MSU Tech Tour: Super Spartan Innovations

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MSU professor Nizar Lajnef explains self-powered pavement and bridge sensors to WWJ tech editor Matt Roush. MSU photo / Pat Mroczek.

MSU professor Nizar Lajnef explains self-powered pavement and bridge sensors to WWJ tech editor Matt Roush. MSU photo / Pat Mroczek.

EAST LANSING (WWJ) – Michigan State University’s mascot-based motto these days is “Spartans Will.”

Well, I can tell you, on a Tech Tour-style visit to the MSU campus Friday, Spartans will… knock your socks off with their research and entrepreneurship ideas.

My day began at Spartan Innovations, one of several MSU entrepreneurial, high-tech and business incubator offices on the third floor of the former Jacobson’s Department Store building across Grand River Avenue from the historic original MSU campus.

I met with three of five recent MSU Innovation Center spinout candidates, each with a unique high-tech business idea.

First was Shu-Guang Li, an MSU professor and chief scientific officer of Hydrosimulatics, a fascinating geographic information systems play on what’s been described as the oil of the 21st Century — clean fresh water.

Li described Hydrosimulatics as “Google water,” a display system based on Google Maps of huge federal, state and local databases of groundwater and pollution information.

“It’s a platform technology for modeling and simulation focused on groundwater,” Li said. “The program is linked to massive databases and allows us to zoom in to the information in that database. We can map how water moves around, how chemicals in the water move around. Users can add their own data to the platform to improve the analysis — it’s combining social networking, social media, and big data.”

The data analyzed and displayed by Hydrosimulatics comes from a wide variety of sources — federal and state agencies, universities and more.

Li ran me through several examples of how the information could be used, from mapping drinking water supply zones to characterizing the movement of groundwater contamination plumes to predicting water table declines from unsustainable overuse.

Li said the company is now looking for investors and a CEO with a business background.

More at http://www.hydrosimulatics.com.

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Next up was Robert Fulk, one of Spartan Innovations’ CEOs-In-Residence, and the latest project he’s taken over, Courseweaver, a platform that links the high school and college course management industry with the educational and learning content industry.

Courseweaver had its origins in the mid-1990s, when MSU developed an assessment, testing and homework engine for physics and mathematics classes. In 2000 MSU got a National Science Foundation grant of more than $4 million to develop it into a complete learning management system.

Today, Courseweaver builds itself as a learning content marketplace, and it’s currently in use by a couple of hundred educational institutions and more than 200,000 students.

Said Fulk: “The problem is, when you’re a professor, you have multiple textbooks from multiple publishers. You have multiple paper and online coursepack publishers, ebooks, tutoring material, and your university’s homemade or off-the-shelf learning management system. It’s a fractured mess. Even electronic resources like e-course packs don’t solve the problem when you want to teach a course.”

Fulk said CourseWeaver is the solution to that fractured mess. And besides creating a democratic market for course content (called “learning objects”) from individuals and publishers, it also provides realtime dashboard analytics to monitor whether or not students are mastering the material in near-real time.

Fulk is CEO of the newly created CourseWeaver Corp., which is raising about $4 million to hire more developers to complete the next generation of the system and market it.

“We’re also looking for key people for our team and our board,” Fulk said.

The company has one major patent and several others protecting its system.

More about CourseWeaver and Gerd Koremeyer, chief scientific officer, at this link. http://www.crunchbase.com/company/courseweaver

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Finally I spoke to Pablo Parraga-Ramirez of Shock Engineworks, a company that’s a spinout of professor Norbert Mueller’s MSU engine development lab.

Parraga-Ramirez, a recent Ph.D. graduate of MSU, agreed to take over as the company’s CEO after taking an entrepreneurship course at MSU, “and I decided that this is what I want to do with my life.”

Essentially, Shock Engineworks is developing a new take on the turbine engine, called the “wave disc engine,” in which combustion occurs between the vanes of the turbine itself.

It allows turbines to be made much smaller than they are today, Parraga-Ramirez said.

“Gas turbines are hard to scale down because they have too many losses in the combustor and the compressor,” he said. “We compensate for that by not having a combustor and doing combustion in the turbine, and helping compression with the shock waves. Usually shock waves are not desired in turbines, but we flip it around and use them to our advantage.”

The first market for the engine will be the commercial unmanned aerial vehicle market — the growing number of small unmanned aircraft that do everything from monitor livestock herds and field crops to search for forest fires.

“If we can make it in the UAV market, will be very easy for us to move on to portable power, hybrid cars, backup power for wind and solar,” he said. “We’re also exploring using methane from landfills to run it.”

Parraga-Ramirez said the engines could be on the market in three to five years. The company is now seeking federal grants from the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

The wave disk engine has its own Wikipedia page here.

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From Spartan Innovations, it was off to MSU’s latest world-class entry in particle physics, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. There, FRIB project manager Thomas Glasmacher told me, the FRIB is inching closer to a late 2020 opening, with construction on the scientific portion of the instrument set to begin next year, assuming Congress can get its act together and pass either a budget or a special appropriation.

“We have 1,369 registered users from 55 countries ready to start doing world class science,” he said. “FRIB is getting real now. We’re actually doing, which is nice after four years of making plans.”

