Michigan Tech Research Briefs
Drinking Water Research Leads to National Academy
John Crittenden, a presidential professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Academy membership honors Americans who have made "important contributions to engineering theory and practice" and those who have demonstrated "unusual accomplishment in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology."
Crittenden was recognized for his groundbreaking work in air- and water-treatment technologies.
"I'm happy that people have found our work to be useful, especially in developing technologies and expertise that provide safe drinking water," Crittenden said.
He and his fellow researchers in Michigan Tech's Environmental Engineering Center have developed and patented a variety of technologies that remove dangerous compounds such as benzene from drinking water supplies.
"It's an honor that he richly deserves," said Robert Warrington, Michigan Tech's dean of engineering. "Crittenden is among the finest environmental engineers in the nation, and his work and the work of his colleagues has made a difference in the lives of millions of Americans."
Crittenden is director of the EPA-sponsored National Center for Clean Industrial and Treatment Technologies (CenCITT) and associate editor of the journal "Environmental Science and Technology."
Over the last 20 years, he has directed more than 36 research projects with a total budget of over $26 million and has authored or coauthored approximately 100 articles and other publications.
With the addition this year of 74 U.S. engineers and seven foreign associates, the National Academy of Engineering now includes 1,857 U.S. active members and 250 members emeriti, as well as 158 foreign associates.
Crittenden joined the Michigan Tech faculty in 1979. He earned a BSE in Chemical Engineering and MSE and PhD degrees in Civil Engineering: Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan.
Hardwood Evolution Research Featured in The Plant Cell
Researchers in Michigan Tech's School of Forestry and Wood Products have discovered a gene that may have played a key role in the evolution of hardwood trees such as oaks and maples. Their work was featured on the cover of the July 2001 issue of The Plant Cell, which ranks first in impact among plant science-related journals.
Millions of years ago, gymnosperms--including conifers such as pines and redwoods--were the only type of plants on earth. Then angiosperms--the flowering plants--appeared, including hardwood trees. While angiosperms are considered more advanced than gymnosperms, their origins largely remain a mystery. In gymnosperms, also known as softwoods, only guaiacyl lignin is present. In hardwoods, both guaiacyl and syringyl lignin are found.
Researchers at Michigan Tech's Plant Biotechnology Research Center, have described the genetic pathway used to create syringyl lignin, a type of lignin that is unique to angiosperms. They have identified and, for the first time, cloned a gene from aspen, an angiosperm, which they suspected was responsible for producing syringyl lignin.
The researchers include lead author Laigen Li, research assistant professor, and Vincent Chiang, professor of forestry and the center's director.
For years, most scientists have believed that another gene controlled the production of both lignin types. "But we thought it didn't make sense for plants to evolve new proteins and still use the old gene," Chiang said. "Our discovery of a syringyl-specific gene overturns that traditional model; it's been very exciting."
Science Features Chemist for New Sandwich Molecule
Fifty years ago, chemists created ferrocene, the first "sandwich structure" molecule. Today, it's hard to underestimate the role ferrocene and related compounds, known as metallocenes, have played in shaping our modern world.
"A number of things as we know them now wouldn't exist," said Eugenijus Urnezius, an assistant professor of chemistry at Michigan Tech. This class of compounds has been used extensively as reagents, catalysts and building blocks for new materials, including pharmaceuticals.
Until now, all metallocenes have had the same basic structure: a metal atom sandwiched between two five-sided rings made of carbon and hydrogen.
However, Urnezius and his colleagues have made the first carbon-free metallocene: titanium is the meat, with two five-sided rings composed of phosphorus serving as the bread. Their work was featured in the February 1, 2002, edition of Science.
"All earlier attempts by other research groups to obtain similar compounds have failed, and theoretical predictions said that it probably couldn't be done," Urzenius said. "Since I'm an experimentalist, I was very pleased with the result."
Wolves Decline, Moose Increase
The lack of winter weather explains many of the changes in the annual wolf-moose survey at Isle Royale National Park, according to Rolf Peterson, professor of wildlife ecology.
The 2002 survey counted 17 wolves, compared to 19 last year. The moose population increased from about 900 last year to 1,100 in 2002.
