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Tech Tour Day Four: Just Another Incredible Saturday Of MTU Research

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Michigan Tech's Ezra Bar-Ziv getting his hands a little dirty, making biocoal out of tree bark.

Michigan Tech’s Ezra Bar-Ziv getting his hands a little dirty, making biocoal out of tree bark.

HOUGHTON (WWJ) – Most Michigan universities only get one day on the Fall Tech Tour. But I always give Michigan Technological University two.

Maybe it’s the fact that it takes 11 hours to get up here, 600 miles from Motown. Maybe it’s because I love the North Woods scenery.

Or maybe, as was the case Saturday in nine (count ‘em, nine) meetings, it’s because they have so many amazing things to show off.

My day started bright and early with breakfast at the Suomi Restaurant with my host, Jen Donovan of university communications, and John B. Lehman, associate vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications at MTU.

Like a lot of people, Lehman moved up here for what he thought was a short-term stay, so his wife could get a Ph.D. A graduate of Eastern Michigan University, he started working with MTU’s pre-college programs when he got up here, and now he’s been here eight years.

Lehman said one of his major goals is to boost women’s enrollment — a challenging task at what started out as the Michigan School of Mines. But it’s up to 26 percent now, and the goal is 35 percent by 2020.

“The big question women have coming up here is ‘will there be a social network of other women to connect with?”” Lehman said. MTU allays those fears by setting up a pen pal program for prospective women students.

Tech’s current enrollment is just under 7,000 students, 5,600 undergrads and 1,350 grad students — the latter, a number that has exploded in recent years.

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Well fortified with panukakku, we headed for the office of Joshua M. Pearce, associate professor of materials science and engineering, and guru of MTU’s efforts in the explosively growing field of 3D printing.

Pearce, a Penn State graduate and solar energy maven, got interested in 3D printing when working on the One Laptop Per Child project in the late ’00s. When making a solar module for the inexpensive laptops, Pearce said he realized that the module would cost more than the laptop. He used a 3D printer to begin making the solar cell prototypes — cutting their cost, he said, from $1,000 to $5.

Today, Pearce said, a $475 do-it-yourself 3D printer can make the same stuff that used to require a $400,000 rapid prototyping machine.

Pearce’s efforts today are directed at spreading the gospel of science through using 3D printers to make science laboratory gear, so that every school on the planet can have a decently equipped science lab — for pennies.

For example, Pearce has used a 3D printer to make a nephelometer — a device that measures water turbidity and other factors — that costs thousands of dollars for less than $100.

Pearce has a local company involved in this effort, NECI, a Lake Linden company that sells enzyme kits that test for nitrates in water or soil. 3D printing can sharply cut the cost of the photometer required to analyze the test results.

Pearce is about to publish a book through the science publishing house Elsevier, Open Source Lab, that shows educators how to use 3D printing to set up a science lab.

“My goal is to have an open source, 3D printable tool across the entire spectrum of scientific tools,” he said. For example, he said, high schools can now set up an optics lab that used to cost $15,000 for $500.

“This will really help us on the science education front, because now everybody will have access to laboratory grade scientific tools,” he said.

Oh, and by the way, open source 3D printing is also leading to someone actually making a tricorder. Yes, like on Star Trek — with dozens of instruments packed into a small portable case.

Pearce also believes 3D printers will soon be in every home, pointing to a study he conducted last year of 3D printing everyday household goods, like a shower head. He said that for less than $20 in plastic and electricity, he 3D printed $2,000 worth of household goods. “So you could pay for a printer within a year by just printing those 20 things,” he said.

And the materials 3D printers can use are getting more flexible — literally, spreading into softer polymers, ceramics and metals.
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My next stop was at Michigan Tech’s remarkable $25 million, 50,000-square-foot Great Lakes Research Center, with Guy A. Meadows, its director, and Nina Mahmoudian, an assistant professor and research scientist at the center.

The center is home to 25 faculty members from seven different departments and three different colleges of the university, and is about to celebrate its first anniversary.

“We are working on everything from water policy to advanced underwater vehicles,” Meadows said.

