Research

With plenty of humor, Physics Professor Reuben Collins shared insights into the world of academic publishing, particularly the challenges it is facing, via his Faculty Senate Distinguished Lecture on March 26.

Collins opened with the story of how he came to be editor-in-chief of Applied Physics Letters. A year-and-a-half ago, “I was interested in trying something different,” he said. He’d always enjoyed writing, so he took up an offer to update a textbook. Then a colleague called and asked him to apply for the APL post.

“I didn’t know what that was,” Collins said. “So I said ‘yes.’”

He was offered the job last summer and – because he was new to editing a large journal – started as an associate editor, reviewing papers. He then took over as top editor in September. “That’s when I realized what I had said ‘yes’ to,” Collins said.

As editor-in-chief, Collins is responsible for setting the direction of the journal, defining standards and maintaining ethics, hiring and managing staff, and overseeing the process of reviewing papers. But his favorite duty, Collins said, is “I get to pick the cover art.”

Above all, Collins’ job is making sure Applied Physics Letters “services the community represents.” And that comes with plenty of challenges.

“We live in a metric-happy world,” Collins said. “We want to reduce everything to one number.” He shared the story of a friend whose work for the past year – papers, conferences, lab accomplishments – was summed up in one phrase that would determine her pay: “2-plus.” For colleges and universities, that might be ranking in U.S. News and World Report.

In the field of scientific journals, that all-important metric is “impact factor,” determined by the average number of citations received for each paper a journal published in the previous two years.

Unfortunately, some journals are rejecting most of the papers they receive even before sending them out for review, in an effort to increase their impact factor, Collins said. He implied that this was a disservice to the scientific community, given that out of all these rejected papers, surely some were worthy of publication.

But some journals have found a balance, Collins said – publishing many papers, which is good for the community; earning many citations, which benefits both the author and the community; and rating a high impact factor, which benefits the journal and authors.

Collins calls these “Good Science Citizen Journals,” a group he doesn’t put Applied Physics Letters in just yet. He said APL is still publishing too many papers, and many that don’t receive citations. “I want to move us into the good citizenship zone.”

Competition from the big science publishers is another challenge, with so many new journals being launched on what seems like a monthly basis. There’s also the push for open access – where the public can read and use publicly funded scientific research for free. Collins has also seen plagiarism, double-publishing, and other ethical issues crop up as editor-in-chief.

One current problem that will eventually turn into a boon for publishers is globalization, Collins said. In recent years, China has become a leading producer of scientific papers, though most of them end up unpublished. He sees this changing in the future, much like Japan changed its reputation from producer of cheap goods to leading manufacturer of electronics and cars.

“China will do the same thing,” he said. “Publishers have to hitch their wagon to that.”

The Faculty Senate Distinguished Lecturer Award, established in 1990, is an opportunity for faculty to honor outstanding colleagues. Recipients are selected from faculty nominations, and are invited to present on a topic of their choice. They also receive a plaque, and a gift to their discretionary account.

In addition to serving as professor and APL editor-in-chief, Collins is associate director of the Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, and director of the Center for Solar and Electronic Materials.

Contact: 
Mark Ramirez, Communication Specialist, College of Applied Science and Engineering | 303-383-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations, Colorado School of Mines | 303-273-3541 | kgilbert@mines.edu
Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator, Colorado School of Mines | 303-273-3088 | kmorton@mines.edu

We spend 90 percent of our time indoors (according to the EPA) without realizing that the air we breathe could be potentially dangerous to our long-term health. Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Tissa Illangasekare has spent the last five years researching how volatile organic compounds, which are commonly entrapped as non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPLs) or dissolved into groundwater to produce plumes, affect our indoor air concentration.

“We drink so many liters of water a day, but we inhale so many thousands of liters of air,” Illangasekare said. (According to the EPA, the average American inhales close to 3,000 gallons a day.) “Sometimes we go to a contaminated site, test the water and we find it’s clean but later we go inside the building and find the vapor is contaminated.”

