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Engineering Research Facility Opens Doors for Discovery

Monday, October 15, 2012

M2SEC Dedication
From sustainable energy and alternative fuels, to innovative health care and the impacts of climate change, a wide variety of interdisciplinary research projects at the University of Kansas School of Engineering got a major boost at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year.

The 47,000-square-foot Measurement, Materials and Sustainable Environment Center opened its doors in August 2012.  The building was constructed with a $12.3 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and another $12.3 million in funding from KU and donors to KU Endowment. 

“The Measurement, Materials and Sustainable Environment Center creates additional opportunities for exciting new research and discovery at KU,” said Stan Rolfe, interim dean of the KU School of Engineering.  “It also provides the School of Engineering with much needed additional space to accommodate growth in student and faculty numbers that will help meet the increasing demands of Kansas industry for highly-skilled engineers.”


Among the key features of the new building is a large, soundproof room — an anechoic chamber — where radar antennas are tested by researchers with KU’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), and a fracture and fatigue lab where the strength of materials, like bridge components and aircraft wings, are tested in a strong-wall facility.

The building, often referred to as M2SEC, also brings together several of the research endeavors of KU’s Transportation Research Institute, which provides support for KU’s Feedstock to Tailpipe Initiative. Researchers tied to the initiative produce, test and certify alternative fuels.

Another feature of M2SEC is the planned proximity of similar research labs, which will increase research efficiency, and may help faculty and students make new discoveries. 

“Everyone in the building will share and utilize the common areas, and when people get together like that, conversations are bound to happen,” said Ilya Tabakh, a doctoral student in environmental engineering and co-director of the KU Biodiesel Initiative. “People working on seemingly disjointed subjects have an opportunity to ask colleagues what they’re working on. They may see overlaps and they may find serendipity there.”

The roof and walls of the facility also are designed as discovery areas.  A greenhouse on the rooftop will be used to grow different types of algae for possible conversion to biofuels, and a series of wind turbines will be set up to test how their configuration affects the efficiency of the blades.  More than 60 interchangeable panels are in place on the south and west sides of the building.  They’re designed to test the effectiveness of different materials to heat and cool the building.

“I think what separates us here is the fact that you not only have a philosophy of interdisciplinary research and discovery, but you have a state-of-the-art building in which to carry it out,” said Glen Marotz, associate dean for development and principal investigator for the grant to create the M2SEC.  

The building is also a designed to foster relationships with engineering industry leaders from Kansas to assist in product research, testing and development.

“It’s a way to be immersed in advanced-level technologies.  It’s a way to work with company representatives, people from government, and people from industry on things that will see an application in the marketplace in coming years. It’s really an exciting time,” Marotz said.

Lab Overviews

Acoustic Reverberation Suite

This facility includes two adjacent, acoustically reverberant (“echoing”) rooms with a 4-foot by 8-foot aperture (“window”) between them.  Flat or slightly-curved panels are inserted into the aperture to measure the transmission loss (TL) when sound – generated and measured in the south room – is transmitted to the north room.  The difference in the measured sound pressure level (SPL) is resolved as the TL on which the panel noise isolation class (NIC) rating is based.  Alternatively, the acoustic absorption of objects placed in one of the rooms may be measured by comparing the room reverberation time with and without the test objects. 

This facility is currently used to devise and evaluate alternative test methods associated with noise reduction and for testing the noise reduction qualities of panels fabricated with new materials and/or new noise reduction schemes.  The types of panels to be tested include aircraft fuselage side-walls – such as the prototype Boeing 787 sidewall currently in the aperture – and new building walls – such as the phase-change walls being developed by Professor Medina in Room 1533.  Coefficients of absorption will be measured for various architectural materials including fabric used for variable reverberation control in auditoria and similar spaces – such as the Murphy Hall choral rehearsal room.

Anechoic Chamber

Anechoic Chamber
This $1.34 million dollar, 15-foot x 35-foot x 15-foot room allows for antenna characterizations, electromagnetic interference and compatibility studies in a well-controlled environment.

The walls, ceiling and floor of the chamber are covered in microwave absorbing wedges that dampen electromagnetic wave signals and provide a setting completely free from unwanted signal interference. The primary user is KU’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), a National Science Foundation-funded multi-institutional center headquartered at KU that measures changes in polar ice sheets and uses computer modeling to predict future change.  The chamber allows researchers to perfect the settings on radars in a lab before work begins in the field.

“We can actually do a lot more tests locally.  We just go in the chamber and perform the measurement we need.  It’s much more efficient and cost-effective than discovering and solving radar system issues once you’re in the field,” said Stephen Yan, assistant research professor at CReSIS.

It fosters partnerships with industry and provides exciting opportunities for students.


Biomaterials Lab
This space dedicated to developing biomaterials that possess biomimetic structures with self-healing capabilities and fatigue resistance.  This includes a major emphasis on tissue engineering for things like cartilage regeneration in the knee or jaw joint, and the development of novel drug delivery systems to treat a variety of degenerative diseases in tissues and organs.

