Lost and Found
A Texas A&M–led institute focuses some of the world’s top researchers on one problem: harnessing the power of squandered energy.
By KARA BOUNDS SOCOL
“Reuse” is a buzzword for the environmental movement—one that brings forth notions of recycling and limiting disposable items.
Thanks to a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), it’s also a buzzword for materials science researchers at Texas A&M University and their collaborators in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. But here, “reuse” refers to energy itself.
“Energy is obviously a big issue for the world, and we need to look at alternatives,” explains Raymundo Arróyave, a Texas A&M assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “But we also need to look at different ways to use the energy we already have.”
Finding ways to capture and reuse wasted energy is the purpose of the Texas A&M–led International Institute for Multifunctional Materials for Energy Conversion (IIMEC). Through this institute, researchers across the globe can collaborate on energy conversion research.
“We’re doing something that is technologically very important for both the United States and the other participating countries,” says IIMEC Director Dimitris Lagoudas, department head and John and Bea Slattery Chair of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M.
The NSF Award
The NSF supports a select group of International Materials Institutes to advance worldwide collaboration on materials research. In January, Texas A&M announced that NSF had selected it—with the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES)—to receive an award. Many researchers involved with the IIMEC hold joint appointments with Texas A&M and TEES.
Texas A&M’s U.S. partners in the IIMEC are the University of Houston and the Georgia Institute of Technology. University researchers in 12 countries in North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean are already involved in the institute, with more countries expected to join.
In addition to the NSF award, TEES and Texas A&M’s Dwight Look College of Engineering contributed matching funds to the IIMEC, as did the university’s Division of Research and Graduate Studies.
Multifunctional materials are receiving considerable attention in the materials science world. Tahir Cagin, a Texas A&M chemical engineering professor, says this area involves “harvesting” energy—capturing the excess energy that one energy form produces and using it to power a different form.
Lagoudas gives the example of a child’s tennis shoe. Vibrations from walking down the street are a form of wasted mechanical energy, he says. But harvesting these vibrations can turn this mechanical energy into electrical energy, activating a light in the heel of the shoe.
“You have heat around you, for instance, when a motor is running,” says Cagin, associate director of research for the IIMEC. “Harvesting that wasted heat enables us to convert it into a useful form. You basically have less loss. And if you improve the coupling, you improve the efficiency.”
“Coupling” occurs when an energy-releasing process drives an energy-requiring process. An example is the use of piezoelectrics. These minuscule materials can convert engine vibrations or even sound waves into electrical energy. This electrical–mechanical coupling is one of three distinct research themes of the IIMEC.
Electrical coupling with chemical, thermal and optical energy sources is also an IIMEC theme, often taking the forms of fuel cells, photovoltaics and thermoelectrics. Another theme is thermal–mechanical and magnetic–mechanical coupling. Shape memory alloys—a major research area at Texas A&M—fall under this category.
And computational materials is the overarching research theme, touching each of the three others.
Experimental and Computational Methods
The experimental method side of materials science involves hands-on laboratory work. The computational side deals more with computer-generated mathematical modeling.
Arróyave, a senior IIMEC member, is a computational researcher. He likens the two methods to baking a pie. Using the computational method, one can determine what ingredients are needed and how they interact.
But actually creating the pie also requires the experimental method, where, through trial and error, one determines the precise ingredient measurements needed and the optimal time and temperature to properly bake it.
The computational method provides an understanding of material behavior—it offers guidelines, he explains. But to best design and optimize the materials takes the experimental method.
“If we can combine both the computational and experimental methods in a rational, relevant way, it’s possible to accelerate the development of materials,” he says.
The Communications Side
Although most IIMEC collaborators reside in the College of Engineering, the institute also involves Texas A&M’s College of Science. Yalchin Efendiev, professor of mathematics, is a member of the IIMEC leadership team. And Guy Almes, director of the college’s Texas Academy for Advanced Telecommunications and Learning Technologies, heads up the institute’s cyber-infrastructure and communications area.
“Intrinsic to the university world is the reality that researchers are interested in a specific, obscure topic and that others interested in that same area are scattered across the globe,” Almes says. In the past, collaborating with researchers in a particular field often required hopping on a plane. The Internet changed that. And the IIMEC is taking things another giant step forward.
Although Almes readily admits he doesn’t know a lot about materials science, his contribution to the institute is vital: If computer networks cannot reliably deliver computational models or move large data sets, researchers in different countries won’t be able to collaborate on projects. And if collaboration fails, the entire mission of the IIMEC fails.
Maintaining quality communications goes far beyond keeping computer systems up and running. Almes says the computational requirements for modeling materials science projects—particularly at the atomic level—are huge.
“It’s the phenomenon of collaboration that interests me,” he says. “The quality of connections makes a difference in collaboration.”
Why North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean?
The decision to focus IIMEC efforts on the North Africa–Middle East–Mediterranean region is multifaceted. The obvious draw is the area’s energy resources. Sunlight is also plentiful, and researchers have a clear interest in looking beyond oil and gas reserves to alternative energy forms.
The area is home to many well-trained scientific communities and advanced research facilities, along with researchers well-versed in theoretical and computational methods. The venture is already giving graduate students opportunities to study abroad. And in the works are conferences and workshops for both researchers and their students.
Many of the researchers at U.S. universities hail from this region, and their ties to fellow researchers there are already strong. Texas A&M’s campus in Qatar, another IIMEC participant, is another tie.
Another less obvious impetus for, in particular, North African involvement has to do with the higher-educational system, Lagoudas says. A push exists there to transform their universities and find balance between the traditional French model and the desirable U.S.–British model.
Being included in the IIMEC, he says, will help these countries establish the high-level university systems they aspire to.
On the governmental side, political and economic stability is a stated goal. The institute’s efforts to improve the use of natural resources and bring balance between renewable and nonrenewable energy sources could ultimately contribute to peace and sustainability of the region’s resources.
Globalizing Texas A&M
Globalization is today’s reality. For better or worse, Lagoudas says, Texas A&M has to be part of it. “If we want to be a leader, we have to be a leader globally,” he says. “We can’t just say we’re the best in Texas. It’s just not enough.”
Adds Arróyave: “We’re not experts in everything. We’re combining forces with our international counterparts to try to augment our capabilities. The end product isn’t particularly the technology, but the process of actually organizing in a rational way experimental and computational methods from around the world.”
“This is a big part of globalization,” says Lagoudas. “It will enhance our presence in a vital part of the world. It will expose our students to what is going on there. And scientifically, it will advance everyone involved.”
IIMEC Research Theme Leadership
Associate Director of Research and Computational Materials Theme Leader
Associate Director of International Activities
and Leader of Research Theme 2: Electro-Mechanical Coupling
Leader of Research Theme 1: Thermo-Mechanical Coupling
Leader of Research Theme 3: Thermo/Opto-electric Coupling
University of Houston
Back to 2010 Advance Contents
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