Imagine the year is 2075. You rise in the morning to a pre-set ‘real’ light lamp that naturally brightens the room, waking you organically, and the smell of coffee that automatically brewed while you still slept. The electricity in your home is predominately powered by renewable energy — think state-of-the-art wind, solar, hydrogen and nuclear systems — that can all be traced back to massive battery storage grids across North America.
Story by Olivia Miller, Communications Specialist
While you drink your coffee, your digital assistant in your smart home reminds you that you will need to teleport into work using your tele-presence humanoid robot today, since there is pressing business that requires your physical presence at the office.
After work as you shop for groceries, you contemplate buying ‘robotic-pollinated’ versus ‘bee-pollinated’ granny smith apples for your apple crisp that you’re going to make for dessert tonight. The ‘robotic-pollinated’ apples may be cheaper and larger, but some people argue that the ‘bee-pollinated’ apples taste better, and you should buy them whenever they’re available.
Your time and energy aren’t spent on laundry and cleaning anymore because your autonomous robots on standby in the corner of your home take care of these tasks for you, creating much more free time for you to engage in your hobbies. Thanks to this, you check that your car's battery is full - it only takes a few minutes to fully charge these days - and grab your soft exoskeleton outfit to go mountain climbing. This new technology allows you to reach the top without even feeling tired!
Once you reach the summit, you set up your 500 megapixel camera, and using a 3400mm lens, you can not only capture the details of the surface of the moon, but you’re pretty sure you’ve also captured autonomous robots traversing over its mountain ranges scavenging for valuable resources to support the lunar outpost.
So, you may be wondering, how are engineers in the Statler College involved in taking these big ideas from pure imagination to reality?
A vision for the future
Scientific breakthroughs don’t happen overnight. Most often, basic scientific research is overlooked by society; however, it is thanks to these small, fundamental, and often arduous elements of research that life changing technological advancements are conceived. Just as scientific breakthroughs don’t happen overnight, neither does social change, and as such, it is the small acts of change that make room for true progress. Slowly, our society is evolving, and ideas that may have seemed controversial or impossible in the past are now coming to light, and our daily lives will be changed as a result.
In 2021, we may be speculating what the future holds for us. We are approaching a tipping point — with various threats to our planet and humanity on the horizon. Will we be able to stop catastrophic climate change in time or will we need to head into space to colonize another planet? Will robots become essential in our day-to-day life, or become our overlords? Will we continue letting our differences divide us or will we finally come together as a global community? Contemplating what comes next creates a sense of excitement and opens the door for endless possibilities for engineers and scientists alike.
In this issue, we asked Statler College engineers from across disciplines to weigh in on how their research is working to reimagine the future. Day after day, their research and actions move us one step closer to a better world. Whether it be working to develop clean energy to address climate change, developing technology to advance space exploration, or pushing for diversity in education —our researchers are already shaping a stronger and more innovative society.
The climb to renewables
Since the later part of the 19th century when human activity started influencing the climate, the world has warmed by more than one degree Celsius, causing rising sea levels, higher temperatures, more frequent droughts and extreme weather events. Thus far, climate change has left no stone unturned, having an impact on nearly all aspects of society — from higher insurance costs to human health, to food security and transportation, to energy and ecosystems and beyond.
It is estimated that by 2050, carbon emissions must be 40 to 70 percent lower than they were in 2010 to keep global warming under the 2-degree Celsius threshold, according to a study published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, researchers like Xueyan Song, professor and George B. Berry Chair of Engineering, Xingbo Liu, Statler Chair Professor and interim associate dean for research, Professor Ed Sabolsky and Associate Professor David Mebane are working to develop solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technologies, a high efficiency power generation system, which produce near zero emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, to support clean energy generation around the world.
Liu explained that using fuel cell systems for electricity generation have already been proven successful in data centers around the world, such as Apple and Microsoft, as well as in tens of thousands of residential homes in Japan. They can be integrated with a wide range of applications, from generating powering to vehicles and residential buildings, and satellites and spaceships.
According to Song, a fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the products of a chemical reaction into an electrical current to generate power. The SOFC’s operating temperature is lower than combustion-based processes, limiting the formation of nitrogen and carbon pollutants. In addition, they require approximately one-third of the amount of water relative to conventional combustion-based power systems.
Currently, companies like Nissan are already manufacturing vehicles with an e-Bio Fuel-Cell system. Liu noted that the difference will hardly be noticeable when these vehicles become mainstream. You will simply go to a hydrogen station like a normal gas station and charge your hydrogen tank fully in approximately three minutes, compared to today’s electric cars that take nearly six hours to achieve a full charge on the ’normal’ charge mode.
“The strong electricity demand, the related greenhouse gas emission concerns, as well as the rapidly depleted fossil fuels have caused enormous global social unrest during the past two decades,” Song said. “The ongoing unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the urgency for energy independence. The recent scheduled rotating power outages in California and on the east coast further manifests that the high electricity demand burden is over the limit that the current grid can carry.”
