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Engineering Physics

Matt Allen and Mike Sracic

Assistant Professor Matt Allen (left) and Mike Sracic (large image)

Unique tool enables
vibration researchers
to think BIG

In just one second, Assistant Professor Matt Allen can acquire vibration samples from thousands of points along a downhill ski. In a matter of several minutes, he could analyze an entire airplane wing. “What we’ve developed is a way to both acquire and interpret hundreds or even thousands of times more information at one time,” he says.

Using a new twist on an instrument called a laser vibrometer, Allen and master’s student Mike Sracic collect measurements as they sweep a laser beam continuously over the structure they’re studying. In contrast, researchers using the conventional laser vibrometry approach measure point by point. “In the time it would take to measure one point using the traditional approach, we can determine what’s happening at every point along the laser’s path,” says Allen. “This is important if we want to apply laser vibrometry to low-frequency structures such as airplanes or civil structures, because tests with conventional laser vibrometry would take too long to be practical”.

One key to their use of the approach is an algorithm Allen and Sracic developed for analyzing the mountains of data they acquire. The algorithm essentially decomposes the measurement into individual responses, so the two can post-process measurements exactly as they would for data collected via conventional laser vibrometry.

The continuous scan approach may enable researchers to measure the vibrational response of structures that contain polymers or composites.

Since those materials can change over time or with temperature, the continuous scan method makes it possible to collect an entire set of measurements before the structure has time to change. In addition, the approach could speed product development and reduce costs by allowing test engineers to obtain more detailed information in less time. Engineers also could use the method to verify that noise and vibration performance meet design specifications, to calibrate computer models, or to diagnose vibration problems in the field.

Weighing alternatives:
Models inform worldwide nuclear energy choices

To inform nuclear-energy-related policy decisions, Associate Professor Paul Wilson develops and runs complex computer simulations that provide insight into the next century of nuclear energy.

In one project, he and his students are using VISION, a piece of software developed at Idaho National Laboratory (INL), to simulate how the nuclear fuel cycle will develop over the next 100 years. In particular, they are interested in how current nuclear waste policy might affect the amount and cost of space in the proposed Yucca Mountain long-term storage facility. Using a calculation they applied to the VISION code, Wilson and his students can follow spent fuel (and other material) through the fuel cycle and quickly determine, based on heat load, how much space it will need in the repository. In addition, based on the current waste fee and amount of stored waste, they can study the economics of different fuel choices based on the value of available space in Yucca Mountain. The group’s research may help inform an upcoming decision by the U.S. Secretary of Energy about whether to propose a second nuclear waste repository and where to site it.

Working with INL researchers, Wilson and his students are developing a new software tool called GENIUS. The tool will enable them to model individual facilities throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, and to study the flow of material among those facilities over the next 100 years. Wilson hopes to use GENIUS to study global interactions in the fuel cycle. This more finely tuned research may contribute to dialog about the economic and diplomatic feasibility of fuel-cycle services agreements among nuclear energy providers around the world.

Strong plasma physics and
fusion technology programs build
intellectual capital

Dating back nearly a half-century, the UW-Madison programs in plasma physics and fusion technology are among the oldest, broadest, largest and most productive programs in the nation.

One key area of emphasis is on magnetic plasma confinement and magnetic fusion; with experts in several additional areas, the programs span three departments in two colleges. Collectively, these programs—in the Departments of Engineering Physics and Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering and the Department of Physics in the College of Letters and Science—receive about $12 million annually in Department of Energy research funding, primarily from the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.

By generating and harnessing plasma, or highly heated ionized gas, in a variety of fusion experiments, UW-Madison faculty, staff and students hope to develop technologies capable of delivering a clean, virtually inexhaustible source of energy. They also study the basic properties of plasma, plasma science and astrophysical phenomena, and plasma-aided manufacturing techniques.

For students, a hallmark of their educational experience is the opportunity to operate an entire fusion experiment, and to learn the hardware inside and out, as well as the relevant plasma theory. “Because of this hands-on experience, UW-Madison graduates have become central players in a lot of machines around the country,” says Professor Emeritus James Callen.

Another hallmark of the UW-Madison plasma physics and fusion technology programs is their people. On campus, the programs include approximately 75 faculty and staff members, 60 graduate students and 30 undergraduate students whose education and research frequently cross departmental and college boundaries.

And, nearly 350 PhD recipients—more in these technical areas than any other U.S. university—are making important contributions in industry, government, universities and laboratories around the world.

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