In 2009, Illangasekare and his research group, including a collaborator from the U.S. Air Force Academy, received funding from the Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program Office. The funding allowed the researchers to improve their understanding of the processes and mechanisms controlling vapor generation from entrapped NAPL sources and groundwater plumes, their subsequent migration through the subsurface, and their attenuation in naturally heterogeneous vadose zones under various natural physical, climatic, and geochemical conditions.

As the director of the Center for Experimental Study of Subsurface Environmental Processes, Illangasekare has an advantage. In his lab, he works with students to control experiments in multiscale test systems, studying vapor and airflow through unsaturated soils. The tanks are instrumented with soil moisture, relative humidity and temperature sensors. Using computation models, Illangasekare can predict how various climates affect soil concentrations expected to be found in a building. 

Their hypothesis was that some of this variability could originate from weather and hydrologic cycle dynamics, such as surface heating, rainfall and water table fluctuation.

“We learned how contaminant vapors move preferentially through the ground and make their way into people’s basements or crawl spaces,” said Kathleen Smits, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who has worked with Illangasekare for the past five years. “We also discovered how this is influenced by changes in climate (e.g. temperature, wind conditions and precipitation).”

In April 2014, Illangasekare received the 2012 European Geosciences Union's Henry Darcy Medal for his scientific contributions in water resources research and water resources engineering and management. Two months later, he was one of the coauthors on a report to the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program on “Vapor Intrusion From Entrapped NAPL Sources and Groundwater Plumes: Process Understanding and Improved Modeling Tools for Pathway Assessment.”

“Our research has contributed to fundamentally understanding what’s happening to this system, which will help decision makers and regulatory agencies give better guidelines on how to manage these sites,” he said.

Illangasekare’s research will impact closure decisions on waste sites based on vapor intrusion risks.

“There’s a need for this science to exist. We are training a new generation of scientists and engineers to look at these kinds of problems.”

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

Colorado School of Mines Mechanical Engineering professor Xiaoli Zhang and graduate student Songpo Li have developed a gaze-contingent-controlled robotic laparoscope system that can help surgeons better perform laparoscopic surgery.

Laparoscopy is an operation performed in the abdomen or pelvis through small incisions with a camera. Laparoscopic instruments (typically 0.5-1 centimeters in diameter) are inserted through small incisions and then operated inside a patient’s body together with a laparoscope that allows the surgeon to see the surgical field on a monitor. Unlike open surgery, laparoscopic surgeries have reduced scarring, lessened blood loss, shorter recovery times and decreased post-operative pain. But due to limitations of holding and positioning the laparoscope, surgeons struggle with physiologic tremors, fatigue and the fulcrum effect.

Zhang and Li’s attention-aware robotic laparoscope aims to eliminate some of these physical and mental burdens.

“The robot arm holds the camera so the surgeon doesn’t have to,” Zhang said, noting that the camera is controlled effortlessly. “Wherever you look, the camera will autonomously follow your viewing attention. It frees the surgeon from laparoscope intervention so the surgeon can focus on instrument manipulation only.”

Their system tracks the surgeon’s viewing attention by analyzing gaze data. When the surgeon’s eyes stop on a new fixation area, the robot adjusts the laparoscope to show a different field of view that focuses on the new area of interest.

To validate the effectiveness of this procedure, the team tested six participants on visualization tasks. Participants reported “they could naturally interact with the field of view without feeling the existence of the robotic laparoscope.”

Zhang and Li anticipate that their technologies could have more than just healthcare applications, such as being used for the disabled and the elderly, who may have difficulty with upper-limb movements.

“Using this system, the surgeon can perform the operation solo, which has great practicability in situations like the battlefield and others with limited human resources,” Li said.

In mid September, Li received the Colorado Innovation S.T.A.R.S. challenge award for “Best Technical Achievement” at the college level during the JeffCo Innovation Faire. Zhang and Li are working with clinical researchers and industry partners to commercialize their attention-aware robotic laparoscope.

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

This story appears in the 2014-15 issue of Mines' research magazine, "Energy & the Earth."

Colorado School of Mines has been known for its prowess in geology since about 1874. Its reputation in biotechnology has taken just a little bit longer to develop – about 130 years longer, give or take.

