University of KwaZulu-Natal has cooperated closely with the municipality’s sanitation department for several years to engineer improvements. Well before the Reinvent the Toilet grants were announced, university researchers were looking at ways to use urine, for example, and even make it salable. “For poor people, one of the few resources they have is their excreta,” says Buckley.
The South Africans are determined to keep three waste streams separated: urine, feces, and water used for washing and flushing. On a sweaty February day, Buckley is inspecting one prototype at EnviroSan, an injection-molding company that is a partner in the university’s Reinvent the Toilet project. Near a machine that is spitting out black plastic toilet lids, a welded pan has been mounted under a toilet bowl. The pan pivots on a rod, swung by a jury-rigged Vise-Grip lever. Buckley intends for the pan to rotate into place to catch water, while dodging out of the way of anything else that might drop.
Back at the engineering department’s workshop, another prototype is set up to extrude feces into “spaghetti” shapes for easier drying and burning. The engineers are experimenting with both a piston and a screw to drive their special pasta machine. The mechanical energy used to operate both the swinging pan and the spaghetti press could come from the opening and closing of the outhouse door or the weight of a person sitting on the toilet. Thermal energy from the combustion of feces would be used to dry the fecal fuel and distill water for washing and flushing.
All the groups are feeling the pressure of the looming August deadline for prototypes. Toilets and latrines have been fundamentally unchanged for more than a century. Demanding even a blueprint for a toilet revolution in 12 months was a tall ask. “Some people may think we are crazy,” acknowledges Rijsberman, “but I’m going to universities and seeing people are totally serious about this; they’re pulling in materials scientists, physicists, and chemical engineers who haven’t worked on sanitation before.”
The sanitation revolution may not take place overnight. But Bill Gates has brought a new impetus to small a coterie of engineers with the capacity to save hundreds of thousands of lives. And he’s not just pulling their chain.
Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.
Video: Reinvent the Toilet | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Teetering on a narrow metal bar 30 feet from the floor, AnnMarie Thomas lets go of the support ropes and hurtles downward. When she’s a heartbeat away from certain injury, the bungee cords attached to her waist spring into action. She bounces back in a succession of rebounds and plunges, each oscillation shorter than the last, until her motion stops.
Barnum & Bailey? No, it’s dynamics as taught by Thomas, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., who believes in going above and beyond the standard curriculum. A juggler and circus enthusiast since her youth, Thomas contends that acrobatics offer an ideal way to convey concepts like movement, momentum, and Lagrangian dynamics: “The circus is a giant physics and engineering playground.” And who says engineering theory has to be boring? After Thomas climbs down from the trapeze, each student gets a turn—no pre-training required. “When you’re having fun, you’re going to remember things,” she tells them.
Thomas, trained as a mechanical engineer, was inspired to produce the course while taking a flying trapeze class at Circus Juventas, one of at least two circus schools in the St. Paul area. CJ agreed to serve as the class laboratory, with coaches on hand to help students use the equipment safely. Thomas taught the course alongside Keith Berrier, an electrical and aerospace engineer whom she met in the trapeze class. He has since become an adjunct instructor in electrical engineering and design at St. Thomas.
The course was given just once, in the winter of 2009, a period St. Thomas sets aside for intensive one-month classes, but the instructors would like to offer it again and say it could be replicated in any city with a circus training facility. It features five circus acts, each chosen to illustrate how a particular simple machine functions. Besides joining in the acrobatics, students worked out equations to anticipate movements for each act. They recorded the stunts with video cameras and then used software to calculate the actual movements, compare them with the anticipated results, and analyze any discrepancies.
The first act, known as the German wheel, works like a disc rolling on a plane. Essentially a cylinder made from two 8-feet-in-diameter hoops with a common axis, the wheel rolls side to side when a performer—or college student—shifts his or her center of mass. The person inside executes a series of perfect, guided cartwheels. Calculations of the act’s velocity and acceleration points are simple, allowing for the best predictions and “beautiful data,” according to Thomas.
The heart-pounding bungee trapeze, employing a high platform and a set of bungee cords, functions like a classic mass and spring. Student groups measured damped oscillations and derived a theoretical equation to account for and compare to the real-world data. Two other acts, the famous flying trapeze and its smaller cousin, the low-casting trapeze, are more like large pendulums. Students calculated equations of motion, using both humans and weights, and attempted to discover whether trapezes most resembled simple or double pendulums.
In the fifth and final activity, known as the Spanish web, the students climb a rope and begin spinning with help from a coach or instructor. Over time, the speed increases and the body whirls around at a dizzying pace. The faster the person rotates, the higher the body lifts. Given the ability to go fast enough, the figure would become purely horizontal. The students had to figure out, given the speed, what angle would be obtained in relation to the weight of the person. A simpler version would be to hold a bucket of water and spin around. With increased speed, the arm holding the bucket ascends.