The FRIB will be used almost constantly through a peer review process for research proposals. “You’ll apply for time, the request will be peer reviewed by scientists, and if it’s found to be worthy you will get facility time,” Glasmacher said. “If you promise to publish your findings the time is free. If you want to do proprietary research you pay.”

The FRIB will be a linear accelerator, using 400 kilowatts of electricity and strong magnetic fields to accelerate atomic particles to half the speed of light — and then smash those speeding particles into stationary targets. The resulting collisions and their debris can do everything from inform scientists about conditions of the early universe just after the Big Bang to create new isotopes of materials that are useful in medical treatment and diagnostics.

Glasmacher said the FRIB will be up to 1,000 times as powerful as MSU’s existing National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory.

When it opens, the FRIB will have 450 permanent employees. Metro Detroit’s Barton-Malow and Smith Group are running the contruction project.

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From the FRIB, it was a brisk walk on a beautiful crisp fall day to MSU’s engineering college complex, where I met with Nizar Lajnef, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who leads a team creating smart, self-powered sensors that report on the health of bridges and pavement.

Lajnef said the sensors generate power from the vibration and strain of the bridges and pavement in which they are embedded. The devices communicate wirelessly in the 915 mhz radio band to moving sensors that can be embedded on vehicles — and the communication is so fast, it can take place at highway speeds.

The sensors look for changes in the strains experienced by pavements and bridges. Those changes can indicate deterioration of the bridge or pavement.

“If you can detect the onset of damage before it shows on the surface, you can do a better job of planning for repair,” Lajnef said. “The problem with determining the health of a bridge is getting the right sensors. Bridges will cry when they are hurt.”

The bridge sensors are small discs that will be installed under the pavement surface. The pavement sensors can be built in several shapes and sizes, from a small six-inch metal object shaped like an H to a small sphere.

Lajnef began the sensor project as part of his doctoral research in 2008. It is now a national project that has generated one United States patent, three more patent applications, and three federal Department of Transportation grants totaling $1.7 million.

Lajnef estimated that the first prototype sensors will be installed in roads and bridges in three to five years. The first prototype, already authorized by the Michigan Department of Transportation, is to be installed on a bridge close to the MSU campus.

Longer term, Lajnef is working on similar self-powered sensors to measure strains on human bones and joints to monitor the health of replacement knees and hips. That work hasn’t yet attracted any funding and is a “side project,” Lajnef said.

More about the project at this link. http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2013/street-smarts-monitors-watch-for-road-bridge-defects/

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Continuing in the vein of pavement was Dr. Karim Chatti, acting associate dean for research at MSU’s College of Engineering and a professor of civil and environmental engineering who has a 20-year track record of research into advanced pavement materials.

The Pavement Engineering Group in the department has just been awarded a Tier 1 University Transportation Center designation by the U.S. Department of Transportaiton, one of just 20 such centers nationwide. Most such centers study specific modes of transportation. But MSU’s will be different — it will be the only one focused exclusively on pavement and its preservation.

“The goal is to bring new science to pavement preservation,” Chatti said. “Think of it as being like medicine, the prevention of problems. It will focus on innovative materials that can protect an existing pavement — self sensing, self healing materials — as well as health monitoring — the earlier we detect things, the less expensive it will be to fix things.”

The center will also analyze pavement performance data, making pavement management and economic analysis.

The Center for Highway Pavement Preservation will receive $1.41 million in its first year and is expected to receive similar levels of funding for up to four years. The other universities in the center are the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Minnesota, North Carolina A&T State University, and the University of Hawaii.

There will be six faculty from MSU engineering who now work on pavement technology working for the center, as well as other faculty in materials science and chemistry.

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I ended my visit to MSU with a meeting with the university’s Women In Computing group, led by computer science professor Laura Dillon, Women in Engineering program coordinator Judith M. Cordes and Teresa Isela Vandersloot, an academic advising specialist in the Department of Computer Science.

The group seeks to foster more women getting into engineering, especially in male-dominated industries like the car business, and conducts high school outreach and seminars for high school science teachers.

With Michigan Technological University and Oakland University, it also sponsors a program called the Aspirations Award in which high school girls write an essay about why they want to go into computing. They vie for state and national prizes and scholarships.

And with the Peace Corps, Women in Computing is developing a program for next summer in Rwanda to train teachers as well as girls from the African countryside in computer technology.

Three MSU students, Women in Computing members, also attended, telling me about their career plans. Thanks for a fun visit and some interesting tales, Kait Davis, a senior from Port Huron, Erin Hoffman, a junior from Indianapolis, and Danielle Valerie Guir, a senior from Windsor, Ontario, all computer science majors. I wish you luck, even though I don’t think you’ll need it, not with all those predictions of too many job openings and too few computer scientists in America in the years ahead.

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My MSU visit will pretty much wrap up my fall Tech Tour season — I’ve hit all of the state’s big public science schools, either on the official tour, or on Friday visits. And what I can tell you is, the state of this state in science education is amazingly strong. So many people doing fascinating science with so much potential to spin off into great new companies and jobs. Trust me, if you’re really worried about America’s and Michigan’s future, just visit the engineering classrooms of a good university. We’ve got problems as a society, sure, on everything from energy to other resources to agriculture to coping with climate change. But no worries — the kids are on it.

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