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Tech Tour Day Three: An Opening Bit Of Michigan Tech

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Come to college, learn to fly. Just ask Michigan Tech student Paige Borel.

Come to college, learn to fly. Just ask Michigan Tech student Paige Borel.

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HOUGHTON (WWJ) – One of the many things I love about the Tech Tour is that it gives me an excuse to visit Michigan’s magnificent Upper Peninsula in October.

Trees ablaze with color, a crisp nip to the air, the waters of Lake Superior a deep cobalt blue.

Well, usually. Friday it was more like gray sky, gray water, drizzle that threatens to turn into wet snow, and aside from a nice patch of crimson hardwoods around Munising, mousy tans with a few yellows on the trees. Must have been the weather this summer.

Good thing the amazing technology I saw Friday afternoon at Michigan Technological University made up for the trip Friday morning from St. Ignace.

The first official visit of the tour was with Yoke Khin Yap, a professor of physics, who is working on nanomaterials fabricated of carbon, boron and nitrogen.

Yap said nanotubes of boron nitride have very different properties — indeed, some opposite properties — from better-known carbon nanotubes. For one thing, boron nitride is an insulator, not a conductor.

In Yap’s lab at Michigan Tech, he and students are using a laser to deposit microscopic quantum dots of gold on boron a nitride nanotube. The dots are so small that one electron at a time can hop from dot to dot across the insulating boron nitride material. This tiny assembly can be used as an electronic switch — essentially, a transistor. It has predictable reactions to different electric currents.

As the IEEE put it when describing Yap’s work, everybody is talking about going beyond silicon in electronics, but Yap is looking beyond semiconductors themselves.

Yap said he believes electronics can be made using this technology in five to 10 years.

Yap is also pursuing using another property of boron nitride nanotubes — they conduct heat really well. Yap says he wants to see if the nanotubes can be mixed into insulating plastics to conduct heat away from high-powered electronics and battery packs, which would have applications in the auto industry (he’s already talked to Bosch and Continental about this).

Farther down the road, Yap said, is using boron nitride nanotubes to deliver drugs into single cells.

Yap has created a spinoff company, Nano Innovations, to pursue his nanotech work.

Yap is a native of Malaysia who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur. He earned his Ph.D. on a full scholarship to Osaka University in Japan in 1999, and was later a scientist at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization. He was recruited to Michigan Tech in 2002 and got tenure as an associate professor in 2006. He has more than 200 professional publications.

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On my second visit at Michigan Tech Friday, I watched a woman fly.

Seriously. Literally.

Well, okay, she was wearing a harness and was hoisted above the stage at Michigan Tech’s biggest auditorium, the 1,100-seat Rosza Center, by some pretty burly male students. But still, it sure looked like flying to me.

Kalen Larson, assistant professor of theatre technology at Michigan Tech, has brought training in a very specialized theatrical skill — flying effects — to Michigan Tech, making it one of a handful of places on earth where it’s taught.

But when you think about it, it makes sense. Flying someone across the stage is all about pulleys and mechanical advantage and vectors of force and loads. In other words, math. Just the thing for a tech school.

Larson grew up in the UP’s Escanaba and got a master of fine arts degree from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He said he was taught in theater school that flying was dangerous and risky — you just don’t do it, you call in one of the handful of companies who stage flying effects for theater companies.

But Larson said he got into flying technology after studying rigging of sound equipment, lights and other theater gear.

“I found out it wasn’t scary or horrible, it’s like rigging anything else, it’s like hanging a big speaker up, nobody’s concerned about sitting under it,” he said. “And I learned that flying was a lot of fun.”

And so Friday, I watched theatre and entertainment technology majors Thom Sullivan of Chicago, Kier Macartney of Grand Rapids and Mathew Willette of Flint yank on ropes — sometimes while jumping off ladders — offstage. That force was transferred through ropes and cables and a harness to make theater performance major Paige Borel fly around the stage like a bird.

Larson said the theatre technology education those men are getting is uniquely Michigan Tech.

“Because this is Michigan Tech, they all have to take a lot of engineering,” Larson said. “They all have to take Calculus 2.”

“Already took it,” responded a couple of the students from the stage.

“Well, there’s a lot of math involved in characterizing these forces,” Larson said. And a lot of work — Larson estimated five hours of rehearsal for every minute of flying on stage.

Some of the pulleys, pivots and other equipment used in stage flying is made by theatrical suppliers, mostly in California. Other stuff comes from the rock climbing world.

Michigan Tech’s theatre program now features flying stunts on a regular basis. And when the university recently wrapped up a capital fundraising campaign, Larson and company made none other than Michigan Tech’s mascot, Blizzard T. Husky, fly across the stage.

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My third and final stop at Michigan Tech Friday was with the new dean of the university’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Terry L. Sharik.

Sharik is leading a drive at Michigan Tech to broaden its education — and Michigan’s economic development — in biomaterials.

And that’s a lot broader than what people think when they think biomaterials — ethanol or plastics based on corn, or specialized construction products made of wood.

In fact, Sharik organized a Michigan Biomaterials Conference earlier this month in Traverse City that drew 135 people — 35 of them, Sharik said, from Michigan Tech.

The sponsors of the event also ranged farther afield than you’d think — the state departments of agriculture, natural resources and environmental quality, along with forest owners like Plum Creek, Longyear and Timber Products Corp., Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Forest Association, the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Forest Products Council, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, Wolverine Power Cooperative and more.

The event reflects the change in the school since it was the School of Forestry and Wood Products in the 1980s. Today, he said, the “big picture is managing critical issues in nature and the environment, and managing the critical array of ecosystems.”

Sharik said Michigan has underutilized its forest lands, which are No. 8 in the country and have actually grown substantially since the mid-20th Century. His Michigan Biomaterials Conference was a first step toward addressing that issue. It brought in experts from Maine, West Virginia, North Carolina and Oregon about broadening Michigan’s research and development into bioamterials.

Eventually, Sharik said, he’d like to see Michigan Tech offer a degree in biomaterials that would involve virtually all the departments in the school — forest resources for plant science, engineering for manufacturing, the business school for economics, marketing and sales, and social science to address the social aspects of the products.

Sharik is originally from western Pennsylvania and did his undergraduate work at West Virginia and his graduate work at the University of Michigan. After getting his Ph.D., he went to work at Oberlin College on the biology faculty, then performed environmental impact statements for NUS Corp. in Pittsburgh.

Then he spent 11 years on the faculty at Virginia Tech, followed by eight years at Michigan Tech — where he was also on the faculty of the UM Biological Station near Pellston. Then he went to Utah State University as department head of forest resources. That school got reorganized to recognize the increasing interdependence of forestry, economics and social issues, and Sharik because the head of the Department of Environment in Society in Utah State’s College of Natural Resources.

He said he had almost decided to retire when he got recruited back to Michigan Tech, here he became dean in July 2012. And his life has been “really high energy, demanding but very rewarding at the same time” since then.

Michigan Tech’s forestry school has 90 faculty and staff — including about 25 tenure track faculty and nearly as many other non-tenure-track research faculty and research scientists, an unusual number. There are 180 undergraduate students and 90 grad students.

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And so ended my Friday visit to Michigan Tech. Just a warmup, really — I’ve got seven more visits on the agenda for Saturday!

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