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2006-2007 HIGHLIGHTS








Cover of the 2007 Annual Report
Annual Report
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Axel Fehrenbacher, Nicola Ferrier, John Hinrichs, Frank Pfefferkorn, Ted Schultz, Christopher Smith and Neil Duffie.

From left: Graduate student Axel Fehrenbacher, Associate Professor Nicola Ferrier, Friction Stir Link Vice President of Technology John Hinrichs, Assistant Professor Frank Pfefferkorn, graduate student Ted Schultz, Friction Stir Link Vice President of Engineering Christopher Smith and Professor Neil Duffie. (Large image)

Mechanical Engineering

Joint solutions:
University and industry solve welding problems together

A key university-industry collaboration will enable students, researchers and engineers to improve a low-cost, energy-efficient alternative to traditional welding that is important in assembling and repairing large aluminum structures such as ships.

Assistant Professor Frank Pfefferkorn, Associate Professor Nicola Ferrier, Professor Neil Duffie, and graduate students Axel Fehrenbacher and Ted Schultz are studying friction stir welding technologies with engineers from Wisconsin-based welding solutions company Friction Stir Link.

Friction stir welding enables workers to join materials without melting them. The process requires large amounts of force, which is administered via machines or robots.

The research group hopes to reduce welding forces and make a flexible robotic system that allows a worker to join large structures quickly and efficiently. “At a shipyard, where you’re putting together large aluminum pieces that right now are fusion welded, a worker could go in with the portable robot and friction stir weld,” says Pfefferkorn.

The team also aims to make the entire process more controllable through a novel robot-human interface. “We’re working on an interface where the person gets some feedback from the robot,” says Pfefferkorn, “so they can adjust the process in real time during welding.”

The close collaboration on the project enables the researchers to pool their knowledge to make better progress—and it gives Fehrenbacher and Schultz valuable on-site industry experience, says Pfefferkorn. In addition, the research complements current UW-Madison low-power/low-force friction stir welding research. Conducted at the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, that research focuses on assembling and repairing thin-gauge aluminum structures.

The team’s initial work was supported in part by an Industrial and Economic Development Research Grant from the state of Wisconsin, which led to the current work, funded by the U.S. Navy.

Sun shines on solar collaboration

On a cloudy day, it’s difficult to evaluate the efficacy of a solar-energy system—the main reason that one of the nation’s only certifiers of such technologies is located, appropriately, in the Sunshine State. However, manufacturers may have to stand in line for more than a year before staff at the Florida Solar Energy Center can test and certify their solar-energy products.

Now, thanks to a collaboration between UW-Madison Solar Energy Laboratory (SEL) researchers and staff at Madison Area Technical College (MATC), alternative testing methods could mean a sunny outlook for solar-collector certification.

Solar-energy collector certification helps ensure optimal performance and qualifies consumers for rebates. The current certification process subjects solar collectors to a battery of performance tests—but the tests require optimal climate conditions. “The tests that are normally used require sunny, clear sky conditions, very minimal wind speed, and unvarying ambient temperature—things that just don’t happen often,” says Ouweneel-Bascom Professor Sanford Klein, SEL director.

Rather, solar systems operate in variable conditions, so the collaborators began to explore the feasibility of testing collectors in areas like Wisconsin. “The research shows that there are alternative test methods that require less time and less stringent climate conditions that can yield results suitable for certification,” says Klein.

According to Klein, solar-collector testing tells researchers how much energy is absorbed and how much is lost. The Wisconsin researchers discovered that they can reduce the number of outdoor tests and conduct energy-loss tests indoors by running hot water through the collector—a time- and labor-saving approach.

This project was the first solar research collaboration between UW-Madison and MATC, but it may not be the last. “It was a pretty natural collaboration, because they had the site and the people to do the experimental work, we had the experience with this kind of testing,” says Klein. “It just worked out very well.”

Research relationship drives combustion-engine improvements

A partnership between the UW-Madison Engine Research Center (ERC) and automaker General Motors could lead to cleaner, more fuel-efficient combustion engines. Researchers at the GM-ERC Collaborative Research Laboratory (CRL) aim to improve combustion through development and application of advanced experimental diagnostics and simulation tools.

With the advent of new diagnostic tools capable of monitoring in-engine conditions, CRL researchers can reexamine the fundamental principles of combustion and push them to their limits.

“UW-Madison is uniquely positioned for this because of our experimental and computational capabilities,” says Phil and Jean Myers Professor David Foster, co-director of the GM-ERC CRL.

For example, for their simulations, ERC researchers use software that integrates chemistry and fluid mechanics to better understand the details of the engine and combustion.

In its five areas of research, the CRL uses its unique capabilities to address current issues in the engine industry. One area of research involves “after-treatment,” or cleaning exhaust after it leaves the engine—for example, through a catalytic converter. This process works in tandem with the engine, and the CRL is developing software capable of modeling the engine and after-treatment as a system.

Through the CRL, GM and the ERC have been able to address the differences in culture between academia and industry to forge a mutually beneficial research relationship, says Foster. GM researchers and ERC students and staff interact and exchange ideas through web conferences and frequent visits, and students have opportunities to conduct their research at the GM Research and Development Center. “We’re able to put our thesis work into a context where we can address issues that are relevant to a company like GM,” says Foster. “It’s a tremendous experience all around.”

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