Annual Report 2000: Engineering InterAction
College of Engineering / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Engineering Physics

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Faculty strengthen mechanics-materials bond

Nanotribology lab

ogether, the department's three newest mechanics faculty add to its solid mechanics area and bring with them mechanics-materials expertise. Individually, their unique, cutting-edge experimental approaches generate collaborations in such varied areas as chemical, mechanical and biomedical engineering, and rheology. They share an interest in advanced optical methods.

Assistant Professor Robert Carpick (center) is an expert in the relatively new field of nanotribology: the study of friction, adhesion and contacting or sliding materials at the atomic scale. He builds customized scanning-probe instruments, and he is studying the nanotribology of organic monolayers and hard thin-film coatings. With researchers in the Wisconsin Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), he also is investigating the mechanical properties of novel nanocomposites.

With experimental solid mechanics techniques, Assistant Professor Wendy Crone (left) investigates deformation and failure to characterize and understand material behavior. She is analyzing the shape-memory alloy, nickel titanium (NiTi). Stents inserted in a patient's blood vessels to keep them from reoccluding after balloon angioplasty often are NiTi-based. With researchers in the Center for Plasma-Aided Manufacturing, she hopes to discover methods to modify NiTi's surface to improve its biocompatibility and retain its shape-memory behavior without negatively affecting its mechanical behavior.

Much of Wisconsin Distinguished Professor Roderic Lakes' (right) research centers around the viscoelasticity of both human tissues and fabricated materials such as those used to damp out vibrations in airplane engines and computer hard drives. With Surgery Professor Ray Vanderby, Lakes currently is examining the viscoelasticity of ligaments to determine the thresholds of injury and the effects of stretching exercises. His group also studies negative Poisson's ratio foams, which get fatter when they're stretched.

New fuel in fusion research may generate medical solutions

On the journey to ultimately making fusion a viable, nonradioactive energy source for electricity, Grainger Professor Gerald Kulcinski hopes to capitalize on some of its medical uses.

Kulcinski, researchers John Santarius and Bob Ashley, and graduate students Greg Piefer and Murali Subramanian are exploring helium-deuterium, which generates less radioactivity than previous deuterium-tritium reactions. They confine the new fuel in an inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) device that consists of a vacuum chamber, highly negative inner spherical grid and slightly positive outer spherical grid. The experiment's 200 kV power supply, donated by engineer-inventor Wilson Greatbatch, can generate the higher energies needed. The device ionizes gases in the outer grid, producing positive ions that are attracted to the negative grid. Most of the ions pass through it toward the center, where they collide and possibly result in fusion. The work is a stepping-stone to completely nonradioactive helium-helium reactions, which occur at temperatures hotter than the sun. Kulcinski's group can also use protons from the reactions for on-site production of short-lived isotopes for medical therapies such as isotope implantation to treat prostate cancer, or diagnostics like positron emission tomography, which allows doctors to view organs' chemical functions. The challenge is meeting the demand for isotopes, and he hopes to develop a "desktop" IEC device that can make isotopes to order at bedside or in the operating room.

Ensuring nuclear safety in an age of electric industry deregulation

The electric-utility industry's economic deregulation and restructuring will give some consumers the freedom to choose their electricity provider. But deregulation also will effect mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, financial pressures and corporate uncertainty--and thus, potential safety compromises--in the nuclear power plants that generate some of that electricity.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) Regulatory Effectiveness Assessment Branch enlisted Associate Professor Vicki Bier (also industrial engineering) to help determine if deregulation would affect nuclear-power safety, and if so, target areas of greatest risk. To identify those areas, Bier studied three deregulated high-tech, safety-critical industries--the U.S. air and rail industries and the United Kingdom's electricity industry. With graduate student and nuclear-industry consultant James Joosten, and economists David Glyer, Jennifer Tracey and Michael Welsh from the Madison-based consulting company Christensen Associates, Bier reviewed more than 250 documents and interviewed nearly 30 people.

The group found that deregulation creates safety challenges associated with factors such as downsizing and mergers, but that good management can help minimize those challenges. Although the group's final report doesn't make specific safety recommendations, it provides the NRC with the technical information on which it can base its policy decisions. The NRC is currently reviewing the study.

Gilbert A. Emmert, Chair
147 Engineering Research Building
1500 Engineering Drive
Madison, WI 53706-1687

Tel: 608/263-1646
Fax: 608/263-7451


Copyright 2000 University System Board of Regents


Published: September 2000