Research Focus Areas

The College of Engineering is at the forefront of research that is unlocking answers to complex questions involving energy, healthcare, the environment, transportation, security, manufacturing and materials discovery.

A world-class faculty, top students and dedicated staff have built a research enterprise that is admired internationally. Our research focus areas address some of society’s major challenges. We are driven to succeed and transform lives through discoveries in all of these critical areas.

Advanced Manufacturing

The expertise of engineering faculty supports manufacturing goals for tapping future markets and technologies. Within the broad areas of profitability, productivity, and sustainability, faculty members hold leadership roles in international and national advances in manufacturing practice. In manufacturing, a process known as additive manufacturing has many advantages, including the potential to save manufacturers money and reduce waste. The process draws on digital models to “print” 3D components layer by layer, allowing manufacturers to quickly generate and revise product prototypes, or to cost-effectively mass-produce small quantities of custom components. As a result, manufacturers consume fewer raw materials, use less energy, and produce products more efficiently. Coupling additive manufacturing with digital manufacturing and supply-chain optimization can give U.S. industries a competitive advantage.

Advanced manufacturing is critical at a national level: The White House aims to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing through an initiative called the Manufacturing USA. Research leadership in advanced manufacturing will help to strengthen the global competitiveness of existing U.S. manufacturers, spur new ventures, and boost local and state economies.

Advanced manufacturing is closely tied to materials discovery and sustainability – another of our research focus areas – and researchers in the transdisciplinary Grainger Institute for Engineering at UW-Madison are focusing on all three topics.

Advancing Healthcare

The rapid pace of technological development presents both challenges and solutions for the advancement of human health. Interdisciplinary research in the College of Engineering provides a path to safely, efficiently and quickly integrate new technologies into the healthcare marketplace.

At the intersection of science and engineering disciplines, we are creating new methods and technologies for drug delivery, tissue regeneration, medical imaging and early detection and treatment of cancers. Research projects continue to provide deeper understanding of stem cells, viruses, protein development, cellular processes and the human brain. Our experts in quality, human factors, decision-making and optimization are working to build a better healthcare delivery system which is critical to controlling healthcare costs.

The explosive growth of communications technologies promises a new era of personalized healthcare and our researchers are leaders in creating and implementing medical informatic systems that reduce costs and allow individuals a greater role in managing their own health in a secure, integrated way. Through careful analysis and engineering our faculty have pioneered systems and devices to assist the disabled and make products more usable for everyone. The great depth and breadth of research at the UW-Madison College of Engineering provides our faculty and staff the environment to explore and innovate solutions that have tremendous impact on the advancement of healthcare.

Energy Independence

Clean, affordable energy is the key to sustaining and improving our quality of life. At the College of Engineering, we are researching, creating and improving global energy supplies from a wide variety of angles.

Because energy efficiency is the fastest and least expensive way to meet increasing energy demands, our power systems engineering researchers are creating smart-grid technologies to take the aging electric power infrastructure into the future. At the same time, we’re training new generations of engineers who can serve as knowledgeable decision-makers on critical energy policy issues. Our Engine Research Center is a major research and educational institution investigating the fundamentals and applications of internal combustion engines with a unique combination of modeling and experimental capabilities. The UW Energy Institute pools the expertise of more than 50 UW-Madison faculty and staff in disciplines that range from chemistry, physics and engineering to geology, life sciences, environmental studies, public policy, business and law. The institute is leveraging renowned UW-Madison energy education and research programs in its unique, multidisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing key global energy issues.

We are key players in the only academically-based U.S. Department of Energy Center: The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, and have pioneered new technologies to efficiently harvest energy from biomass. The College of Engineering Solar Energy Lab (SEL) is the oldest of its kind in the world and is recognized internationally for accomplishments in practical applications for solar energy. Today, 20 percent of electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear power. At the College of Engineering, our researchers are designing new materials and processes in order to build the next generation of safe, clean nuclear reactors. Our Fusion Technology Institute investigates and assesses technological problems posed by controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors and is a leader in conceptual design including those based on the tokamak, tandem mirror, laser fusion, heavy ion and light ion beam fusion, and torsatron concepts.

Environmental Sustainability

In a world of limited resources and increasing population, the engineer’s role in designing sustainable systems is critical. At the UW-Madison College of Engineering sustainability is integrated into both research and curriculum. Our Consortium for Applied Water Quality Research seeks effective and economical solutions to water supply problems and pollution control and conducts innovative practical research that cannot be carried out effectively by individual organizations. Our research into ground, surface and wastewater systems produces advances in technology and public policy that are adopted around the world while research on air pollutants is at the forefront of national and international efforts to assess air quality and its impact on everyday life. There is an increasing understanding in both public and private sectors that sustainable construction practices not only benefit the environment but improve profitability.