Among the motion-analysis software tools used were PASCO2 Amusement Park Physics Bundle sets, which consist of a data-logger; a three-axis acceleration altimeter sensor and vest to hold them; a human movement analysis program called KA Video3; and Dartfish4 image processing software. The programs, on loan from the university’s health and human performance department, were new for the students, but graduate student Andrea Guggenbuehl was on hand to show them the ropes.
Though active participation wasn’t required, every student jumped at the chance to tackle all the activities with Thomas and Berrier. Safety lines meant they could perform without prior training or any real risk of injury. William Besser, a mechanical engineering and business management double-major who took the class as a sophomore, even conquered his fear of heights to take on the flying trapeze. The course’s sole female student decided because of the class to add a second major in mechanical engineering.
Thomas says this kind of active learning can be more effective than lectures and textbooks, and mounting pedagogical evidence backs her up. A 2011 study involving a large-enrollment physics class by University of British Columbia researchers found that with active learning, attendance grew, engagement rose, and students learned twice as much as a control group in a traditional lecture setting. Moreover, a 2009 study from Loughborough University showed that along with virtual simulations, software use, and post-activity reflection, which Thomas’s course utilized, hands-on learning was essential to grasping information.
When there were data discrepancies between anticipated numbers and actual numbers for the bungee trapeze, the class discussed exactly how and why that occurred. “How we measured the K value” was “a little bit crude,” Thomas says. The sensors from PASCO2, designed for more general data taken by students at the K-12 level, were not as accurate as would be ideal, and since the students didn’t go up into the rafters of the big top to measure exact lengths, errors could have come from there, too. But,Thomas says, uncertainty in data is much more like the real world and thus important for students to see.
The course culminated in a performance for sixth graders featuring student-executed acts designed to convey basic science concepts. In lieu of a final exam, they worked together in small groups to prepare mini-lessons for kids from Farnsworth Aerospace School, which is tied to a precollegiate education center Thomas runs. Besser’s team used the German wheel to demonstrate gravity and simple science, while another group used the low-casting trapeze to explain potential and kinetic energy conversion. The latter included a discussion on how breakfast gives circus performers the energy to accomplish their feats.
A student in the German wheel group slipped and fell during the demonstration. Before returning to complete the maneuver successfully, the student transformed the slip-up into an impromptu lesson for the grade school pupils, telling them that engineering was about making mistakes and learning from them. To Thomas, this unscripted moment was a highlight of the course. Their presentation was such a smash that they were invited to perform again for the general public at Circus Juventas’s anniversary celebration, “World Circus Day.”
For Besser and his classmates, the course provided another unanticipated benefit: Performing the Spanish web and other feats persuaded them they were out of shape. Now, they hit the gym more often.
Jaimie N. Schock is ASEE’s editorial assistant.
Prism has covered the changing global environment from multiple angles, reporting on radical schemes to “re-engineer” the climate, coastal protection from rising seas, research on new energy sources, hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, and the growing discipline of sustainability engineering. A common theme is one of engineers seeking ways to protect the Earth without weakening the economy or our quality of life. That’s an especially tall order for a small army of researchers at the University of Alberta, as our cover story, “Heavy Industry,” explains. Oil sands in a region the size of Florida give Canada the world’s third-largest oil reserves and would go a long way toward cutting North America’s reliance on volatile or unfriendly regions for energy. But extracting the crude requires so much strip mining and generates so much greenhouse gas and polluted wastewater that environmentalists call the oil sands’ output “the world’s dirtiest oil.” U. of A. researchers are still a long way from mitigating these ill effects, but their innovations have already made the extraction process more efficient and cleaner, Pierre Home-Douglas reports.
For the million children destined to die this year from diarrhea, anything that improves sanitation is a potential lifesaver. But the responses to the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet challenge are more than just clean latrines. Systems under development could yield fuel, fertilizer, and clean water, Don Boroughs reports in our feature, “A Way With Waste.” Not only are these projects adding luster to the field of sanitation engineering, but they’re pulling in materials scientists, physicists, and chemical engineers as well.
It has been a decade since Prism last checked in on Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who seems to have found the secret to helping underrepresented minorities succeed in science and engineering. Actually, there’s nothing secret about it. Most of what UMBC does is common sense or is based on available research, as Kathryn Masterson reports, and applies to all students..
Elsewhere in this issue, read about two trailblazers who neatly fit in the tradition of engineering pioneers we celebrate as part of Women’s History Month. Krisztina Holly, profiled by Alison Buki in Up Close, helps researchers at the University of Southern California navigate the world of start-up entrepreneurs. Jaimie Schock describes how AnnMarie Thomas’s students at the University of St. Thomas learned introductory dynamics by performing and observing actual circus stunts.
With this issue, we bid goodbye to Creative Director Lung-I Lo, whose inspired, award-winning designs graced many issues of Prism. His talent, work ethic, and personality will be missed. We wish him great success.
We hope you’ll enjoy this month’s Prism. As always, we welcome your comments.