Researchers also are working on discovery of technologies that will reduce cost, improve productivity and assure the efficient delivery of high-quality products.  The lab includes many state-of-the-art safety features and brings together faculty and students in similar research areas that were previously in separate buildings to enhance their efficiency and synergy.

This lab plays a critical role in the transition of research to the health-care industry, with participation of scientists, engineers, medical professionals from the KU Medical Center, and industrial partners and is expected to strengthen KU’s position as a regional leader in bioengineering and bioscience research. 

“This research has very clear health benefits for many individuals, and a lot of these technologies are reducing costs as well as improving quality of life,” said Stevin Gehrke, director of graduate studies for the bioengineering graduate program and professor of chemical and petroleum engineering.

Composite Materials

This laboratory is for researchers to design and construct aircraft, sensors and systems to enable airborne environmental remote sensing, with the primary funded research addressing ground-penetrating radar that can assist CReSIS researchers in the quest to capture data and create accurate 3-D maps of ice sheets all the way to the bedrock.

The lab features a 7’x7’x20’ composites oven that can be used to cure materials ranging from small coupons to entire airframe structures or vehicle components. Past projects include small and large unmanned aircraft, radar arrays and fairings, wind turbine blades, telescopes and fuel containment devices.  The lab also includes refrigerated storage space for pre-impregnated materials that have yet to be cured. 

This lab provides a professional space that will allow us to repeatedly deliver higher quality on these increasingly larger components,” said Rick Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering.   The new lab will also provide space for Prof. Rick Hale’s team to design larger antenna arrays with higher resolution that will enable CReSIS researchers to gather images from deeper in the polar ice sheets, as well as smaller arrays more suitable for distributed unmanned aircraft.

Feedstock to Tailpipe



Biofuels Research

Feedstock to Tailpipe
This series of adjoining labs is focused on producing, testing and certifying alternative fuels.  It includes space for growing different strains of algae with the goal of finding economically and environmentally sustainable methods for the large-scale, stable production of green gasoline, green diesel, and alternative jet fuels from algal feedstock.   This area also contains a 350 horsepower alternating current dynamometer that will examine a vehicle’s drive cycle in order to provide critical data on how experimental fuels influence engine performance and emissions.

This project, known as the Feedstock to Tailpipe Initiative


, as well as several others in the building, are programs under KU’s Transportation Research Institute, which has offices in M2SEC.  This marks the first time many of these projects have been located under one roof, which provides a real advantage to researchers.

“You can make fuel, literally go two doors down, and test the chemical and physical properties of that fuel across a whole suite of standards.  Then, you walk across the hall and use that fuel to determine what the mechanical and emissions characteristics are.  It really is an ideal setup,” said Ilya Tabakh, KU Biodiesel Initiative co-director and doctoral student in environmental engineering.

Fracture and Fatigue Lab

Fracture and Fatigue
From providing data about the life of infrastructure elements, to testing new fatigue retrofits developed at the M2SEC facility, the fracture and fatigue lab plays a key role in ensuring the safety and longevity of a variety of materials used in structures ranging from bridge spans to airplane wings.

A special feature of the lab is the strong wall facility.  Think of it as a room within a room, with 72 tie-down locations on several planes — thefloor, ceiling and two vertical walls.  Each tie-down location is a point where materials can be attached to the strong wall and tested.  Having tie-down locations on the floor, walls and ceiling allows for more elaborate testing of structural components.

This includes using materials that are relatively novel for steel bridges: carbon fiber

reinforced polymers.  They are strong, light and durable and can be formed to meet geometrically challenging angles on bridges.

“KU is a true leader in this area.  We’re coming up with new techniques that are aimed at saving the state and taxpayers money, and making our infrastructure safer,” Bennett said.

Materials Characterization Lab

Materials Characterization
This lab is devoted to the measurement of the mechanical and physical properties of materials. The properties being measured include but are not limited to modulus (stiffness), strain (elongation), fracture properties (resistance to breaking), thermal and electrical conductivity and relative permittivity. 

Equipment will be installed that can measure materials ranging from the soft, hydrated synthetic and biological composite materials being developed by Detamore and Gehrke in Room 1550 for tissue regeneration to dry, high performance aerospace composite materials used by Hale in Room 1544.  Although the materials and applications are very different, the material properties are measured using concepts with very similar instruments, though ones capable of applying very different magnitudes of forces.

Bringing together researchers with similar material characterization interests from very different fields is expected to generate new ideas in materials design and development.

Sustainable Building Laboratory

Sustainable building
The building is constructed in such a way that it’s an experiment in itself.  It has a number of features that enable researchers to use the structure of the building to carry out experiments.  That includes 63 interchangeable panels on the south and west walls of the building that are as heavy as 300 pounds and as thick as 8 inches.

“A person interested in conservation of energy in a building can experiment with these panels — and with different kinds of constructs of materials.  They can replace one of the panels and test new materials that might have a benefit for energy conservation,” said Glen Marotz, associate dean for development and principal investigator of the NIST grant to begin creation of M2SEC.

Special considerations also went into reducing the building’s carbon footprint, including utilizing passive and natural systems like daylighting and operable windows and optimizing exterior wall thermal resistance.



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