From fly ash, to foundry waste, our experts in reclamation and reuse find solutions that turn landfill waste into products that enhance the construction of roads and the strength of concrete. Our Construction Engineering and Management program trains engineers to understand and incorporate economic, environmental, political, social, safety and global considerations into design, investigation, and construction of natural and built systems. Our certificate program in sustainability includes strategies for addressing carbon reduction and climate change, minimizing resource utilization, and developing restorative processes for land, water and air. The College of Engineering has myriad research programs focused on providing reliable, clean and efficient energy. Our investigations range from nuclear and wind energy systems, to biomass and efficiency in electricity transmission.

Improving Security

Most of us take for granted the confidence we have in the systems we rely upon every day. But it is, of course, only through the efforts of countless people that we have routine access to safe food and water or reliable communications. Whether it is security from attack or security in the dependable operation of our electrical distribution system, the College of Engineering is engaged in research that helps protect and improve the nation’s critical systems. In an effort to secure our country from future terrorist attacks, we are developing techniques not only to prioritize possible targets, but also to develop effective risk-reduction and resource-allocation strategies. We are developing sensors for the detection of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, technologies for the safe distribution of the blood supply and materials and innovations to improve military systems. Our experts in water systems work to improve the removal and inactivation of waterborne pathogens and other microbes during drinking water treatment and distribution. We’ve developed sensors that give early warning of food spoilage and deposition techniques to provide anti-fouling and anti-microbial surfaces that help protect the food supply. The need for security and reliability in communications grows each day in our increasingly digitized society. The number of web-enabled devices is expected to grow from 3 to 14 billion within the next five years, driven by the proliferation of wireless sensors with ubiquitous Internet connections. College of Engineering researchers are working on applications of algebra and number theory to engineering in areas such as cryptography, coding theory, watermarking, and biometrics.

Materials Discovery and Sustainability

New materials with unique properties provide manufacturers opportunities to produce new products—and as a result, they can gain a competitive advantage by developing and producing products using new materials with unique properties. For example, researchers have developed nanomaterials and carbon nanotubes with specific properties, and those materials are applied in products ranging from sports equipment and clothing to drug-delivery vehicles and energy technologies. Computational and combinatorial methods allow us to rapidly search for and identify new materials or material systems.

The development of new materials also play into another research focus are at the College of Engineering, advanced manufacturing. These new materials are often at the heart of new manufacturing processes and technologies.

Manufacturers also gain an advantage by reducing their reliance on traditional materials made with expensive or rare elements. The rate of use of the earth’s elements, as well as their location, requires that we learn to use them more effectively and efficiently.

Through research in the area of materials sustainability, we can optimize existing materials, and to develop new materials that replace rare or potentially inaccessible materials. We also can create ways to recover and recycle our materials at the end of a product’s life through efficient, environmentally friendly processes.

Because of those linkage, materials discovery and sustainability and advanced manufacturing are the focus of of the transdisciplinary Grainger Institute for Engineering.

The national Materials Genome Initiative aims to boost U.S. manufacturing competitiveness and make the process of discovering and developing advanced materials faster, less expensive, and more predictable.

Transportation Infrastructure

Increasing population is straining the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure while funds to maintain and upgrade it have been limited.
The challenge to engineers is to provide safe, modern and reliable systems in a sustainable and cost effective way. College of Engineering researchers are developing guidelines for city planners and engineers across the country so that fiscally responsible, neighborhood-level decisions can be made that reduce vehicular traffic and also improve public health.

We are experts in transportation asset management, ensuring that the best performance is captured from the operation and improvement of our infrastructure.
In an effort to conserve energy and reduce the environmental effects of building roads, we are studying new ways of modifying asphalt to develop new, more sustainable processes for producing the material.

Our structural engineers are creating and testing new materials in roads and bridges that make them last longer while costing less time and money to build. In the field and through advanced modeling and simulation, our experts are analyzing traffic operations and safety to make recommendations that save time, money and lives. As fuel prices increase, trains again are becoming an attractive method for moving freight and people across the country.

We are home to the Mid-America Freight Coalition, an organization that focuses on planning, operating, preserving and improving freight transportation infrastructure and networks throughout the Midwest. We are also home to the Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education, a National University Transportation Research Center.