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WSU Research Smart Systems

Designing cities for the future

Power workers up on a light pole

Measuring urban air quality is one step towards healthier, more sustainable cities

By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. Growing cities strain food, water and energy systems, which in turn has a negative impact on economic, social and environmental sustainability and wellbeing.

To address these challenges, regional governments, companies and universities are coming together to develop the technology and proposed system changes needed for “smarter” cities. An initiative in Spokane called Urbanova is one of the innovators in this movement, and Washington State University is a founding partner.

Urbanova is a living laboratory in Spokane’s University District founded by Avista, the City of Spokane, Itron, McKinstry, the University District Development Association, and WSU. The focus of the lab is to harness data to gain insights, empower people and solve urban challenges in new ways. WSU’s research expertise in smart power grids and the food-water-energy nexus make it a natural innovation partner in this group.

The first project: Tracking air quality through connected sensors

WSU researcher Von Walden is involved in Smart and Connected Streetlights, Urbanova’s pilot project, which is installing sensors and collecting data to improve understanding of pollution and health in the community.

Walden, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is leading the air quality aspects of the project along with other researchers in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. Working with Avista and Itron, the WSU team installed three air quality sensors on streetlights in the district.

The data will provide insights into energy savings and efficiency and will be used with advanced weather and air quality models to improve understanding of micro-climates in urban areas. It will also provide unique and valuable information about how forest fires – which are common in the region – affect air quality and pollution in urban environments.

The project is important because Spokane is one of hundreds of similar mid-sized cities in the U.S. that have rarely been studied for air pollution, Walden said.

The researchers will install several more sensors later this year, and researchers from the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are developing a software platform to integrate, store, and analyze the air quality data as well as data from the power grid. They will also be making the real-time data on pollution levels publicly available.

First-of-its-kind research capability

Revealing secrets of material behavior at extreme conditions

While exposing a sample of silicon to extreme dynamic compression–due to the impact of a nearly 12,000 mph plastic projectile–WSU scientists documented the transformation from its common cubic diamond structure to a simple hexagonal structure. At one point, they could see both structures as the shock wave traveled through the sample in less than half a millionth of a second.

WSU led the development of this experimental capability, which allows scientists to watch atomic-level changes unfold in the composition and behavior of materials under extreme conditions. Experiments take place in a facility called the Dynamic Compression Sector (DCS). Experiments utilize tunable, high-energy X-ray pulses to make movies of materials subjected to extreme conditions, and permit scientists to view condensed matter changes at the microscopic level during a shock compression event.

Research facility located at Argonne National Laboratory

WSU developed the DCS at the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science user facility located near Chicago at Argonne National Laboratory. The effort was sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration. Contributors to development of the DCS included Argonne, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories, the Army Research Laboratory, and academic institutions.

Until now, researchers have had to rely on computer simulations to follow the atomic-level changes of a structural transformation under pressure, according to Yogendra Gupta, Regents professor and director of the WSU Institute for Shock Physics. The new method provides a way to measure physical changes and see if simulations are valid. Researchers examined silicon through DCS because they suspected that long-standing assumptions about the material would need to be re-examined.

Capability will accelerate investigations on multiple fronts

DCS will help address energy and national security challenges. It will enable scientists to understand the structure of planetary interiors and to develop lightweight materials for industrial, aerospace, and automotive applications.

Harnessing technology to improve quality of life

New promise for solar energy

A breakthrough by WSU researcher Kelvin Lynn could help solar energy compete with fossil fuels for generating electricity.

Commercial success of solar technology has been constrained by the cells’ performance and cost. Key to addressing both concerns are the materials from which solar cells are made.

Seeking an alternative to silicon

Silicon solar cells represent 90 percent of the solar cell market. Because silicon is a costly material to use in manufacturing, it keeps the price of solar cells high. A low-cost alternative is cadmium telluride (CdTe), which outperforms silicon in real-world conditions, such as low light and hot, humid weather. CdTe also boasts a lower carbon footprint. The downside: Its performance is limited.

For decades, the maximum voltage available from a CdTe solar cell was fixed, making it less energy efficient than silicon-based cells. This practical limit was imposed by the quality of CdTe materials.

Breaking a longstanding barrier

Working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Dr. Lynn’s team discovered a way to grow CdTe crystals that enabled precise control over purity and composition. His approach enabled fabrication of CdTe solar cells that made them nearly as efficient as silicon-based cells. The innovation establishes new research paths for developing solar cells that are more efficient and provide electricity at lower cost than fossil fuels.

Dr. Lynn’s research was funded through the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the solar industry and make solar energy cost-competitive with traditional energy sources.

Shape-shifting material advances the Internet of Things

Mike Kessler and student in lab

Scientist develop the first material with multiple responsive behaviors

Imagine airplanes and roads that self-heal after exterior damage. Imagine wearing clothes that monitor your health needs. Innovations like these require smart materials, which not only capture and analyze data, but change in response to findings.

