At Michigan Technological University, each researcher strives to design and apply solutions to society’s most pressing problems. Take the recipient of the 2019 Michigan Tech Research Award, Zhanping You. As a professor of transportation engineering, one of his most impressive projects involves turning old tires into new roads.
“You’s funding record underscores the impact of his work in civil engineering materials and his publication record further demonstrates his ability to communicate to a wide range of audiences, to advance the use of asphalt and bituminous materials in civil engineering applications,” says Audra Morse, chair of the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering.
You has hosted 30 international scholars in his lab so far, earning a reputation as a great mentor for undergraduates and graduates alike. “More than 90% of my papers include undergraduate and graduate authors; they can be a part of these research endeavors because I am making sure they get the coding experience and software skills they need to be successful professionals and researchers,” You shares.
For example, students are helping monitor his scrap tire innovation, which is being tested on local roads and highway tracks. They have been gathering results and samples from different testing sites over the past two years, enabling You to prove how the new asphalt mix improves road performance. In this way, each Michigan Tech student gets to play a part in engineering the future — one that they will soon inherit.
Paving the way for a smarter, sustainable future
It’s no secret that sustainability drives the development and application of critical research today, including in connected and autonomous vehicles. Associate Professor Kuilin Zhang knows that smart cities require more than self-driving cars; hence he studies vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to optimize road safety using real-time data.
“In my vision of the future, we have more predictable, more robust, and safer transportation systems — and it’s based on being connected and the data we can gather,” Zhang shares. “The whole idea of cooperative driving automation is that the signals in the intersection tell your car what’s happening ahead. The sensor at the intersection can benefit all connected vehicles passing through the intersection. The automated eco-driving algorithm improves the driving decisions of the connected and automated vehicles.”
His transformative work has earned him the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, which grants US $500,000 over a five-year span. Zhang uses model predictive control (MPC) and congestion games to study vehicle communication in the lab, then tests his findings in Michigan Tech’s robust mobility testing facilities. His research extends beyond campus to five traffic signals in Houghton, facilitated by industry collaborations with the Michigan Department of Transportation, APS Labs, and HERE Technologies.
Another leader in Michigan Tech’s lineup of expert faculty members is Professor Amlan Mukherjee, a renowned figure in professional bodies. Not only did he help write the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) guidelines for sustainable highway construction practices, Mukherjee also founded a company called Trisight LLC that commercializes his research outcomes. It was the first in the highway construction industry to develop an online system for generating ISO-compliant Type III Environmental Product Declarations for the North American asphalt mixtures industry.
Understanding and optimizing natural processes
Given its proximity to the Great Lakes and coastal oceans, Michigan Tech is at the forefront of aquatic research, too. Associate Professor Pengfei Xue is on a mission to help save these wells of life; his research in the Great Lakes region applies machine learning techniques to analyze atmosphere, lake, ice, wave, sediment, land surface, and biological components. Xue uses data assimilation techniques to predict how the lakes respond to climate stressors, modeling on Michigan Tech’s high-performance computing infrastructure, Superior.
“The beauty of data assimilation is to use the information of the misfits between the model results and observations, which are only known at limited observation locations, to correct model bias in a 3D space beyond the observation locations. Hence, it improves model accuracy for the entire simulation field,” he explains. Xue’s work optimizes sampling locations, thus supporting the Great Lakes Operational Forecast System.
In the same way that civilizations have grown from rivers and lakes, modern life relies on the effective treatment and management of water. Since most water treatment facilities in the US cannot remove chemicals from pharmaceutical and personal care products, such as opioids, dioxins, pesticides, flame retardants, and plastics, Associate Professor Daisuke Minakata developed a tool to trace and remove organic chemicals from the water we use everyday.
By investigating how these harmful chemicals are rejected in reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation processes, Minakata is able to optimize water reuse — which is especially critical for communities in dry, arid regions of the world, as well as astronauts at the International Space Station. Over the past few years, his research team has included nine undergraduate research assistants, all supported either through their own research fellowships or Minakata’s research grants.
Minakata has also created a sunlight simulator at the university, which benefits multidisciplinary research beyond his area of aquatic photochemistry. “By encouraging and enabling undergraduate students to pursue research, Dr. Minakata is helping to develop a vibrant intellectual community among the students in the College of Engineering,” opines College of Engineering Dean Janet Callahan.
Launch your transformative career at Michigan Tech
As much as research is future-focused, the science being practiced at Michigan Tech also helps us better navigate current concerns. Associate Professor Jennifer Becker’s project is one prime example: it tracks and treats the COVID-19 coronavirus in human waste.
Her team works with local wastewater treatment facilities to ensure SARS-CoV-2 virus particles are no longer infectious when spread in biosolids. “We all think of food and water as being essential to life. They are, but waste is also a critical part of life. If any of the virus particles stay in the wastewater stream during treatment, what happens when wastewater is discharged to the environment?” she asks.
Solving such issues are key to the educational experience at Michigan Tech. With over 7,000 students from 54 countries, the university’s Upper Peninsula campus is home to a vibrant community of changemakers with a global, multidisciplinary outlook on scientific innovation. Every day, their discoveries in one of the numerous research centers and institutes bring mankind one step closer to progress.