RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SWANSON SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING - FALL 2019
“It is a profound challenge, at the end of an era of cheap oil and materials, to rethink and redesign how we produce and consume; to reshape how we live and work, or even to imagine the jobs that will be needed for transition.”
– Dame Ellen P. MacArthur – British sailor and solo long-distance yachtswoman and charity founder (1976 - )
As 2019 comes to a close and the roar of the Pitt campus subsides as students head home for the holiday break, it is once again my pleasure, on behalf of US Steel Dean James R. Martin II, to share with you the research highlights from the Swanson School of Engineering.
Engineering by its nature is transformative – for thousands of years it has advanced human existence and enabled us to harness resources, especially in the last century, to reach the ocean depths and the edges of the solar system. However, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, those advances have come at a price that we are now slowly but inexorably realizing. Dame MacArthur was inspired by life on the sea to rethink how we can transform our way of life; specifically, to be deliberately more holistic with our limited resources and their utilization. Thus, the feature story for this issue focuses on work being done to support a Circular Economy, which Dame MacArthur and her foundation defines as building “a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.” Engineers are key for meeting this challenge, if we are to
break from the “take, make, waste” linear economy and truly develop a way of life that benefits our planet and every living organism. The Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation’s Drs. Melissa Bilec and Eric Beckman, who won the Circular Design Challenge prize from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2018, were awarded $1.3 million by the National Science Foundation to lead a multidisciplinary team of researchers from across the country to adapt our engineering expertise to address global waste. Meeting these challenges will indeed be transformative, as Drs. Bilec and Beckman and their team explore how resources
are exploited, manufacturing is reimagined, and young people are taught to work in jobs that today do not exist.
Energy, too, is a critical part of our economy, and our faculty and students in the Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program, housed within the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, have attracted significant funding from the DOE and its Nuclear Energy University Program. Dr. Heng Ban, Interim Director of our Center for Energy, is leveraging multidisciplinary expertise to advance nuclear technology, especially with regional partners such as Westinghouse, Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, and Bechtel Marine, as well as the industry’s diverse supply chain.
Dr. Tracy Cui, whose research is focused on improving brain-computer interface materials, received a large NSF award to bring her neural implant technology closer to commercialization. This will significantly advance the eventuality for disabled humans to operate robotics with their thoughts. Life on earth, as well as the economies we enjoy, are powered by water. However, its complex interaction with our ecosystem is critical to understand as the climate changes and impacts where and how humans live. Dr. Xu Liang from Civil and Environmental Engineering is harnessing the high-performance to develop a “CyberWater” framework, thanks to the NSF, that will provide researchers with a new way to access and use data for investigating water resources and climate-related environmental issues.
Finally, work to develop a breathalyzer for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana, by Dr. Ervin Sejdić and Dr. Alexander Star in Pitt’s Department of Chemistry, was featured in several news outlets around the world. Their approach utilizes carbon nanotubes to detect subtle changes in electrical current when exposed to THC.
I hope you enjoy these and the many other stories in this newsletter. My best wishes to you and yours for this holiday season. I look forward to sharing more stories of how the Swanson School is making an impact in 2020.
Hail to Pitt!
David A. Vorp, PhD
Associate Dean for Research, Swanson School of Engineering