Smart materials are the building blocks of the Internet of Things—a network of objects embedded with electronics, software, and connectivity. This network produces enormous volumes of actionable data.

While there are barriers to overcome before smart materials hit the mainstream, a recent discovery made at WSU will accelerate their advancement.

New kind of smart material

A team led by Mike Kessler and Yuzhan Li, both in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, developed the first material that incorporates multiple responsive behaviors. This multifunctional smart material can change shape when exposed to heat or light. It can assemble and disassemble itself. A provisional patent has been filed on the work.

In partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the team worked with a class of cross-linked polymers called liquid crystalline networks (LCNs), which combine unique properties of both liquid crystals and polymer networks. Taking advantage of the way the material changes in response to heat, the researchers induced a unique three-way shape shifting behavior. They added groups of atoms that react to polarized light and used dynamic chemical bonds to improve the material’s reprocessing abilities.

The resulting material reacts to light, can remember its shape as it folds and unfolds, and can heal itself when damaged. Further development of this material may change the future of transportation, infrastructure, and health care.

Leading the way in material science discovery

Dr. Kessler leads a research center that unites universities, industry, and government to develop bioplastics and biocomposites. He is also training the next generation of material scientists through an undergraduate research program funded by the National Science Foundation.

Transforming the U.S. power grid

Automating electricity transfer across the state based on need

To harness renewable resources and mitigate power outages, America needs to evolve the “Smart Grid,” the computer-automated network that distributes electricity nationwide. WSU’s Energy System Innovation Center is answering the challenge.

The Center is part of the first regional effort to collect renewable energy and share it among buildings across the state. Development of energy-sharing capability will make power distribution more flexible and cost effective.

Smart distribution of electricity

The regional initiative demonstrates “transactive technology,” which uses a network of sensors, battery systems, and software to automatically adjust energy loads. Decisions to adjust are based on pre-determined criteria such as energy prices, essential services, comfort levels, time of day, electricity available, and more.

WSU’s collaborators in the project include Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and University of Washington (UW). The project will pilot transactive energy management across their three campus locations. For example, if the equipment that turns energy into electricity for UW were to become overloaded, Seattle City Light could signal UW to reduce its power consumption momentarily.

Storing renewably generated energy for use in outages

Transactive technology also optimizes use of renewable energy sources. WSU will integrate solar panels into Pullman’s “Smart City” test bed, a living laboratory for automating electricity distribution. The solar panels will also become part of WSU’s microgrid system, a locally based, electricity producing power grid that can communicate with the power company.

The newly added solar panels will communicate automatically with generators at WSU, as well as with a unique, one megawatt energy storage battery in Pullman. The campus system will communicate automatically with electric meters at both PNNL and UW campuses. Researchers aim to store solar energy in the battery, so that it can be put to use automatically in the event of a power outage at any of the three campuses.

The U.S. Department of Energy and Washington State Department of Commerce are supporting the demonstration project.

The haptic touch

Two new patented inventions by Hakan Gurocak can help advance the digital experience.

One difference between hands-on experiences and digital experiences is the sense of touch. When you shop at a retail store, for example, you can handle an item before you buy it. But when you shop online, you only see a picture of it.

Technology that conveys a sense of touch—called haptics—currently is used in the automotive industry, in medical training, in videogames and even on your smartphone’s keypad. But it has not spread to everyday use.

Hakan Gurocak, director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University Vancouver, is out to change that.

Gurocak recently received his first two U.S. patents, both designed to overcome some longstanding technical challenges and make haptics technology more practical. The patents are a step toward haptic interfaces—possibly something wearable, like a type of glove—that will expand applications of the technology.

Haptics has great potential to improve our quality of life. For instance, while robotic surgery is already in use, it is limited by the lack of what’s called “force feedback” to the surgeon. Haptic technology can provide that feedback, ultimately enabling the surgeon to “feel” inside the patient’s body as he interacts with tissue while operating the surgical robot.

The future of haptic technology depends on continuing training of new inventors with new ideas, and that is happening at WSU Vancouver. Gurocak’s former graduate students are listed as co-inventors on the patents. He is delighted about the beneficial “side effect” of his patents—“not only developing the technology but in the process developing a highly skilled technology workforce who got to work on these things and contributed,” Gurocak said. “Regardless of the patents, that’s what universities do.”

Helping the elderly stay independent longer

Homes outfitted with artificial intelligence keep a watchful eye on residents

By the year 2020, more than 70 million Americans will be at least 60 years old. Almost all of them will prefer to live in their homes, living independently as long as possible. This creates a host of challenges as older people can struggle with daily tasks, have safety concerns, and have difficulty taking care of daily needs without assistance.

Diane Cook, director of the Smart Homes Project in the Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems, is working to meet these challenges by designing homes that, in effect, think.