A team of engineering and biology students at the University of California, Berkeley, used high-speed video and motion-capture technology to learn how leaping African Agama lizards maintain their balance when they land on surfaces with poor traction. Turns out they swing their tails up or down, as necessary, to counter their bodies’ rotation and remain stable. After that discovery, the team attached a tail to a toy car, dubbed Tailbot. Tailbot also has a gyroscope and sensors to give it feedback on its body’s position—information it uses to move its tail and leap like a lizard. Directed to drive off a ramp, Tailbot stabilized itself in midair and landed correctly. The technology could be used to build agile search-and-rescue robots. –THOMAS K. GROSE
Fully half of patients who are prescribed medications take them incorrectly, the World Health Organization says. It’s estimated that improperly used medicines cost Britain’s National Health Service around $690 million a year. But “intelligent medications” could help solve that problem. Proteus Biomedical, a California company, has developed a system called Helius that includes a pill containing a digestible microchip and battery, a skin patch, and a smartphone app. The chip, activated by stomach acid, sends signals to the adhesive patch. The patch, changed once a week, transmits the data to the app. It can tell patients and caregivers if medicine has been taken and monitors other useful information, including heart rate, body temperature, respiration, posture, and sleep patterns. U.K. drug-store chain Lloydspharmacy recently inked a deal with Proteus to launch Helius in Britain this September — in a sugar pill taken with other medications. But future versions could include chip-embedded meds. Do those ingestible chips come with guacamole? –TG
Two things Kansas has a lot of: unpaved roads and wheat fields. Of the Sunflower State’s 98,000 miles of road, 70 percent are dirt. Such dusty byways are prone to erosion—think ruts and potholes—which can make driving unpleasant as well as potentially dangerous. Now, about that wheat. Much of it gets used to make biofuels like ethanol, and a byproduct of that process is lignin, a nontoxic biomass present in wheat straw and other plants that becomes adhesive when wet. So Wilson Smith, a civil engineering graduate student at Kansas State University, is working on ways to use lignin as a binding material to make dirt roads more erosion resistant. The filler also would make them less dusty, safer, and cheaper to maintain. If it works, lignin offers a solution tailor-made for Kansas. – TG
Quoted: “Merely increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40% to 50% would generate three quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees over the next decade.” —Letter to President Obama from his Council of Advisers on Science and Technology – Source: PCAST report “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”
Apple founder Steve Jobs spent the last years of his life thinking about how to reinvent the textbook. His dream now has come to fruition with the recent launch of the iBooks 2 app for the iPad. Apple’s digital textbooks, some 350,000 of which were downloaded in the first three days after debuting in January, include not only audio and video, but also such interactive touchscreen features as word definitions at the tap of a finger; review questions with instant feedback; text highlighting by fingertip; and instant, personalized study cards. Apple has a deal with top publishers to make their textbooks available at its iBooks store for $14.99 or less. While an iPad costs at least $499, an analyst at Gartner consultancy group told the Guardian newspaper that the price should soon drop; he expects Apple’s foray into textbooks will quickly attract rivals like Amazon, maker of the Kindle e-reader. Will students buy in? A 2011 survey found that 75 percent would choose print over digital, but that could change. E-textbooks have doubled their share of the market since last year. -TG
Glucose in human saliva is about 100 times less concentrated than in blood, which is why America’s 26 million diabetics must prick their skin to effectively monitor sugar levels. Researchers at Brown University may soon take the sting out of glucose checks. They’ve developed a small biochip that can detect low concentrations of glucose in saliva with as much accuracy as in blood samples. The device uses nanotechnology to monitor the interaction of electrons and photons, or surface plasmonics. The Brown team devised nanosize plasmonic interferometers—each consisting of a slit and two grooves etched into silver metal film—and placed thousands of them on each square millimeter of the chip. As light moves through the slits, its intensity changes, allowing researchers to deduce the concentration of glucose molecules in a solution. Domenico Pacifici, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of engineering, says the technique could be used to look for many other chemicals, including anthrax, “and to detect them all at once, in parallel, using the same chip.” -TG
Only a handful of female engineers have become university heads. Cheryl B. Schrader, 49, just increased their ranks by one. The Missouri University of Science and Technology’s new chancellor took over from John F. Carney III, who retired last August. She is the 141-year-old school’s 21st head. Over the past year, Schrader served as associate vice president for strategic research initiatives at Boise State University, following a six-year stint as its engineering dean. During her time as dean, Boise State’s College of Engineering saw undergraduate enrollment increase by 60 percent, while graduate school enrollment grew by 36 percent. Schrader has also taught at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and at Rice University. She has a B.S. from Valparaiso University and a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, all in electrical engineering. Much of her current research has focused on creating and assessing new ways of teaching STEM subjects. Missouri S&T is a technical research school with a student body totaling 7,521. – TG
Scan Me Up, Scotty