Mines is making up for lost time. The school’s faculty, researchers and students haVe shed new light on areas as diverse as the nature of blood clots and the microbial role in rust. They have helped make better artificial limbs and developed laser microscopes capable of capturing video of the inner working of cells. They have reengineered algae to produce biofuels and developed scaffolding that could one day give new cartilage a foothold in creaky knees. In short, biological sciences and engineering have arrived at Mines, and in a big way.

The work is diverse, but there are common threads, said David Marr, who heads Mines’ Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“We are an engineering and technology-focused institution— that’s really where our niche is,” Marr said. “It’s in areas of bioengineering, broadly interpreted, that we have a strong role to play.” Those areas, he added, encompass biomedical applications, biomechanics, biomaterials, environmental biotechnology and biofuels.

Recent hires have bolstered several of these research areas, and curriculum has changed in kind, with courses covering a range of biomedical engineering, biomaterials, environmental biotechnology and biophysics available to undergraduate as well as graduate students. In fall 2013, Mines’ freshman biology course moved to a studio format, where small teams of students sit at workstations equipped with computers, dual monitors, video microscopes, digital cameras and digital balances, as well as with more specialized equipment like micropipettes and oxygen, pH and temperature sensors.

Mines Assistant Professor Nanette Boyle is among the recent arrivals, having signed on in August 2013. Like many at Mines, Boyle considers herself an engineer. But she engineers the genomes of algae and cyanobacteria, microscopic plants using the tools of synthetic biology, systems biology and metabolic engineering.

“The overall goal of my research is to make products that replace petroleum using these photosynthetic organisms,” Boyle said.

In her new Alderson Hall lab, stacked incubator shakers swirled the contents of four beakers, their sloshing fluid of varying light green hues under the bright multispectral light. They were filed with the algae Chlamydomonas and the cyanobacteria Synechococcus. Boyle’s work differs from most algae-based biofuel efforts, which aim to fatten up the algae and then harvest them. Rather, she wants to engineer the algae to produce short chain alcohols, isoprene or other hydrocarbons while they keep photosynthesizing away.

“You can get them to create whatever you want if you can find the genes to do it,” Boyle said.

Mines Professor John Spear, a microbiologist, also focuses on the genomics of tiny creatures. The driving questions of his work, though, are big.

“What are the possible benefits of microbes to make human life and/or the environment better?” Spear asked. “How can we put microbes to work in ways we haven’t done before?”

Genetic sequencing has fostered an explosion in what is known of the tree of life, and Spear and colleagues are discovering new organisms at a dizzying pace. In the mid-1980s, there were perhaps 12 known phyla, or kingdoms, of bacteria. Now there are 130 and counting.

“So when you find 10 or 20 phyla of bacteria as we have found in some environments, that’s like walking out your door and discovering plants for the first time,” Spear said.

On the applied side, Spear has focused on a couple of areas, including wastewater treatment and corrosion. Some corrosion is chemical, but microbes, which feed on the electrons metal has to offer, also contribute, to the point that the oil and gas industry has considered flushing wells with antibiotics. Across industry, the failures and replacement costs associated with corrosion cost tens of billions of dollars annually. More precisely understanding the composition and habits of such microbes can help industry develop better countermeasures and lower costs, Spear said.

Much of Mines’ biology-related work involves the biomedical field. A longstanding collaboration involving Marr and Associate Professor Keith Neeves, recently landed a National Institutes of Health grant to study how microbots – tiny spherical machines each about onetwentieth the diameter of a human hair – might be used to deliver clot-busting drugs straight to the blockage in stroke patients. The idea, Marr said, is to inject a swarm of microbots and steer them to clots using magnets outside the body, “A sort of ‘Fantastic Voyage’ kind of thing,” Marr said.

Marr’s Alderson lab has the markings of an experimental physicist’s haunts, with stainless-steel-topped laser tables rife with grids of screw holes, many anchoring lenses and mirrors. The work there focuses on using light and magnetism to, among other things, test the mechanical properties of cells. A floor below, Neeves’ PhD student Abimbola Jarvis bounced between making microfluidic devices of rubbery silicone and adjusting an Olympus microscope where the screen displayed a fluorescence-enhanced time-lapse of a blood clot forming. Neeves’ main interest is in how blood clots form and dissolve, work that has piqued the interest of clinicians at places such as Children’s Hospital Colorado, where Neeves has helped study hemophilia patients.

