UT has recently garnered significant national accolades, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Trailblazer award for retention and graduation rate gains and the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification for outreach. These successes are due to the hard work of our innovative employees. Here’s a look at three College of Engineering faculty members who are trailblazers in and out of the classroom.
One of the first people on the scene after Knoxville’s historic McClung Warehouses burned to the ground on a cold March night in 2007 was David Icove, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
As the ruins still smoldered, Icove gathered data to model the spread of the fire to help investigators figure out what had happened.
Icove is an internationally recognized trailblazer in this area called forensic engineering.
“Basically, forensic engineering means applying a scientific approach to the aftermath of certain incidents and product failures,” said Icove
Icove has co-authored the most recognized forensic engineering textbook for investigating fires and explosions, as well as detecting the criminal acts of arsonists and bombers.
He has testified before congressional committees and authored countless works on the subject. He is also a registered professional engineer, a fire and explosion investigator by the National Association of Fire Investigators, a senior life member of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and a fellow in the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.
With more than forty years in various law enforcement roles, including with the FBI, Icove was a natural choice for the Underwriters Laboratories Professor of Practice in the College of Engineering, the first such named position at UT.
Through his classes which lead to a graduate certificate in fire protection engineering, students learn computer fire modeling and forensic engineering investigation skills.
“The knowledge and experience that he brings to his classes goes far beyond what students could learn from a textbook,” said Leon Tolbert, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Being able to provide hands-on real-world fundamentals to his classes is a huge asset.”
At first glance, the term soft materials might evoke thoughts of pillows, blankets, and sweatshirts.
In reality, the field of soft materials covers everything from liquids to crystals to biomaterials, with applications ranging from LCD TV displays to tires.
Helping lead the charge into researching these materials and coming up with new applications is Joshua Sangoro, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
Through his Sangoro Group, studies are being conducted into understanding the relationship between the structure of a substance and its properties, mainly in an electrochemical sense.
One such subject of particular importance involves soft materials known as polymerized ionic liquids.
The reason they hold such promise is that they combine the electrochemical characteristics of ionic liquids—in simplest terms, a salt that maintains a liquid state unless boiled—with the mechanical properties of polymers.
As Sangoro explained, gaining a better understanding of that relationship, and how to control it, could lead to major breakthroughs in electronics and technology.
“They have remarkable potential as safer and tunable electrolytes,” said Sangoro. “Their exceptional properties make them promising for applications ranging from lithium ion batteries to electrochromic devices, dye-sensitized solar cells, field-effect transistors, and actuators.
“They hold great promise for shaping the next generation of electronics.”
With lithium ion batteries, for example, one of the main downsides of their current use is the amount of heat they generate. Though they are largely safe, there have been instances where overheating has led to fires.
Because the batteries are one of the main power supplies of choice in laptops and smartphones, an improvement in their performance and safety would be a welcome step.
That’s where Sangoro’s research proves valuable, providing much more stable ionic liquids in place of the highly flammable electrolytes currently used by some manufacturers.
“The use of polymerized ionic liquids as electrolytes will contribute to safer batteries,” said Sangoro. “Additionally, the wider electrochemical windows of ionic liquids will lead to higher capacity batteries as they will be able to support much higher voltages than the current electrolytes.”
Sangoro also pointed out that recent studies have shown that certain ionic liquids have a unique film-forming ability that leads to longer battery life.
A rising star in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering also happens to be one of its youngest.
Andy Sarles, born in West Virginia as the 1982 World’s Fair was winding down in Knoxville, has already left his mark on the college, as a student and more recently as an assistant professor.
Through his Bioinspired Materials and Transduction Laboratory, Sarles has broadened the understanding of biologically derived materials to allow for improved engineering use.
“We’ve looked at how molecules from plants and animal cells can be better utilized in constructing artificial membranes,” said Sarles. “The hope is that eventually these building blocks can lead to new ways of designing and building devices and materials that sense, harness energy, and communicate like cells.”
Learning how cells and molecules serve as transducers in the natural world could help improve medical screening devices. A key is the role of autonomic, or involuntary, behavior, like the reactions of the nervous system.
The project is funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and interfaces Sarles’s team at UT with researchers at Virginia Tech, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and the University of Maryland.
“The autonomic behavior of many things in nature comes from the ability of systems to communicate at the cellular level and from their compartmentalization,” said Sarles. “Those features also enable collectivity, the ability of smaller things coming together to act as a larger unit.
“If we can implement functional biological molecules in synthetic assemblies that resemble the cellular environment, we can start moving toward more responsive life-like materials.”
Sarles also had a hand in another important breakthrough.
Along with colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sarles co-authored a key study on the interaction of water droplets on oil-infused surfaces, something which could help pull clean water from fog or serve as a novel platform for molecular detection of airborne or surface-bound species.
That work has already gained some notice, appearing in the National Academy of Sciences’ official journal.
“His expertise and ideas are a real benefit for our students,” said Matthew Mench, head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering. “He’s allowed us to offer new techniques and research to students that help us stay on the cutting edge of bioinspired materials.”
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