In the far infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum reside terahertz waves, or T-rays, whose wavelengths are hundreds of times longer than those that make up visible light. T-rays can detect everything from explosives to gas pollution to tumor cells. That’s why they’re used at airports in full-body scanners. But current T-ray scanning technology is limited. It can operate only at very low temperatures, requires huge amounts of energy, has low power output, and is expensive. But researchers at Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and at London’s Imperial College have figured out how to use a nano-antenna to produce stronger, more efficient T-rays—a breakthrough that could make the technology more useful to medics. The nano-antenna, which is integrated into a semiconductor chip, amplifies the wave generated, making its power output 100 times as high as what commonly used THz sources are capable of. The invention could lead to medical devices similar to the tricorders featured in Star Trek: portable sensing and computing devices that can transfer large amounts of data quickly and wirelessly. That could put the research team in the lead for a new $10 million X Prize. Funded by the Qualcomm Foundation, the prize will go to the inventor of the first workable tricorder. Paging Dr. McCoy . . . –TG
What’s in a name? Plenty, if it’s one of just 22 top-level Internet domains that start with a dot, such as .com or .edu. A new effort by domain regulator ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, could add hundreds, perhaps thousands, of suffixes to that exclusive club by letting websites customize their addresses. The range extends from brands (.Canon, for instance) to cities (.nyc) to generalized communities, including .ngo and .bank. Vanity plates don’t come cheap, however. The application fee alone is $185,000, with up to $100,000 in annual maintenance costs. The large registration fee covers the ICANN’s cost of criminal background checks — applicants must prove their legitimate claim to the name — as well as financial evaluations, technical assessments, and possible litigation. It also should deter fraudsters from “squatting” on famous brands. Operating an Internet registry “is an expensive and highly technical operation,” explains ICANN spokesman Brad White, who expects some 1,500 organizations and businesses to apply by the March 29 deadline. Given the expense and hassle, most small businesses will say, ICANN’T. But they still can apply, as usual, for a “second-level” name — the one preceding the dot. At $10, it remains a steal. -TG
Eye-tracking technology has been used to help paralyzed people operate computers. It has also become useful to marketers who want to gauge the effectiveness of online advertising. Now the technology is working its way into more commercial products. Swedish tech company Tobii has introduced Gaze, a software developed for its PCEye peripheral device, which shoots near-infrared light at a user’s eyes via four LED sensors. Using Gaze and PCEye with a laptop, a user can initiate most PC commands including activate, zoom, and scroll, by staring. It’s not entirely hands free. You use your eyes to point to a command, then select it by tapping on the laptop’s touchpad. For now, Gaze only works with the new Microsoft operating system Windows 8, but may eventually be adapted for Apple or Linux operating systems. Tobii also recently introduced an arcade game called EyeAsteroids, where players blast asteroids using only a menacing stare. Using your eyes as a game controller, Tobii says, “is an almost magical experience.” – TG
Engineered nanomaterials—infinitesimal substances developed at the molecular level—have swept into the marketplace, enhancing products from sunscreen to medicine to stain-resistant clothing. Little is known about the potential risks to health and the environment, however, a new National Research Council report warns. Nor is there much capability to monitor the rapid changes in nanotechnology applications, or to identify and address potential consequences. No one knows the effect, for example, of ingesting nanomaterials. To close such “critical gaps” in understanding, the NRC panel, chaired by Jonathan Samet, a University of Southern California medical professor and director of the Institute for Global Health, called for a cohesive research plan to help manage and avoid potential risks. The four-pronged approach includes identifying and quantifying the nanomaterials being released and the populations and environments exposed, understanding processes that affect potential hazards and exposure, examining interactions at the subcellular to ecosystem-wide level, and supporting a “knowledge infrastructure” to advance research. Because the nanotechnology sector is expanding — it represented $225 billion in product sales in 2009 and is expected to grow rapidly in the next dec-ade — “today’s exposure scenarios may not resemble those of the future,” the report says. – Mary Lord
When it comes to innovation, engineers are supposed to lead the way. But how to teach it? That’s a problem the mechanical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, has been wrestling with following a three-semester study involving 94 of its undergraduates. Roughly half were freshmen, and half seniors. Both sets of students were given the assignment of designing a next-generation alarm clock. The result, as published in the January 2012 Journal of Engineering Education, would perplex any educator: “Freshman students generated concepts that were significantly more original than those of seniors, with no significant difference in quality or technical feasibility of the concepts generated by the two levels of students.” The findings “suggest that freshman engineering students can be more innovative than their senior-level counterparts,” write the authors, two of whom – grad student Nicole Genco and Assistant Professor Katja Hölttä-Otto – are part of the department. Chair Peter Friedman says, “We do recognize that creativity needs to be improved.” The curriculum is being revised, and the school has a National Science Foundation grant to monitor creativity.