“We work where physics and hematology meet,” Neeves said.

Down the hall, Assistant Professor Melissa Krebs is working on where joints meet, among other things. She and her students create biopolymers with applications ranging from tissue regeneration (cartilage being one target) to cancer fighting. The trick, she said, is to create polymers that support cell growth or drug delivery for a prescribed amount of time and then dissolve away.

In Krebs’s lab, PhD student Michael Riederer was creating microspheres for use on the drug-delivery side. Among the inputs were genipin, a chemical derived from gardenias, and chitosan from shrimp shells. As the research progresses, he will work on releasing proteins from the microspheres, controlling the pace and volume of release, Krebs said. These proteins might include growth factors for tissue regeneration or growth inhibitors for cancer treatment, she said.

Mines Assistant Professor Anne Silverman works on joints, too, but from a different perspective. With Mines associate professors Anthony Petrella and Joel Bach, she leads Mines’ Center for Biomechanics & Rehabilitation Research.

“The overall theme is improving walking ability in people who have movement disorders,” Silverman said.

Her team takes experimental measurements on patients using near-infrared cameras, voltage sensors to measure muscle excitations and force plates to measure external loads (such as the heel hitting the ground). They then use this data to develop computer simulations of movement. Amputations below the knee have been a focus, but her team also works with patients who have Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy. Collaboration partners have ranged from the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center and the Colorado Neurological Institute at Denver’s Swedish Medical Center.

“We’re creating complex models and simulations of movement to estimate in vivo muscular and joint behavior,” Silverman said. “We’re using an engineering approach to solve biological problems.”

The College of Engineering and Computational Sciences Senior Design Trade Fair is an opportunity for Colorado School of Mines students to showcase projects that they have been working on with a client during the past two semesters. Nine teams presented their work, while judges consisting of faculty and alumni graded them on their ability to define, analyze and address a design problem and to present their work through display and dialogue.

Trade Fair Results

  • 1st Place: CSM FlightLab
    • Client: Mounir Zok, Faculty Advisor: Joel Bach, Consultant: Sam Strickling
    • Team Members: Michael Blaise, Adam Casanova, Andrew Eberle, Ryan Elliott, Kelli Kravetz and Perry Taga
  • 2nd Place: JB Engineering
    • Client: Edge of Seven, Faculty Advisor: Judy Wang, Consultants: Joe Crocker and Juan Lucena
    • Team Members: Matthew Craighead, Steven Johnson, Ali Khavari, Brian Klatt and Jasmine Solis
  • 3rd Place: AutoBots
    • Client: Jered Dean, Faculty Advisor: Judy Wang, Consultant: Jenifer Blacklock
    • Team Members: Arveen Amiri, Dorian Illing, Adriana Johnson, Keeranat Kolatat and Jennifer McClellan
  • 4th Place: SolTrak
    • Client: iDE, Faculty Advisor: Judy Wang, Consultant: David Frossard
    • Team Members: Miranda Barron, Lincoln Engelhard, Oluwaseun Ogunmodede, Brenda, Ramirez Rubio, Eric Rosing and Kevin Wagner

Broader Impacts Essay Results

  • 1st Place: Jace Warren for "The World Cup, It's Not Rocket Science"
  • 2nd Place: Aaron Heldmyer for "The Modern Renaissance Men and Women"
  • 3rd Place: Jennifer McClellan for "Engineering Modern Vehicles for First Responders"

Winning teams will receive plaques at the post-graduation banquet in December.

You be the judge. Listen to two teams present their projects at the Senior Design Trade Fair.

Senior Design Project: SolTrak

Senior Design Project: CSM Outreach Engineering

View more information about the Senior Design Program.

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator, Colorado School of Mines / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations, Colorado School of Mines / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

The Colorado School of Mines Colorado Fuel Cell Center hosted the first public demonstration of IEP Technology’s Geothermic Fuel Cell™ (GFC) Oct. 23. This first-ever GFC will enable production of unconventional hydrocarbons, such as oil shale, in an economic and environmentally sustainable way, while producing clean, baseload electricity.