That’s where Mahmoudian and a $300,000 submersible robot comes in. She’s director of the Nonlinear and Autonomous System Laboratory in the Mechanical Engineering – Engineering Mechanics department at Michigan Tech, where she develops algorithms to make the autonomous submersible vehicle smarter in dealing with problems like collision avoidance.

Mahmoudian was trained as an aerospace engineer in Iran and did her Ph.D. work on underwater gliders at Virginia Tech.

Made by a Massachusetts company, Ocean Server, the submersible was donated by Enbridge, the Canadian oil pipeline operator, and its Job One was to study the condition of the 1950s-vintage 20-inch oil pipeline that runs through the straits of Mackinac, roughly parallel to the Mackinac Bridge.

“We want to know if the sediments that cover parts of the pipeline have been recently moving, and what the events are that cause things to move,” she said.

MTU plans to study the pipeline four times a year — a vastly superior schedule to the old inspections, which took place once every five years. Part of what allows for more frequent inspections is the speed with which the submersible can conduct them — two and a half hours, vs. three to four weeks with a tugboat and barge towing a camera.

The vehicle “flies” five meters above the lake bottom, offset 15 meters from the pipeline, at a brisk walking pace of three miles an hour.

Meadows said Enbridge approached MTU after its much-publicized Kalamazoo River oil leak, “and wanted to know if there were things Michigan Tech could do to make pipelines safer. We proposed this concept of moving to advanced underwater testing.”

The device has also been tested in the pipelines that cross the Portage Waterway separating Houghton and Hancock, also inspecting the foundations of the only bridge crossing the waterway, the Houghton Lift Bridge.

And the vehicle will be put to use next summer searching a backwater of the Portage Waterway called Torch Lake, which is contaminated with PCBs thought to be from the transformers of temporary coal power plants set up along the shoreline to process ore during the copper boom of the 19th Century.

A brief visit from a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel last summer identified 200 targets in Torch Lake that will be studied by the submersible.

“They believe that when the mining companies dismantled the power plants, they used horse-drawn carts to push all of the equipment out on the ice in the winter and just let it sink,” Meadows said.

The research center is also home to a new supercomputer, with 1,200 processors in parallel, that now has simulations of four of the five Great Lakes running in its gargantuan memory. Meadows said the supercomputer will allow the lab to make much better predictions of currents, water temperatures, wave heights and lake levels. They’ll even be able to predict the treacherous currents in the Straits of Mackinac — sometimes the water flows toward Lake Michigan, sometimes toward Lake Huron.

And, with its community education hat on, the lab was also home to visits from 1,600 K-12 students in its first year.

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My next visit was to Jaroslaw “Jarek” Drelich and his Ph.D. student, Patrick Bowen, who are working on new technology for the stents used to open clogged arteries.

Drelich, a native of Poland, came to Tech from the University of Utah in 1997 to teach mineral processing. That wasn’t exactly his field — he was always interested in surfaces, their characterization and modification — but he took one look at the Houghton area, “and I saw all these lakes and forests, and I thought this is exactly what it looks like in Poland where I am from. In Utah, I
was sick of the hot summers. And my passion is fishing, and in Utah when I went to the lakes, what I caught mostly was carp.”

After Michigan Tech scaled back its mining technology programs, Drelich began working on advanced materials — specifically, bioabsorbable materials, especially cardiovascular stents.

Stents are metal lattices inserted in clogged coronary arteries to open them. But after a while, they tend to cause more problems, like clotting and scar tissues. Stents with coatings of drugs to solve that problem only delay it. So science has been searching for a stent that can support the coronary artery until it’s strong enough to stay open on its own, and then be absorbed by the body. Bowen, a native of Whitehall, has been assisting Drelich in this effort for five years, through his undergraduate and graduate education.

Early efforts with magnesium and iron alloys have been unsuccessful — magnesium degrades too quickly, iron literally rusts in the body. The scientists heard about researchers using a bit of zinc in the magnesium — and then, to their surprise, realized no one had tried a stent made out of pure zinc.