The use of cleansers, or surfactants, to clean oil spills has long upset environmentalists, because the detergents also can pollute. Now a “magnetic soap” discovered by researchers at Britain’s University of Bristol may ease that problem. A team led by chemistry professor Julian Eastoe dissolved iron-rich salts in a soapy solution and found they could draw the soap out of water using a magnet. Scientists at France’s Institut Laue-Langevin later used neutron-scattering technology to reveal that the iron particles had clumped together into nanoparticles large enough to be drawn to a magnetic field. The attraction of this invention is obvious. Beyond making oil spill cleanups more efficient, it could lead to improved water-treatment technologies and new types of industrial cleaners. – TG
The ratio of faculty to engineering degrees awarded varies widely by discipline and by school, although the average among all schools has been roughly 3 degree recipients per faculty member for the past two decades. Degree/faculty ratios can be used as a measure of faculty workload,1 and may also figure in engineering schools’ hiring and budget decisions. The ratios shown here reflect 78,347 bachelor’s degrees awarded and 24,435 tenured/tenure-track faculty members in 2010.*
A start-up veteran guides researchers’ adventures in entrepreneurship.
Whether surfing, backcountry skiing, hurtling down Los Angeles mountainsides on a bicycle, or launching a start-up, Krisztina “Z” Holly gets her kicks from taking risks. Now, having experienced the rewards of entrepreneurship, she wants university researchers to share the same thrill.
Holly, or “Z” as she prefers to be called, is the founding executive director of the University of Southern California’s Stevens Institute for Innovation, a one-stop shop for grad students, undergrads, and faculty looking to bridge the challenge-filled gap between research lab and the commercial world. “We’re open to lots of different models of innovation, whether it’s open source and public domain, to patenting and licensing…[or] helping start a company,” says Holly.
Conceived within the Viterbi School of Engineering in 2006 and backed by a gift from venture capitalist Mark Stevens, a USC alumnus, the institute has since been moved to the provost’s office and serves the whole campus. It assists individuals and teams with a variety of approaches to prevent prototypes with market potential from languishing. In the Ideas Empowered program, for instance, faculty-led invention teams are paired with industry mentors as well as M.B.A. students in an intensive, four-month boot camp for burgeoning technologies. Roughly 10 of some 40 applicant teams are chosen to participate in the program, with about six of the selected groups ultimately receiving funding based on their final feasibility presentations. Since 2010, when Ideas Empowered began, winning teams have garnered close to $1 million in seed money.
Holly brings an inspiring background to the task. “From a young age, I always thought one day I’d be an entrepreneur,” Holly recalls. She credits her parents, both refugees who left Hungary in 1956, with instilling her risk-taking spirit. Her father, who arrived in the United States penniless and unable to speak English, now holds degrees from Harvard and MIT, as well as close to 60 patents for a variety of inventions. “It’s sort of the epitome of the American dream,” Holly says.
While working on her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT and designing robotic systems for NASA, she and two fellow students founded Stylus Innovation, a company that created Visual Voice computer-based telephony tools. In 1996, Artisoft acquired Stylus for $13 million. Holly branched out to produce educational documentaries related to science, math, and business with River Run Media, but soon joined a Web search engine start-up called Direct Hit Technologies. In 2000, the firm was bought by Ask Jeeves in a deal valued at $506 million.
Holly’s next move was to cofound MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation in 2002, a start-up incubator that has since launched 26 new companies, which together have raised more than $350 million in venture capital. In 2007, she became USC’s innovation guru. “It’s definitely a dream job,” she says, “in the sense that it pulls together all these things I am really passionate about,” namely promoting entrepreneurship, developing cutting-edge technologies, and helping people achieve their aspirations.
Holly’s position as a facilitator of ideas has made her a strong advocate for governmental support of entrepreneurship within colleges and universities. In the fall of 2009, she proposed a $100 million, five-year plan to fund 10 university pilot projects aimed at translating research into products and creating “innovation ecosystems.” The Obama administration embraced the idea, incorporating variations of it into budgets for the National Science Foundation and the Departments of Energy and Commerce.
Universities are much more supportive of entrepreneurship than in the past, Holly says. She recalls that when she attended MIT in the early 1990s, administrative red tape kept engineering students from taking business-school classes. Now “those walls are starting to come down,” she says. At USC, a growing number of students in various majors are taking classes at the Marshall School of Business and entering invention competitions. Still, she says, more schools could benefit from institutes like hers. “I definitely think that it would be really viable for every university to have some sort of a resource for faculty and students who are interested in entrepreneurship.” Who knows how many untapped potential start-ups could be hiding in your school’s labs?
Alison Buki is an ASEE staff writer.
High school students are reaching out to engineers, but in the wrong way.
Of late, increasing numbers of high school students contact me seeking advice and help on an engineering project or report for a class they are taking. While I am pleased to see this interest in engineering among precollege students, I have become concerned over how brashly they seek the assistance of a stranger in completing their assignments.
Most recently, a student asked for my help on a design project relating to automobile cup holders. Evidently, he found via an Internet search that I had written an article on the subject, and so he contacted me seeking advice, if not a ready-made response to his assignment. There was no indication at all that he had even read the article before writing to me.
A more common E-mail inquiry is a request for an interview about one of my books or about engineering generally. Typically, an initial message from a student asks if I would mind answering “a few questions.” All too often, after I agree to do so, I receive a longer-than-expected list of questions by return mail: How would I describe my field? What is my job title? What are my duties? What is my work schedule? What is my educational background? Would I do it all over again? What career advice can I give to a high school student?