Liu echoed Song’s statements, adding that the solution to the outage issues that have been increasing in the power grid is exactly this type of technology.
“In general, I can say that in the future, SOFC’s can be used for power generation and also can be used for energy storage devices, which people are already beginning to use,” Liu said. “They all play an important role in a high efficiency and renewable energy future,” Liu said.
On a separate research project, John Hu, Statler Chair in Engineering for natural gas utilization, and Liu, are working to curb carbon emissions through a different approach. The collaborative research project is working on the development of a modular production unit to harness excess natural gas that is commonly flared at industrial sites and can be used to capture stranded energy from renewable resource plants.
By harnessing the excess gas from natural gas sites, the resource is not wasted and left to pollute the atmosphere, instead it is turned into high-value solid carbon and hydrogen for fuel.
“Modular production requires energy efficiency and process intensification,” Hu said. “This requires the integration of novel materials, innovation in equipment and novel process development. For this to be feasible, interdisciplinary approaches are needed. These approaches evolved in the last 20 years which has accelerated the technology development.”
Hu explained that the modular process involves the development of a modular unit — a small, but more efficient plant — which is easily transportable and can be deployed directly at the site.
“The world will be moving to a low carbon footprint economy,” Hu said. “The kind of technologies we develop today will allow cleaner, more efficient and environmentally beneficial manufacturing of products.”
These novel technology developments illustrate the path to stable and clean power generation in the United States and around the globe. While the difference will cause massive shifts on an economical scale, the differences felt by consumers in their day-to-day lives will be minimal.
rise of the machines
While science fiction often tries to predict how technology, especially robots, will change our lives in the future, one prediction that you can bet on is that autonomous robots of all different shapes and sizes will be regularly involved in improving the quality of our everyday lives.
“We are just at the beginning of seeing many exciting applications, but people will soon get used to seeing a lot of autonomous robots around them,” said Yu Gu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Over the past decade, the field of robotics has made many important advancements, including robot perception, which includes the localization, mapping and object recognition capabilities of the robots, as well as in terms of decision making, or autonomy, Gu explained. These advancements have allowed robots to come into our day-to-day environments, in places like assembly lines in warehouses and in ones that are shared with people, for example robotic vacuum cleaners, self-driving cars and drones.
Currently, Gu’s long-term research goal is to help robots achieve insect-level intelligence.
“Insects are not very smart, although I know a few people who would disagree with that statement, but they are highly effective creatures and can handle unstructured environments well,” Gu said. “We want robots to help us to do dirty, dangerous and dull jobs, things that people don’t want to do themselves.”
Gu explained that robots can help us with many tasks, from exploration to search and rescue, to trash cleanup and construction, in-home services and many others.
“I think the impact of robots can be as enormous as what the internet did to society, which includes both positive and negative sides,” Gu explained. “Robots can help support an aging society, fight climate change and the decline of insects and explore other worlds.”
In 2016, Gu led the Statler College robotics team in a NASA Centennial Challenge that tasked the team with finding and collecting samples on Mars. With the similar technology, his team also turned a robot into a precision pollinator. Now, building on the success of the robotics program he helped establish, the team has set out on another quest to seek a solution to a critical problem designated by NASA.
Instead of being tasked to explore the red planet, the team, led by Jason Gross, associate professor and associate chair for research in mechanical and aerospace engineering, are pioneering the basic groundwork needed to establish a lunar base on the moon.
“There are a lot of unsolved problems for how robots and humans would be able to set up an outpost on the moon,” Gross said. “How would we be able to use a lunar outpost to be able to do things like get to Mars in the future from a launch from the moon? It has the potential for a big global impact.”
The challenge focuses on autonomous robots operating on the surface of the moon and collecting useful resources to support a lunar base.
“In the first task, we basically had to provide a map of resources that would be needed for various things on the moon,” Gross explained. “These are things like water, or hydrogen, or different chemical compounds that would be useful for building a future base station or putting rocket fuel on the moon.”
Gross explained that many of the traditional data processing methods that are used today were heralded as the key enablers of the Apollo missions and still remain an integral part of modern-day applications like self-driving ground and aerial vehicles.
“Our work is trying to make these systems more robust so that they operate as expected when subject to uncertainty,” Gross said. “It’s one piece of the much bigger puzzle that defines the overall field of robotics.
“I imagine that this field will continue to grow and expand into new environments and application domains. There will certainly be technological breakthroughs that simply render some of our current technologies that are popular as obsolete, but the fundamental needs associated with robot localization and perception will always be present,” he continued.
Imagining a bold, new society
What started out as mere speculative fiction, has in many ways turned into scientific fact. Forward-thinking television shows like Star Trek have inspired generations of people how to view the future through a more optimistic and inclusive lens. People who watch Star Trek equate the future with interstellar travel, moon bases, a cleaner Earth and robots aplenty, all things we can address through engineering.