Early experiments in the laboratory and in rats are promising — zinc itself helps keep coronary arteries from calcifying. They’re still studying what to add to the zinc as alloys. The two scientists are working with biomedical engineering professor Jeremy Goldman on the effort and are in talks with medical device companies.

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Then, I headed to the famous Houghton brewpub The Library for lunch with Jen Donovan, Michigan Tech president Glenn Mroz, assistant director for technology commercialization John F. Diebel, and David Reed, vice president for research. Not much news to report here, just a lot of fun catching up on Tech’s enrollment, sports teams, and its place in the Keweenaw community.

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My next visit was polymer expert Patricia A. Heiden, who came to Tech in 1994 after finishing her Ph.D. from the University of Akron. She said she was looking for a place to teach that was small enough to be “collegial” while still supporting a lot of research. She said of Tech: “This place has everything but good gardening. The season here is awfully short, and it resembles mining” because of all the rock in the Keweenaw soil.

Today, Heiden is working on a variety of bio-based materials to try to replace petroleum with natural materials while retaining the properties of petroleum-based plastics.

Included are controlled-release fungicides for decking and other wood materials, partially soy-based polyurethanes, and nanoparticles that have the ability to target cancer cells only for the delivery of chemotherapy. She’s also working on bio-based materials involving something other than wood.

“In North America we have lots of wood, but most of the world doesn’t,” she said. “But they have lots of rice, so we’re using rice hulls as a feedstock. It’s just like sawdust.” Working with her on this effort is Dana Richter in MTU’s forest resources and environmental science program.

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Next, I had the good fortune to meet Eugene Levin, a Russian expert in geographic information systems.

A native of Novosibirsk, Siberia, he graduated from the Siberian State Geodetic Academy with a major in astrogeodetics — planetary science. He worked for a state science institute in Russia, then taught at a university in Omsk, before moving to Israel in 1995. At that point, Levin said, he worked six years for the Israeli Air Force on projects he said are still classified, then moved to Los Angeles. Then, he said, “Michigan Tech made me an offer which I was not able to reject,” setting up a teaching program in integrated geospatial technology beginning in 2007.

He said he’s interested in integration of knowledge, the fusion of sciences, like remote sensing and image analysis and geographic information systems.

“This program is flexible — there are no required courses,” Levin said. “People from all over the world are interested in this program. We have people from Europe, India, everywhere. A student from Turkey is working on underground mapping of oil in the Black Sea.”

And then there’s Ioakeim Tellidis, a master’s student of Levin’s from Greece, who’s working on an advanced unmanned aerial vehicle.

Tellidis’ UAV costs less than $2,000 and takes pictures with a two-inch resolution from 300 feet in the sky. It has a 50-minute flight time.

“We can  use it almost everywhere,” Levin said. “Transportation — you can estimate how bad is a road and you can act before the problem causes an accident. Agriculture, floods, fires, you just name it. These are the good things. You can use it also for surveillance.”

A fascinating visit. But there was one more thing I just had to know for the guy from Siberia. How do the Keweenaw’s famous winters compare to Siberia?

“Winters here are like spring in Siberia, but I never saw so much snow in the world, anyplace, and I’ve been a lot of places,” Levin said.

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My next visit was with professor Paul L. Bergstrom, director of MTU’s Multi Scale Technologies Institute, and Thomas Daunais of Muskegon, who just finished his Ph.D.

The Multi Scale Technologies Institute is an MTU institute that covers technologies that span the scale from nanoscale to everyday-world scale. Bergstrom started at the University of Michigan working on micro- and nanoscale sensors, then worked for Motorola on sensors, before coming to Michigan Tech in 2000.

Since then, Michigan Tech has had several major federal grants to develop a nanotech and electronics fabrication lab, including a $6 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop nanoscale electronics for sensors and other applications, and a $7 million National Science Foundation grant to work with the University of Michigan to develop micro- and nanoscale technologies.