Depending on the time of year and my schedule, I may or may not have the time to give very detailed answers. On one occasion, when I was especially busy, I responded to a student’s generic questions with quite brief but nonetheless pertinent answers. To have answered them in depth might have taken a series of essays. Within a week or so, I received a message from the student’s mother, excoriating me for not having provided more help with her son’s assignment.
My sense is that increasing numbers of high school teachers are giving their students rather explicit instructions to contact an engineer as part of an assignment. The students seem also to be given rigid templates and strict guidelines about what constitutes the appropriate form and content for a book report or an interview. And the expected length of the engineer’s response seems also to be specified.
Such assignments may give the student exposure to engineering and engineers and to the concept of consulting with experts, but I wonder if the methodology additionally may inculcate a sense that the first response to any assignment or problem is to seek outside help. Certainly, it is good to recognize one’s limitations, but to contact a stranger for assistance without having first done some basic research and preparation cannot instill in students a sense of responsibility and protocol.
Even high school students should be expected to come to an interview prepared with questions prompted not only by a teacher’s template but also by ideas relevant to a specific interviewee’s work. Otherwise, there may be little to glean from any exchange that ensues. All too often, students who have approached me with questions have given no hint as to their academic background or interests, no context in which I can provide truly meaningful answers to their questions.
The practice of students seeking out engineers to learn more about their profession is certainly to be encouraged. And judging from the increase in the number of queries coming from high school students, college faculty members appear to be cooperating. They want to help students at all levels. But being approached cold with laundry lists of questions relating to everything from the nature of an engineer’s workday to job satisfaction appears to be asking too much.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His new book, An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, is published by Cambridge University Press.
New technology and DNA access promise a medical revolution.
In 2000, scientists at a private company called Celera announced they had raced ahead of the U.S. government in decoding the DNA of a human being. Using the latest sequencing technology, plus the data available from the Human Genome project, Celera scientists created a working draft of the genome. These efforts cost more than $1 billion. Today, a complete genome sequence costs about $3,000 and takes about a week. One company, Life Technologies Corp. in Carlsbad, Calif., just announced that it will provide the service for $1,000 and in 24 hours. At this rate, within three years, the cost will be less than that of a simple blood test and the results will be almost instantaneous.
This type of data opens up an amazing set of possibilities.
A genome map is the source code for the software that constitutes living organisms. Imagine doing a Google search on your own genome to learn the health predispositions and likely abilities of people genetically similar to you. You can learn about what medications or lifestyle changes may best prevent a disease.
Today, medicines are generally prescribed on a “one size fits all” basis. When a particular medication causes a significant negative reaction with a small part of the population, it is prevented from being available to anyone. With genetic information, we could be prescribing specific types and dosages of medicines based on a person’s DNA.
And new advances in DNA printing promise to revolutionize biology and more.
Craig Venter, who led the research at Celera, made another stunning announcement a decade later, in May 2010. His team had, for the first time in history, built a synthetic life-form — by “writing” DNA. The slow-growing, harmless bacterium they created was made of a synthetic genome with 1,077,947 DNA base pairs. Today, a number of DNA “print” providers offer DNA synthesis and assembly operations as a service. Current pricing is by the number of base pairs — the chemical “bits” that make up a gene — to be assembled. Today’s rate is about 30 cents per base pair, but prices are falling exponentially. Within a few years, it could cost 1/100th this amount. Eventually, like laser printers, DNA printers could become inexpensive home devices that enable legions of garage biotechnologists and DIY-ers to solve big health problems.
Venter is now using “synthetic biology” technology to try to solve the problems of energy by developing biofuels from genetically engineered algae. The idea is to extract “hydrocarbonlike” liquid that can be turned into transportation fuel. Tissue engineering and 3-D printing technologies are advancing rapidly and beginning to merge. These advances will allow us to print organs and personalized medicines. A company called Tengion synthesized full-size replacement bladders in 2008, and surgeons in Sweden recently carried out the world’s first synthetic organ transplant — a synthetic trachea/windpipe structure created and seeded with the patient’s own progenitor cells.
Soon, we will be able to “print” sophisticated medical devices. And sensor technologies are becoming ubiquitous, so continually monitoring and recording every aspect of our health from the time we wake to when we sleep will be within reach before long.
All of these advances play to the strengths of engineers. The skills needed for diagnosing health problems are similar to those for analyzing the structure of bridges. Search engines for the genome aren’t that different from search engines for text and video. The same rigor needed for programming new bacteria is similar to what’s necessary for building an industrial robot: developing functional requirements, designing and testing components, integrating these components, and testing for effectiveness, reliability, and safety.
With these new developments, it is clear that our engineers have begun using their skills to solve the problems of human health. Now, it’s time they tackled many other grand challenges that face humanity.
Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship. He is vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University and is also affiliated with Stanford University, Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, and Emory University.
Teaching must address negative student perceptions.