Another aspect of Star Trek that we can learn from is their creation of society that respected new life and all civilizations as a way of creating growth and enlightenment. These ideals can also be integrated into engineering — a society based on peace and equality that showcases diverse peoples and ways of life. Even though the technological and cultural advancements portrayed in the show may have seemed far-fetched in the 1960s, they are becoming a reality today, and the culture of the College already looks different than it did a few decades ago.
An official initiative was launched in February 2020 to formalize a plan to promote diversity and inclusion within the College. A committee has been defined at the College level, with action plans and commitments to evaluate needs and making changes accordingly; DEI trainings have been made available to all; panel discussions to have open conversations surrounding DEI topics have been successful; social and educational events across campus have been implemented during Diversity Week; digital accessibility has been made a priority; and recruitment strategies to seek out students, faculty and staff members from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds are in place and being further cultivated.
“Our committee brings together voices of a broad range of people from a variety of backgrounds, with different talents and skills. The assortment of knowledge and experiences allow us to tackle a challenge from a lot of different angles,” said Cerasela-Zoica Dinu, associate chair for biomedical engineering, professor of chemical and biomedical engineering and coordinator of DEI strategic initiatives. “Working together to come up with a strategy which does not represent an individual but a collective vision led through diversity of thought and experiences, is something that we aim for in every meeting we run and every action we take.”
Though the committee and processes have been newly formalized, Outreach Coordinator Cate Schlobohm, who began working for the College a decade ago, recalls that diversity has always been a top priority in recruitment efforts.
“In my career, I have watched our diversity-based student organizations grow and in some cases be established at WVU,” Schlobohm said. “I’ve seen the College and the University both put a greater emphasis on making sure that student members of these organizations, like the Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and oSTEM, have all the resources that they need to operate and thrive.”
Sam Ameri, chair of petroleum and natural gas engineering, noted that the difference in the diversity of faculty, staff and students relative to 30 years ago is huge, although, he added that there is still a long way to go.
“In petroleum and natural gas engineering, we have many international students. They don’t come here only for education; it is also about the culture,” Ameri said. “They take some of those things that they learn in the U.S. and they put them to work in their culture and they make dents in restrictions and open new doors. I honestly believe that DEI in the workplace increases creativity. You have folks that come in from everywhere and it ultimately creates higher innovation.”
Nagasree Garapati, visiting assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, further added that younger generations are more likely to define diversity as a mix of experiences, identities, ideas, perspectives and insights rather than the traditional definition, with more of a focus on a positive and supportive culture than just numbers.
“Despite our efforts to become a more diverse and inclusive society, recent incidents show how far we still have before providing access to the same opportunities and support to all segments of our society,” Garapati said. “Interdisciplinary thinking focused on turning dialogue into action is more crucial than ever. Thanks to the recent push, I envision that building a diverse and inclusive society will be more of a ‘must do’ than a ‘nice to do’ and there will be no inequities and opportunity gaps among groups.”
When looking to the future, younger generations have already started to illustrate a path to an inclusive world, and it is clear that DEI initiatives are more than just talking points.
Program Coordinator Marsha Rohozen added that early in her own career before joining the College, she witnessed companies speak of diversity and inclusion as being merely a compliance-driven approach to meet legal requirements. Since moving into higher education, she perceived an action-oriented and open approach to the subject and breaking down barriers.
In her position, Rohozen has helped reshape the hiring process in the College to eliminate bias in the hiring process, including forming diverse search committees to assure breadth of perspectives, a revision of job descriptions to eliminate discriminatory language, a review of selection practices to help prevent biases from affecting hiring decisions and sought out various sources to find potential job candidates.
“Working for an employer where you have to ‘fake it’ to fit in is not a welcoming environment,” Rohozen said. “So, it’s very important to me to take this opportunity to work with my colleagues to bring awareness and hopefully the necessary changes so everyone feels safe, accepted, and valued and has the same opportunity to grow and succeed.”
Schlobohm added that research has indicated that younger generations are growing up in increasingly more diverse populations and communities than ever before.
“With so much focus on DEI efforts now, the hope is that these principles will be ingrained in future generations so that we can break down barriers inherent to systematic racism and oppression,” Schlobohm continued.
To make societal and technological changes on a grand scale requires the collective effort and experiences of people from all walks of life, regardless of their background, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, gender, sex, disability, ethnicity, gender identification or religion. Dinu believes that in our rapidly changing society, it is up to us as individuals to start the change and diversity is a recipe for success.
“We have a lot of work in front of us, but to the reader, do not question for a minute our motivation in the committee and our spirit. We all recognize that we tackle problems bigger than us, however we all want to make a difference and even if at times it’s through baby steps or does not happen as fast as we initially anticipate, rest assured that we hear you,” Dinu concluded.
Just as Star Trek envisioned a future where diversity was not just accepted, but celebrated, the College is heralding to a culture that is elevated by the contributions of differences in ideas and life forms. Though the College has come a long way, it is imperative we acknowledge that there is still a long road ahead to ensuring equal opportunities for all, however, the future of the College is brighter than ever as we work toward building a tomorrow that allows us all to see our most daring ideas come to life.