The technology was developed in collaboration with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory/U.S. Department of Energy, TOTAL Petroleum, Delphi Automotive PLC (NYSE: DLPH), and the Colorado Fuel Cell Center at Colorado School of Mines.

“In the Piceance Basin (Northwest Colorado) alone, Colorado’s oil shale reserves are estimated in the trillions of barrels, but there has not been an environmentally responsible or economically viable way to access them,” said Alan Forbes, President and CEO of IEP Technology. “We are now one step closer to recovering oil shale resources while producing clean, reliable energy that will have significant economic impact for Colorado.”

Capital and operating costs of GFC technology are dramatically lower than other technologies when including revenues from surplus power and gases generated in the process. Previous technologies have either used mining/surface production facilities or large amounts of traditional utility-supplied electricity for in-situ technologies, both of which have significant impacts to the environment.

The GFC technology will capture and reuse its own gases produced in the process to become self fueling after startup; can achieve net zero air emissions; and can actually produce water during its operation thus avoiding impact to water needs in arid parts of the state.

IEP Technology’s GFCs use proven and tested solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology from Delphi. GFCs use the heat generated by the fuel cells as the “product,” leaving the clean baseload energy from the fuel cells available to be sold back into the utility grid.

 “We are really excited to apply our knowledge and expertise in fuel cells and oil shale to an innovative industry application like the GFCs,” said Dr. Neal Sullivan, the Colorado School of Mines professor who is also the school’s Director of the Colorado Fuel Cell Center Laboratory.

IEP Technology’s plan is to complete in-situ testing this year to monitor the heat and electrical output of the GFCs. A full-scale GFC field test at a Northwest Colorado oil shale resources site is slated for 2015. Commercialization is expected to follow application validation.

 

About IEP Technology
Independent Energy Partners (IEP) is a clean technology and resource company based in Denver, Colorado focused on the economic and environmentally responsible recovery of unconventional hydrocarbon resources utilizing its patented, breakthrough in-situ Geothermic Fuel Cell(GFC) system. IEP was founded in 1991 and has been involved in the development of more than 15 energy projects employing a wide range of technologies. The company holds exclusive rights to broad, patented GFC processes and technology in the U.S. and Canada as well as its own oil shale resources containing more than 2.0 billion barrels of oil. Patenting and technological development has been underway since 2004 and has been vetted by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.  IEP holds strategic partnerships with Total Petroleum, Uintah Resources, Inc., Delphi Corporation and Colorado School of Mines. Learn more about the company and its technology at iepm.com.

About the Colorado Fuel Cell Center at Colorado School of Mines
Colorado School of Mines, mines.edu, is a uniquely focused public research university dedicated to preparing exceptional students to solve today’s most pressing energy and environmental challenges. Founded in 1874, the institution was established to serve the needs of the local mining industry. Today, Mines has an international reputation for excellence in engineering education and the applied sciences with special expertise in the development and stewardship of the earth’s resources.

About Delphi

Delphi Automotive PLC (NYSE: DLPH) is a leading global supplier of technologies for the automotive and commercial vehicle markets.  Headquartered in Gillingham, England, Delphi operates major technical centers, manufacturing sites and customer support services in 32 countries, with regional headquarters in Bascharage, Luxembourg; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Shanghai, China and Troy, Michigan, U.S. Delphi delivers innovation for the real world with technologies that make cars and trucks safer as well as more powerful, efficient and connected. Visit delphi.com.

Contact: 

Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator, Colorado School of Mines / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations, Colorado School of Mines / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu
Cindy Jennings, President, Volition Strategies / cindy@volitionstrategies.com

Colorado School of Mines Geophysics Associate Professor Jeff Andrews-Hanna is the lead author of a study documenting the discovery of a giant rectangular structure (roughly 1,600 miles across) on the nearside of the Moon. Using NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) data, he is part of a team that examined the subsurface structure of the Procellarum region, also known as the Ocean of Storms. GRAIL scientists believe the Ocean of Storm's rocky outline is the result of ancient rift valleys, and not an asteroid impact as some previous theories suggested. The lava-flooded rift valleys are unlike anything found anywhere else on the Moon, and may at one time have resembled the rift zones on the Earth, Mars and Venus.