Engineering educators agree about the importance of a strong foundation in ethics education, but mixed research findings call into question the effectiveness of traditional teaching methods. Generally, research about ethics education focuses on teaching practices and overlooks ways in which institutional culture and students’ other experiences influence educational effectiveness. Our Student Engineering Ethical Development (SEED) Study, the first national assessment of engineering ethics education, addressed the overarching question, “What is the impact of educational experiences and institutional culture on students’ ethical development?”
To examine institutional culture, curricular and cocurricular experiences related to ethics, and students’ ethical development, we collected data from 19 partner institutions using focus groups and interviews with faculty, students, and administrators, and a survey of 3,914 students. We analyzed data from focus groups and interviews, imposing a conceptual framework on our analysis and outlining themes that emerged across institutions.
We found that faculty and students do indeed have different perceptions of the engineering ethics education at their institutions, and that aspects of the institutional culture contribute to these discrepancies. Faculty described ethics education as teaching students how to approach complex, nuanced ethical dilemmas, but students described the faculty as being overly focused on teaching students to follow prescribed rules and codes of ethics. Faculty also described role-modeling of ethical behavior as an important component of ethics education. Students, however, largely did not see faculty as positive ethical role models. For example, students reported observing unethical behavior by faculty and hearing faculty endorse or encourage unethical behavior in students. Students also reported seeing a focus on academic dishonesty and its consequences – including punishment – at the expense of more complex considerations of engineering ethics in the classroom.
Based on these findings, it is clear that students’ perceptions of their institutions’ culture can undermine faculty efforts and limit the effectiveness of classroom-based ethics education. It is essential that faculty and administrators listen to students and address these perspectives. We offer the following suggestions for engineering educators and administrators:
- Consider ethics education as taking place throughout the institutional culture, not just in the engineering classroom. Students are exposed to messages about ethics throughout their undergraduate careers, in the formal curriculum and outside the classroom. These messages can both affect students’ ethical development and potentially work against what faculty teach in the classroom. These messages do not just represent potential pitfalls to teaching ethics; they also represent new opportunities.
- Incorporate discussions of the complex nature of engineering. Present nuanced, complicated ethical dilemmas, like those a professional engineer would encounter, as part of ethics education. Also, when using more black-and-white ethics lessons, draw connections between simple issues and larger, more complex ones.
- Draw students’ attention to positive examples of faculty ethical behavior. It is not enough for faculty to quietly behave ethically and hope that students notice; our findings suggest they do not. Instructors should engage students in explicit discussion of these examples and the choices involved, and explore their ethical implications.
- Include student perspectives when planning and evaluating ethics education. Our findings suggest that faculty and students have a different understanding of existing engineering education efforts. Student understanding should be taken into account in the planning, implementation, and evaluation stages of education.
Matthew A. Holsapple is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. This article is excerpted from “Framing Faculty and Student Discrepancies in Engineering Ethics Education Delivery” in the April 2012 Journal of Engineering Education. Coauthors are Donald Carpenter, director of assessment and associate professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University; Janel Sutkus, director of institutional research and analysis, Carnegie Mellon University; Cynthia Finelli, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Engineering and research associate professor of engineering education at the University of Michigan; and Trevor Harding, professor of materials engineering at California Polytechnic State University. .
A lecture-hall legend brings his passion to the page.
For the Love of Physics:
From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time — A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics.
by Walter Lewin with Warren Goldstein.
Free Press 2011. 302 pages
Few physics instructors can claim rock star status, so Walter Lewin makes for a pleasing exception. For some 45 years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor held students in thrall with his dramatic demonstrations of basic scientific concepts: swinging across the stage on a metal ball to test the properties of a pendulum; firing a rifle into water-filled paint cans; or jetting into the lecture hall atop a rocket-fueled tricycle. When Lewin delivered his farewell lecture last year, the 566-seat hall was filled to capacity; yet this represented only a fraction of his fan base. Internet viewings of the professor’s talks on MIT OpenCourseWare, YouTube, and iTunes U now surpass 5 million. Indeed, Lewin’s were among the first courses posted when MIT introduced its online site in 2001; his introductory physics courses continue to rate among its 20 most popular and have gained accolades from none other than Bill Gates.
Audiences are drawn by the theatrics. Who wouldn’t thrill to watch a professor suspended above the blackboard, sucking juice from a 5-meter-long straw? But the fact that they stay – and learn – has more to do with Lewin’s passionate commitment to communicating the relevance, importance, and wonder of his chosen field. “Physics,” Lewin enthuses, “is a way of seeing – the spectacular and the mundane, the immense and the minute – as a beautiful, thrilling, interwoven whole.” In this book coauthored with former student Warren Goldstein, Lewin transfers to the page the exuberance of his classroom, focusing on “the remarkable ways in which physics illuminates the workings of our world and its astonishing elegance and beauty.”