The Isle Royale wolf-moose survey is the longest running predator-prey study in the world, now in its 44th year. Peterson has conducted the study for 32 years.
"The significant factor was a lack of winter," Peterson said, referring to the very light snowfall this year. "Moose were in places where we don't normally see them in the winter--on hillsides and out of the conifer swamps."
As an island in the middle of Lake Superior, Isle Royale presents a unique opportunity for such research.
Peterson said the wolves suffered a mortality rate of almost 50 percent this winter and that last year's seven pups kept the population near steady.
"We watched about 15 encounters between wolves and moose this winter," he said. "The moose were almost always intimidating, so the wolves didn't bother to attack." Typically the wolves prey on old moose and young calves. But with little snow cover, the moose could move more freely and avoid the wolves.
The wolf-moose study is supported by Isle Royale National Park, the National Science Foundation, the Earthwatch Institute, and a number of individual donors. For more information see the web.
Anti-Ice Coating that Lasts and Lasts
As long as there have been snow and roads, there have been bridges that ice up and intersections that turn to greased glass.
That era of roadway treachery could be ending. Russ Alger, director of the Institute of Snow Research at Michigan Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center, may have found a way to make winter’s slipperiest surfaces safe for wary travelers.
This "Anti-Icing Smart Overlay" looks like your basic kitty litter, which isn’t too far off.
Ground limestone is stuck tight onto a small square of pavement material with epoxy. This three-layer system "soaks up chemicals like a sponge," he says.
The system is superior to spreading salt or other de-icing compounds. Such chemicals are expensive to use and take a toll on the environment, not to mention the body parts of Snow Belt vehicles.
To add insult to injury, as the ice melts, it washes the chemicals off, so the next time it snows, the salt trucks have to go out again.
But if the pavement were coated with an Anti-Icing Smart Overlay, the salt wouldn’t wash off. Stuck in the thin coating, it would be ready for the next snow, and the next. Theoretically, one application of road salt could last for weeks or even longer.
Alger doesn’t envision resurfacing America’s entire highway system, however. "At first, the primary application would be bridge decks," he says. "Theoretically, crews could put chemicals on a bridge in October and not go out again until March."
Another prime application could be airport runways. Last winter, Alger worked on a contract from the FAA, running tests on a service road at O’Hare, in Chicago, and on a section of a taxiway at Atlantic City Airport in New Jersey.
Army Licenses Hardness Tester
The U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds has licensed a hardness testing device invented by Ghatu Subhash, associate professor of mechanical engineering. The device easily and quickly measures how materials respond to dynamic forces.
"We developed a lot of science and published a lot of papers on this, my students and I," he notes. "It's more complicated than it seems. It's like firing a bullet, making it kiss the target and come back."
Subhash's tester takes the difficulty out of the process.
"Now you don't need a PhD to do it," he said. "Any high school student or machinist can use this."
In time, dynamic hardness testers will be evaluating materials in labs and machine shops all over the country, Subhash predicts.
Anyone researching or manufacturing materials in areas as diverse as bullet-proof clothing, automotive crash-worthiness and precision grinding can learn a lot from a dynamic hardness tester.
New Copolymer a Versatile Material
Gerard Caneba hands out two plastic baggies of what look like polystyrene muffins in aluminum pans. One set is hard and flat, as if someone forgot to add the baking soda. The others are airy, fluffy balls of . . . what?
Caneba, associate professor of chemical engineering, starts a list: it's sticky but can become slippery; it's a surfactant and a foam. Plus, it can be made biodegradable.
At some point, there might be a shorter name for the stuff. But for now, this patent-pending copolymer is known by its two parts; vinyl acetate-acrylic acid. Its dual nature is what makes it so versatile.
The surfactant, or detergent, form of the copolymer dissolves into particles up to 200 times larger than regular detergents. "It can disperse big, toxic organic compounds such as PCBs much more efficiently," which could make it particularly useful in mopping up spills. And, being biodegradable, it wouldn’t be as polluting.
Surfactants are used to improve oil recovery, and it looks like vinyl acetate-acrylic acid may outperform current products--by up to 400 percent--at a much lower cost.
You can also rearrange the copolymer to produce a coating that’s slick on one side and sticky on the other. "That lets you make real low-friction surfaces," Caneba said.