GRAIL gravity data is now allowing scientists to look beneath the surface at structures that are hidden from view, using the subtle gravitational pulls on the orbiting spacecraft. “This dataset has provided us with the highest resolution gravity map of any object in the solar system, including the Earth,” explained GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Using the gradients in the gravity data to reveal the rectangular pattern of anomalies, the researchers can now clearly and completely see structures that were only hinted at by previous surface observations. This newly discovered rectangular pattern has an area of approximately 6.5 million square kilometers (or 2.5 million square miles) and covers 17 percent of the surface of the Moon.

“This rectangular structure covers a larger fraction of the surface area of the Moon than do North America, Europe and Asia combined on the Earth,” Andrews-Hanna said. “This goes to show that there are still big discoveries waiting for us on all of the planets."

The rectangular pattern with its angular corners and straight sides is at odds with the notion that Procellarum might be an ancient impact basin, as that hypothesis would predict a circular basin rim. Instead, the new work suggests that internally driven processes dominated the evolution of this region. In contrast, previous work by Andrews-Hanna and colleagues in 2008 used gravity data from Mars to reveal an enormous elliptical structure in the northern hemisphere of that planet, supporting the idea that the northern lowlands of Mars were formed by a giant impact that excavated the ‘Borealis Basin.’ Andrews-Hanna explains, “In two separate studies, we have used gravity data to support the existence of the largest impact basin in the solar system on Mars, and to refute the proposed second largest basin in the solar system on the Moon.”

"Our gravity data is opening up a new chapter of lunar history, during which the Moon was a more dynamic place than suggested by the cratered landscape that is visible to the naked eye," said Andrews-Hanna. More work is needed to understand the cause of this newfound pattern of gravity anomalies, and the implications for the history of the Moon.

GRAIL A and B, later renamed Ebb and Flow, were launched to the Moon in September 2011. The twin spacecraft flew in a nearly circular orbit until the end of the mission on Dec. 17, 2012. The gravity field was measured by tracking the changes in the distance between the spacecraft caused by perturbations to their orbit as they flew over anomalous masses caused by features on the surface or within the subsurface.

The GRAIL mission was managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The mission was part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. GRAIL was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver.

Andrews-Hanna’s findings are published online in Nature. For more information about GRAIL, visit nasa.gov/grail and grail.nasa.gov.

The following organizations participated in this research: Colorado School of Mines; University of California, Santa Cruz; Brown University; Southwest Research Institute; Lunar and Planetary Institute; University of Hawaii; Purdue University; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Carnegie Institution of Washington; and Columbia University.

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator, Colorado School of Mines / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations, Colorado School of Mines / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu
DC Agle, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA / 818-393-9011 / agle@jpl.nasa.gov
Tim Stephens, Public Information Officer, University of California Santa Cruz / 831-459-4352 / stephens@ucsc.edu   
Kevin Stacey, Physical Sciences News Officer, Brown University / 401-863-3766 / kevin_stacey@brown.edu

Mechanical engineering graduate student Songpo Li received the Colorado Innovation S.T.A.R.S. challenge award for “Best Technical Achievement” at the college level during the JeffCo Innovation Faire Sept. 12. Li’s research project, “Gaze-Driven Automated Robotic Laparoscope System,” allows surgeons to interact with the laparoscopic vision easier and more naturally using their gaze, while freeing both their hands for manipulating the surgical instruments in laparoscopic surgery.

“It was a great opportunity to demonstrate our research results to the public through the Innovation Faire, and it was also my great honor and pleasure to receive this award,” Li said. “Using this system, the surgeon can perform the operation solo, which has great practicability in situations like the battlefield and others with limited human resources.”

Submissions were awarded based on research that was "original thinking and solved a real problem."

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

 

This story appears in the 2014-15 issue of Mines' research magazine, "Energy & the Earth."

 

Water and oil don’t mix. With oil and gas production and water, it’s quite the opposite.

Getting at the unconventional oil and gas reserves at the heart of America’s energy boom can take millions of gallons of water per well before the first hydrocarbons emerge.[1] One estimate puts the hydrologic demands of the 80,000 wells in 17 states drilled since 2005 at more than 250 billion gallons.[2] That’s three times the volume of Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.