For the Love of Physics guides readers through core concepts underlying energy, motion, force, electricity, and magnetism, as well as consideration of Lewin’s own specialty, X-ray astronomy. His delivery is lively and informal, and interaction is encouraged: Blow up a balloon and rub it on your hair to learn about positive and negative electrons; build a sounding board out of a takeout box from Kentucky Fried Chicken to test pitch and vibration. Readers are exhorted to view Lewin’s online videos, reference scientific websites, and mail in answers, queries, and photos. Also woven into the narrative is the author’s personal and professional history, from his family’s survival in Holland during the Second World War to his emigration to the United States and exhilarating adventures as a young researcher testing X-ray telescopes aloft giant balloons in the Australian outback. Throughout, he reiterates the message that physics is relevant, exciting, and “fundamentally an experimental science” that grapples with uncertainties.
While many readers may pick up For the Love of Physics to renew or deepen their scientific understanding, ASEE members may find it particularly valuable for inspiration in the classroom. Not everyone may be willing to stand in front of a wrecking ball to illustrate the law of energy conservation, but the book abounds with many humbler demonstrations: dangling a large rock from a square of cut pantyhose to depict the funnel of a black hole, or swinging a colander of wet lettuce to emulate the artificial gravity experienced by astronauts launching into space. Each of Lewin’s examples and metaphors challenges students to see in a different manner; to walk down a street, for example, considering the “furious battle raging inside every single building” as it fights Earth’s gravitational forces. Academic readers may also envision fresh ways to present long familiar material so that it “connects to the genuine interest students have in the world.”
What counts in teaching, Lewin believes, “is not what you cover but what you uncover”; not the minutiae of the mathematics nor memorization of notes on the blackboard but the deep beauty of physics. Certainly, it is difficult to resist a man who declares “criminal” any physics course that neglects to teach about rainbows – then goes on to describe the steps to take to capture and hold a rainbow in one’s hand. Read For the Love of Physics for the pleasure and inspiration it provides.
Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.
We can lift barriers that keep undecided students out of engineering.
Imagine posting “No Trespassing” signs on the campus gate. No college would institute such an absurd idea. Yet even as the nation desperately seeks more science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) graduates, most of our schools embrace academic practices and policies that may keep students out of engineering without educators even realizing it. The dispossessed have a name: undeclared undergraduates. Our engineering programs should recognize and remove clear barriers to access.
Take academic advising. Many schools commonly “expose” undecided students to the broadest possible range of general education classes to help them choose a major, essentially making them de facto liberal arts students. If this tactic draws a student to engineering, it often is hard to sustain beyond the first year. That’s because most math and science classes a student takes while being exposed to different disciplines rarely count toward degrees in the STEM fields. Undecided students who, for example, get hooked on engineering by a great physics professor soon receive the bad news that they must repeat at least a semester’s worth of work because the course fulfilled only the requirements for a liberal arts, not an engineering, degree. Those students also will have missed at least the first engineering class in the core sequence, and thus start behind their peers. Is it any wonder some decide to ditch engineering?
A handful of conditions create the biggest handicaps for undecided students hoping to pursue engineering. They include the specialized, calculus-based versions of science courses that engineering majors typically must take and the widespread policy of restricting engineering classes to engineering majors. Fortunately, these problems have straightforward remedies. At most schools, for example, while general sciences and applied math courses don’t fulfill engineering requirements, calculus-based science and math classes for engineers do count toward general liberal arts and humanities requirements. Switch the liberal-arts default for undecided students, and advisers could steer potential engineers toward required math and science courses. Once launched on an engineering pathway, undecided students might more readily be persuaded to stay. Radically, why not start all qualified students — those doing college-level, not developmental, coursework — on the actual engineering track, letting them decide to transfer out of engineering rather than arduously negotiate the route in? Both students and engineering programs would benefit. Moreover, engineering educators could learn something about retention from the influx of nontraditional students, and explore new research topics as well.
Admittedly, the strategy depends on the willingness of departments to permit non-engineering majors into their classes and institutional flexibility in counting those courses toward any degree. Still, even tiny adjustments can increase the engineering ranks. For example, a growing number of schools allow Introduction to Engineering classes to count as a lab science for all students. As first-year classes, they theoretically are open to students without specialized math or science backgrounds — and freshmen of all interests now arrive having taken calculus. Why not welcome qualified undecided students to introductory engineering classes? With few high schools offering engineering, where else would students find out about us?
Precollege isn’t the only fertile arena for engineering recruitment. At my community college, all majors can take the introductory engineering class — and art majors are among our best designers. Through this class — and some intensive academic advising — we’ve successfully recruited students from general liberal arts, theater, renewable energy, and other majors to engineering. All have gone on to transfer to four-year engineering programs. Non-engineers particularly benefit from introductory classes that cover more than one type of engineering, are design based and hands-on, and aim to encourage a deep interest in the field. Opening up classes designed for engineering majors to non-STEM students also can help prime the engineering pipeline.
In short, we must keep all doors open for undecided students by pointing them toward non-terminal math and early engineering classes. Those who choose a different major will still benefit, emerging with science and math requirements completed and a higher degree of scientific literacy.
It is easier to get off the engineering path than on it. Let’s create advising practices and academic policies that let all students embark upon the journey.
Lisa McLoughlin is cochair of the engineering program at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Mass.