As Cook pointed out in a perspective in the journal Science, off-the-shelf technology already exists to monitor movements in a home, read light and temperature levels, and both monitor and record the use of appliances. She designs computer software that can gather this data and use artificial intelligence to discern patterns and trends. It unobtrusively tends to residents’ comfort, conserves resources, reminds residents of important tasks, and looks after the residents’ health and safety.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and Washington State’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund, Cook has been applying artificial intelligence in test homes since coming to Washington State University in 2006. Sites around the Northwest, including 18 apartments in Seattle, already show that the technology can help monitor aging-in-place elderly residents and alert caregivers if they are not completing ordinary activities like rising, eating, bathing, and taking medications.

Fending off quantum computer cyberattacks

Mathematician creates a hack-proof online security system

In April, 2015, an IBM researcher leading the company’s effort to build a quantum computer wrote, “We’re entering what will come to be seen as the golden age of quantum computing research.” If and when a practical quantum computer becomes reality, it will both revolutionize digital technology and create a tool of phenomenal hacking power.

Internet security is no match for a quantum computer, which can quickly factor the large numbers used in computer encryption to protect email and online transactions. But using high-level number theory and cryptography, Washington State University mathematician Nathan Hamlin has reworked a famous old cipher called the knapsack code to create an online security system immune to hacking.

The knapsack problem, a theoretical puzzle dating back to the 19th Century, was considered as a potential encryption tool in the 1970s but was discarded after being broken. Hamlin made several corrections to the code and engineered new numbering systems for it, using alternate ways of representing numbers. In effect, he and his colleagues created new digital systems with much greater complexity than those used today.

The result is a new version of the code that can’t be broken by the usual cyber-attack methods and is a viable encryption alternative for quantum computing.

Creating jobs through sustainable building technologies

Cross-laminated timber could invigorate the regional economy

Buildings stand among the nation’s leading producers of greenhouse gases. To blame is the energy used to operate them and the carbon-heavy materials required to construct them. With populations increasingly shifting toward urban centers, construction will only continue. Reducing emissions created by urban growth will require rethinking our built environment.

Much of that rethinking is happening at WSU, where architecture and engineering scholars are designing future skylines made of wood. Not often used in today’s urban infrastructures, wood is a renewable resource. It can be sustainably forested and manufactured into panels that have high-performance properties comparable to those of mainstream construction materials.

Interdisciplinary research teams supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation are developing manufacturing supply chains and improving performance of cross-laminated timber, or CLT. Heavy CLT panels are manufactured with wood that would otherwise pose fire and pest hazards. The panels have 3 main benefits: they improve local forest health, sequester carbon, and reduce construction times.

The economic impact of these WSU innovations have the potential to be felt throughout the Pacific Northwest. Wood materials needed to manufacture CLT can be sourced from Washington forests. Researchers Don Dolan and Mike Wolcott are leading teams to scout and develop the rural-to-urban supply chains that would make manufacturing possible, as well as developing guidelines that will help builders make broader use the material. The teams are also developing new technology to improve panel performance and capabilities.

WSU is teaming with industry and civic leaders in Washington to rejuvenate sawmills and create new jobs in rural towns where logging once thrived. Dr. Wolcott is on the leadership committee of a CLT coalition convened by Forterra, the largest land, conservation, stewardship and community building organization in the state. The coalition aims to bring CLT to Washington by reducing technical barriers, incentivizing produces and users of engineering wood products, and generating public and private investment.

Aerial technology takes to the fields

Many roles emerge for unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture

As the global population rises, farmers will be expected to produce more food with less water, fewer fertilizers and pesticides, and a dwindling workforce. WSU researchers see part of the solution in the sky: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Widely known for their defense applications, UAVs could be a boon to agriculture. Lav Khot, assistant professor in precision agriculture at the Center for Precision and Automated Agriculture Systems in Prosser, works with colleagues to lay the groundwork for widespread use of UAVs in the fields.

Dr. Khot has partnered with Digital Harvest, a developer of crop-management technology, and vehicle manufacturer Yamaha Motor Corp. Together they are testing the ability of Yamaha’s mid-sized unmanned helicopter to blow rainwater from Washington cherry orchards. Rainwater cracks the fruit and can devastate up to 90 percent of a cherry crop. Current methods of removing rainwater with manned helicopters are dangerous and expensive.

Next season, the team will also test surgical spraying capabilities of the unmanned helicopter. The technology could help growers save resources by more precisely applying chemicals and nutrients.

In addition, Dr. Khot and colleague Sindhuja Sankaran, also an expert in agricultural automation engineering, will test the performance of UAVs outfitted with sensors. Sensors could play many roles in agriculture: monitoring the health of crops, assessing water use and irrigation scheduling, and optimizing nutrient applications. The tests will also help crop breeders to quickly determine the success of a new cultivar bred for diverse conditions such as drought.

The FAA is cautiously approving use of commercial drones in farming. In the meantime, WSU researchers can responsibly and independently test UAVs and sensors. Once the technology passes the tests, we may see its wider adoption by the farming community.

Washington State University