Yet in the western United States and elsewhere, geologic “accident” has placed some of the most promising unconventional oil and gas reserves below parched landscapes.

Mines researchers are at the forefront of enhancing our still-nascent understanding of this modern story of oil and water, and more broadly in the development of new ways to boost freshwater resources in an era of rising demand and growing scarcity.

ConocoPhillips’ recent $3 million gift to establish the new Center for a Sustainable WE2ST (Water-Energy Education, Science and Technology) is the latest testament to Mines’ strengths in water.

The idea is to focus on a single formation such as the Niobrara, taking a comprehensive look at the complex technical and social interdependencies of oil and gas development and limited water resources. Professor John McCray, head of Mines’ Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, describes a wide-ranging effort, involving remote sensing and hydrological models to map out water sources and the tools of geochemistry, hydrology, microbiology and environmental engineering to develop ways to clean up the water that emerges from the depths during oil and gas operations. The work also will involve a strong social-sciences component led by Mines anthropologist Professor Jessica Rolston, McCray said, to help define ways to communicate the actual risks of unconventional energy development and get energy companies, regulators and the public on the same factual page.

“It’s a partnership with ConocoPhillips that can break new ground, and one that doesn’t exist outside of this center,” McCray said. “We want to come out and be the honest broker.”

Education is a key component of the ConocoPhillips center, said Associate Professor Terri Hogue, who is directing the new center. A big part of the budget will go to fellowships for 15 to 20 masters and PhD students, she said, in addition to 10 undergraduate fellowships each year. The center will attract top-notch talent all focusing on the nexus of water resources and energy development.

Professor Tzahi Cath is among those at Mines already at work at that confluence. Cath directs Mines’ Advanced Water Technology Center (AQWATEC), which is developing a range of water-treatment technologies. This spring, the masters students in Cath’s Environmental Engineering Pilot Lab course were studying if adding an inky slurry of activated charcoal to the city of Golden’s water treatment process might help remove the organics that have spiked in reservoirs along Colorado’s Front Range after the 2013 flood. A green garden hose snaked from a tank in the bed of the AQWATEC pickup parked on the sidewalk outside Coolbaugh Hall. It fed a bench-scale model of Golden’s water treatment plant, its upper tanks full of fluid like curdling apple cider. If it worked here, they would test the activated charcoal in a Mines pilot plant housed in the treatment facility itself and, assuming the city adopts the approach, would help with the transition to the full-scale plant.

“Usually, the city adopts our recommendations,” Cath said.

A bit downhill, in AQWATEC’s space in Mines’ General Research Laboratory, PhD student Bryan Coday was working near several hip-high plastic drums, some encrusted with salt (they’re for a project testing new ways to extract valuable potassium sulfate from the Great Salt Lake).

Others contained produced water from hydraulic fracturing operations, and Coday was working on a system to cleanse it using low-pressure osmosis and flat-sheet polymeric membranes. To the touch, the membranes felt like high-end wrapping paper, but in practice is a very sophisticated material. The system uses salt water to attract clean water from the deep-brown produced water across the membrane, which retains contaminants.

“Produced water is difficult to treat because of the hydrocarbons and complex organic compounds, plus high salinity,” Cath said. Mines environmental chemist Professor Christopher Higgins is working with Cath to identify just what chemicals from the different samples of produced water cross the membranes, and how they can improve the process to produce even drinking-quality water from produced water.

A test system had performed well enough that Coday and research assistant Mike Veres were now in the midst of building a pilot-scale system. “Harnessing the natural chemical energy of brine as the driving force for wastewater treatment has its advantages,” Cath said. “Such systems are mechanically simpler, take less energy, and are easier to clean because the grime hasn’t been rammed into filter pores as happens with high-pressure systems.”

If some combination of low-pressure filtration and microbial treatment (another AQWATEC project being tested across the lab in columns of activated carbon next to the AQWATEC aluminum boat) can economically bring produced water to the high standards of municipal wastewater treatment, the benefits are hard to miss. Water locked up two miles below could be released into streams in drought-prone regions, actually boosting the water budget. And oil and gas operations could reuse some portion of this new resource in their hydraulic fracturing operations. Coday is enthusiastic.

