Rocket Science and Brain Surgery
Alabama companies are using M&S programs to research rocket re-entry, muster robots on the plant floor and hone skills for brain surgery.
The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Shelby Center for Modeling, Simulation and Analysis is the setting for research by student Nikesha Davis, working here with the guidance of professor Wes Colley.
Improving Alloys and Electronics
Since 1987, Huntsville-based Computational Fluid Dynamics Research Corp. has worked on many government and commercial M&S programs, such as a current U.S. Department of Energy-funded project on alloys. “If an alloy is heated, the sulfur atoms will diffuse and migrate to the surface, which has a profound effect on the physical and chemical properties,” says Debasis Sengupta. Simulations help scientists design better alloys.
Lose TV during the March solar storm? You’ll appreciate Marek Turowski’s project, which simulates the effect of radiation on computer chips. “Radiation striking chips causes clouds of free electrons to move around in electronic processing devices, which can cause damage and disrupt signals,” he explains. His M&S project works to understand and alleviate the problems. “One way is to design the layout on a computer chip in such a way that damage to one part will not affect other parts.”
Vladimir Kolobov is working to solve space re-entry problems for NASA, as craft move from the finely ionized gas of space to the thicker plasma nearer Earth. His simulation models flow patterns throughout the trajectory.
Virtual Drug Delivery and Brain Surgery
AEgis Technologies in Huntsville may be better known for its M&S work in the defense industry, but it also has several projects relating to health and medical services, which Chairman and Chief Technical Officer Bill Waite says is not such a stretch.
“Equations that represent how a guided missile moves through the atmosphere are pretty similar to those that describe how a pill goes through your body and into your bloodstream and gets taken up by the organs,” he says, valuable information for the pharmaceutical industry. “Using a tool invented for one purpose for a quite different one has turned out to be very valuable and a good business opportunity.”
Doctors also benefit from other AEgis simulations, which allow them to practice diagnostics, examinations, and procedures “in silico” rather than on live patients. The ultimate simulation is virtual brain surgery. “The student looks through a screen and sees what looks like the inside of a brain,” Waite says. “When he turns the knob on the microsurgery manipulator … he knows when he made a mistake, and he can do it over and over until he gets it perfect. It’s very effective training and there is no risk to a patient.”
Universities Find Solutions for the Workplace
“We are one of only three universities in the country to offer a Ph.D. degree in modeling and simulation,” says Mikel Petty, director of the UA Huntsville Center for Modeling, Simulation and Analysis. Recently, nursing, business and M&S faculty teamed to determine “how changes in nursing staffing levels affected patient outcomes—death, injuries and complications. We developed software that nurse managers can use to set the best staff level.” The project spun off a business, Decision Innovations, which won a $100,000 grant from the Alabama Launchpad program in 2010.
At the main UA campus, an M&S project helps auto manufacturers simplify reprogramming their robotic assembly lines. “People who write programs that control robots usually write in a language which only a computer scientist can understand,” says Professor Jeff Gray, and each vendor uses its own language. “We’re developing modeling tools that allow automotive engineers to describe the movements that robots make with a visual model—dragging and dropping an icon of a robot’s arm, for example. Our tools then generate the code.”
UA Birmingham’s department of mechanical engineering has used computational fluid dynamics to model issues as diverse as the threat of pollutant dispersion for Homeland Security and the airflow of sleep apnea patients, says department chair Bharat Soni.
William Stevenson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Huntsville.