CREATing new pathways to independence
Will quadriplegics be able to routinely pick up and sip a cup of coffee? Could paraplegics propel a bike just as easily using their arms and hands? Can engineering a better wheelchair create more independence of movement for its user?
A new research team at the college, called CREATe (Center on Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology), looks for ways to assist people with disabilities to regain independence, control and productivity.
The team includes faculty and staff from mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and rehabilitation medicine. Its members include (from left) Professor Terry Richard, Professor Jay Martin, Assistant Professor Nicola Ferrier, and Professor Frank Fronczak, all from the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Projects from the CREATe team include developing cycles for paraplegics, alternative power systems for wheelchairs, better head-activated control systems used by quadriplegics, a glove-like orthotic hand to power non-functional hands, and an automated page-turner for books and magazines.
One notable development in assistive robotics includes a hand that provides instant feedback to its user. Robotic arms and gripping devices don't have the same tactile sense as a person's arm and fingers. Through the use of an electro-tactile display, a person using the arm can tell whether its grip on something a cup of coffee, for instance, or a puzzle piece is too firm or too soft. This application of "intelligent independence" allows the user of the robotic arm much more freedom and ease of use.
Such a robotic arm, with an electro-tactile display, could one day become a common feature on wheelchairs and other devices for the disabled.
Building a better valve for engineers
Mechanical engineers who perform research on engines often focus on finding ways to make them run more efficiently, use less fuel, and discharge fewer pollutants. Much of that work focuses on the nitty-gritty mechanics of engines the valves and camshafts that actually make them go. Valves are particularly important in this regard. They open and close thousands of times during your average trip to the grocery store, so anything that makes valves work better is likely to improve the performance of an engine.
Which is how Professor Frank Fronczak and his graduate students hit upon the idea of a "variable valve timing actuator" a device aimed at making engine valves work better.
The actuator allows engine valves to open and close independently of each other, and to open and close without the use of a camshaft. This independent valve movement makes an engine run more efficiently. In addition, the timing actuator uses stored-up energy known as energy regeneration to open and close the valves. Thus, engines can use less fuel to open and close the valves.
The timing actuator represents a key advance in valve technology, because it links the ability of the valves to open and close independently of each other with regeneration. Previous devices aimed at independent movement of valves have consumed considerable amounts of energy. The engine runs better, but it uses lots of fuel. Regeneration requires less fuel use, making the actuator more likely to be used in vehicles of the future.
Finding cleaner fuels
Researchers at the college's Engine Research Center (ERC) will continue their work on finding cleaner fuel emissions and more fuel-efficient engines, thanks to a $500,000 research grant from General Motors.
The one-year grant will be used to study and produce advances in direct-injection gasoline and diesel engines, including combustion, fuel spray model development, engine and exhaust after-treatment system modeling, and turbulence modeling.
According to Professor Rolf Reitz, director of the ERC, "These new projects continue the tradition of ERC research, which is to respond to the challenges that face the engine industry. Meeting upcoming emissions mandates will require exciting new engine design concepts and new understanding of engine phenomena."
The ERC, a U.S. Army Center of Excellence, conducts research on spark ignition and diesel engines. ERC projects involve fluid mechanics, heat transfer, combustion, sprays, emissions and health effects, lubrication and powertrain systems. ERC research emphasizes the application of optical diagnostic methods to engines, and computational fluid modeling of engine processes. Research is led by seven College of Engineering faculty members and involves more than 80 graduate students and staff.