 “It’s a great opportunity to work on a project where industry is moving at such a quick pace on the energy side, on the water side and on the regulatory side,” he said.

Another major project has a similarly sweeping purview, but pertains to urban water use. Since 2011, Mines has teamed with Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley and New Mexico State University on a 10-year, $40 million effort that aims to transform how cities in the arid West use and reuse water. The program, called Re-Inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt), is the first National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center to focus on water issues.

McCray, who leads the Mines effort, said a dozen Mines faculty are leading or working on some 20 ReNUWIt projects. Hogue is spearheading an effort involving several Mines colleagues to determine the potential impact of August 2013’s 257,000-acre Sierra Nevada Rim Fire on water supplies to San Francisco and surrounding counties. Cath’s team is refining a portable, commercial-scale sequence batch membrane bioreactor that has proven its mettle with the wastewater from the apartments at Mines Park – capable of producing drinking water from domestic wastewater. Mines professors Tissa Illangasekare and Kate Smits lead a project that is developing technology to allow underground aquifers to treat and store water and then re-use it rather than letting it escape downstream. They are researching the use of sensors that provide real-time feedback on system performance, so decisions can be made to improve operation efficiency. Mines Associate Professor Linda Figueroa is working with the Plum Creek Wastewater Authority south of Denver on a pilot-scale system using anaerobic wastewater treatment. The system has been in operation for 1.5 years and has reduced more than 40 percent of the influent organic matter without the expense of oxygen (unlike traditional aerobic methods) and, as a bonus, produces energy while it cleans wastewater.

As with the ConocoPhillips center, ReNUWIt involves a heavy social science component. That’s because, for all the technological capabilities on display at Mines, the biggest challenges facing smarter water systems may reside between our ears. People just don’t like the idea of drinking reclaimed water (in Singapore they call it NeWater), McCray said, even though that’s what the South Platte River really is. Collectively, such apprehensions coalesce into powerful social and political barriers.

 “They’re by far the biggest hurdles to clear if we’re going to have any change in the way we develop our infrastructure,” McCray said.

 

Mechanical engineering professor Ozkan Celik and two Mines students have designed a robotic exoskeleton, named the Wrist Gimbal, which would assist stroke patients to complete repetitive movement therapy tasks. Based on a previous model Celik designed, this new robotic device focuses on two rotational degrees of freedom and would cost less than $5,000.

Robots have degrees of freedom, otherwise known as joints that enable their movements. Each revolute joint creates one rotational degree of freedom. As the team decreased the degrees of freedom from three to two in the new device, they used more balanced and robust materials and created an improved intuitive visual interface.

“The degree of freedom we eliminated was wrist abduction and adduction—which has the smallest range of motion among the three,” Celik said. “Also, exercising wrist flexion and extension can be expected to benefit abduction and adduction as some muscles are involved in both movements.”

Since wheelchairs are not uncommon for stroke patients, the team developed a robotic exoskeleton that a stroke patient could be strapped into while seated. Patients would hold onto the device and use wrist movements to complete assessment exercises that would determine their maximum range of motion. The robot applies force to aid or deter movements, and records responses in particular tasks.

“The device provides motivation,” Celik said. “Our game-like interface exerts assistive forces to stimulate patients and prompt them to complete exercises with assistance.”

Senior mechanical engineering student and president of Robotics Club David Long worked on the mechanical design and 3D printed, machined and laser cut several of the parts of the device and specialized in the robot’s control system.

“Feedback control is one of those classes I took last semester that I didn’t think I was going to use much. Then suddenly, that’s all I did all summer and it was great because when you see something theoretical like that and apply it in practice, it really gives you a lot of faith in course work,” Long said. “I am going to be using it for a long time.”

Graduate mechanical engineering student Hossein Saadatzi is currently working on the kinematics and dynamics of the device and developing an active gravity compensation method that would allow the robot to provide more accurate force feedback.

“In my graduate study, I wanted to improve my skills in practical and experimental work,” Saadatzi said. “I chose biomechatronics because I can apply my knowledge to help patients get better.”

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

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