2013 Michigan Tech Research Magazine

Research Magazine Cover 2013

Page from the print magazine showing facts about the Great Lakes Research Center.

Lanrong Bi

Raising a Red Flag

by Frank Stephenson

If our mightiest power plants could only match the simple efficiency of living cells in generating energy, the world wouldn’t be worrying about running out of oil any time soon.

Instead of being sprawled across a hundred or more acres and eating through tons of mainly irreplaceable natural resources every day, such power plants would need little more than air, water, and raw material rich in sugar and starch. Toss in a few minerals and throw the switch on an energy revolution that would change the course of civilization.

Consider that a single living cell can contain as many as 2,500 of its very own high-speed energy plants capable of astonishing feats. These microscopic factories can produce—on demand—all the energy a body needs for either running a marathon or doing math. Without these amazing units, known as mitochondria, about the only things living on Earth would be bacteria and algae. Vive la evolution!

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Chandrashekhar Joshi

Trees to Fuel the Future—Naturally

by Jennifer Donovan

Chandrashekhar Joshi is hunched over twin computer screens, a grin illuminating his cheery face. The professor of plant molecular genetics is asking weighty questions, questions that affect the future of people’s lives and economies all over the world. And he’s closing in on answers.

First question: how can we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? Answer: start investing seriously in biofuels.

Next question: how are we going to turn to biofuels without depleting vital food resources like corn and sugarcane? Answer: focus on cellulosic biofuel, the kind made from the stems of woody plants like trees and residues from grasses.

Forests cover hundreds of millions of acres worldwide. Along with other plants, trees produce 180 billion tons of cellulose a year, potentially making woody biomass a plentiful, sustainable, non-food source of biofuels.

But trees and other woody plants are tough customers. Their cell walls, the very things that . . .

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Gordon Parker and Wayne Weaver

A High-Voltage Balancing Act

by Marcia Goodrich

When you make breakfast, chances are you don’t think twice about whether there will be enough electrons zipping through your toaster to brown the bread. That’s because you’re probably on the grid, the beyond-big power network that stretches across the continent and draws energy from thousands of sources.

If you are off the grid, however, you can’t necessarily take toast for granted. Wayne Weaver explains why.

“On the big grid, if you plug in a fan or a refrigerator, you don’t make a dent in it,” he says. “But if your grid is much smaller, any little change in source or load can throw the system out of whack.”

If you have a load on one side, such as a coffee pot, you have to have a source, be it a solar panel or a diesel generator, on the other, making the right amount of electricity. “The problem is optimizing that balancing act,” says Weaver, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “What happens if a cloud passes over a solar panel?”

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Superior Ideas

Now That’s a Superior Idea!

by Jennifer Donovan

Imagine inviting everyone to support their favorite university research. Those who can afford $100 or $1,000 could give it, and those who can only afford $1 could make their buck matter, too.

What a superior idea. And that’s exactly what an innovative crowdfunding website of the same name is doing.

Superior Ideas was created by Michigan Tech to allow anyone to contribute any amount to support research projects. Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon that allows many people to pool small contributions to support projects in which they share a common interest.

Launched in October 2012 with several research projects chosen for their importance and public appeal, Superior Ideas offers researchers a new source of funding for small projects . . .

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Spacetime Bar

Spacetime: A Smoother Brew Than We Knew

by Marcia Goodrich

Spacetime may be less like beer and more like cognac. Or so an intergalactic photo finish would suggest. Michigan Tech physicist Robert Nemiroff reached this heady conclusion after studying the tracings of three photons of differing wavelengths recorded by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in May 2009.

The photons originated about 7 billion light years away from Earth in one of three pulses from a gamma-ray burst and arrived at the orbiting telescope just one millisecond apart, in a virtual tie.

This short gamma-ray burst was probably caused by the collision of two neutron stars, the densest known objects in the universe.

A neutron star is created when a massive star collapses in on itself in an explosion called a supernova. The neutron star that forms in its heart is typically about ten miles in diameter yet . . .

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