Michigan Tech has what Bergstrom called a “modest clean room facility,” 5,000 square feet of lab space of which about 500 square feet is actual clean room (though it’s about to be expanded to 1,500 square feet) — a far cry from UM’s $60 million, 12,000-square-foot clean room.

But Bergstrom said that while UM works mostly building already understood nanotech devices, MTU tends to work in more esoteric materials — magneto-optic iron garnets, or transparent conducting oxides, or silver, which he said tends to migrate in electronics and cause problems. (All of those have unique properties and are not commonly used in nanotech. I wish I could tell you what they are, but you can’t get to everything in one brief
interview.)

Michigan Tech scientists use the lab to fabricate a wide variety of nanotech with possible commercial applications, including tunable optical wave guides and “slow light” materials — materials that appear to slow down the velocity of light passing through them, to the point where you can trap or manipulate photons and create switches with them.

Possible applications include advanced blood analysis sensors and miniaturized scientific elements like gas chromatographs.
Daunais’ Ph.D. work involves a technique called nanowire sensing, which can be used to create devices that can measure parts per quadrillion in samples.

That could lead to earlier detection of diseases from blood samples, diseases that we now often detect to late to do anything to treat them, like pancreatic cancer.

Said Bergstrom: “Tom has said he can make a business out of this. Liquid biochemical sensing has the most promise leading toward applications that there seems to be a need for.”

Daunais has created a company, Upland Nanotech, to work on the technology and is in talks with medical device companies.

In nanowire sensing, a tiny wire is laid across different media, and different materials change the resistance of the wire in consistent, measurable ways.

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And you know what they say about saving the best for last? Well, I don’t mean to demean anybody else, but the Michigan Tech tour ended with an incredible visit with Ezra Bar-Ziv, whom I visited two years ago when he was still developing a technique to make “biocoal” out of material like wood waste, wheat chaff, agricultural waste — even garbage.

Two years later, Bar-Ziv has a pilot plant at Michigan Tech’s Advanced Power Systems Research Center, a 55,000-square-foot former snowplow factory. At that plant, he’s making biocoal out of a wide variety of feedstocks through a process called torification — heating up materials without oxygen being present.

The “torifier,” Bar-Ziv said, “turns the biomass into whatever kind of coal you need — brown coal, sub-bituminous coal, bituminous coal. It’s all a factor of time and temperature, no pressure is needed.”

That raw coal is ground into a powder — in a nitrogen-only atmosphere, so there’s no chance of fire — and then compressed into briquet-like chunks of coal.

Bar-Ziv has created companies in the United States and Israel, both called EB Clean Energy, to pursue the technology, which is about to be tested in Oregon, which has banned coal power plants in the state effective in 2020.

“Right now there is a $6 million experiment being carried out near Portland to produce 10,000 to 15,000 tons of biocoal to run a boiler for a week,” he said. He’s also in talks with Michigan State University to use the biocoal in its power plant.

Bar-Ziv says his biocoal is still more expensive than mined coal — $150 a ton for the former, $25 to $50 a ton for the latter. But he said the price could come down depending on the cost of the feedstock.

Bar-Ziv said he’s trying to get audiences with operators of coal power plants to get them to test his biocoal. “I think we have a pretty compelling argument,” he said.

Bar-Ziv is a veteran of the federal government’s I-Corps program, which gets entrepreneurs receiving federal Small Business Technology Transfer and Small Business Innovation Research grants to do more to identify potential customers. He said the process taught him that smaller utilities would probably be more willing to try biocoal, rather than larger utilities, which have more flexibility to meet renewable generation standards in other ways.

Bar-Ziv is also working with another MTU professor, David Shonnard, to study refining biocoal into bio-gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel.

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So here I sit, sometime after 10 p.m. on Saturday at the Magnuson Franklin Square Inn in Houghton, having had my head blown off by amazing technology in the farthest reaches of the North Woods for two straight days. Sunday will be a travel day, as I drive the eight hours from Houghton to Bay City and Monday’s tour stop at Saginaw Valley State University. And all I can
say is, you other universities better step up your game. Michigan Tech has some absolutely amazing stuff going on — particularly for a school with less than 7,000 students.

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