Skip to main content

Foundations for a Smart Tomorrow

Of all the challenges facing our planet, perhaps none is more basic than the issue of managing energy needs, managing natural resources, and dealing with the integrity of power structures both new and aging. Engineers at Vanderbilt are at work on the next generation of structurally sound power systems, new energy sources, ways to preserve resources, and better solutions to pollution control, among others.

KoutsoukosEach time you engage your car's cruise control, use electricity from the nation's power grid or connect to the Web on your smartphone, you're using cyber-physical systems, which enable computers to interact dynamically with humans. The use of CPS is expanding in systems ranging from energy-efficient structures and water quality monitoring to agriculture and military installations.

The National Science Foundation has made CPS one of its key areas of research, with investments exceeding $150 million during the last four years.

As recognized CPS experts, Vanderbilt's Xenofon Koutsoukos , Gabor Karsai and Janos Sztipanovits are helping develop best practices for more efficient, resilient, responsive and effective systems.

Researchers from Vanderbilt, University of California-Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of Michigan recently received a five-year, $9 million NSF grant to help determine the most efficient approach to designing and operating cyber-physical systems that support energy, national security, health and transportation priorities.

Solar and wind facilityThe project, Foundations of Resilient Cyber-Physical Systems (known as FORCES), charges researchers with testing theories and recommending processes regarding CPS. The researchers will also consider economic analysis and factors, which should benefit society overall.

Vanderbilt's contribution to the multi-institutional collaboration is to develop new, open system tools for CPS designers and operators, focusing on those used for large-scale networked CPS systems. These resilient control tools will make complex, interconnected networks better able to withstand a wide range of disruptions, including those caused by natural disasters, human error or attack.

The tools and application will be tested in real-world scenarios involving electric power distribution and consumption in response to real-time consumer demand, as well as in transportation networks.

Koutsoukos, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering; Sztipanovits, the E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Engineering; and Karsai, professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science, will concentrate on threat assessment and diagnostics, robust networked control, system security co-design and interdependent risk assessment.

The three are part of the university's Institute for Software Integrated Systems, led by Sztipanovits. The research also makes use of ISIS' expertise in model-based design.

The new tools and comprehensive processes could lead to advances in blackout-free electricity creation and distribution, pollution detection, cost-effective renewable clean energy, construction of energy-aware buildings, and even safe and rapid evacuation in response to natural or man-made disasters.

The Vanderbilt research is supported by NSF award 1238959.

From the need for innovative energy sources to the challenges of providing clean, safe water here and abroad, Vanderbilt's engineers are helping provide solutions for our changing and growing world.


PintauroRelief for the Power Grid
America's increasing need for energy strains the existing electrical power grid and puts industry, consumers and government at risk for power outages. Since the electric grid has limited ability to store energy, electricity must constantly be generated. Peter Pintauro , the H. Eugene McBrayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, works on initiatives from the NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy to develop durable, low-cost, hydrogen-bromine flow batteries that can collect power at off-peak hours and store it for times of high demand.

City power usagePintauro, a leading expert on fuel cell membranes and electrodes, is investigating new membrane materials that would lower the cost and improve the performance of advanced hydrogen-bromine batteries. These energy storage and generation devices rely on membranes to separate active materials and keep them from mixing while catalysts attached to the membrane speed up the chemical reactions needed to generate electricity. Pintauro's membranes have a unique nanofiber design that is mechanically strong and cost-competitive with commercial materials.

The hydrogen-bromine battery system would cost less per kilowatt-hour than today's best systems and allow the storage of energy produced by alternative sources such as wind and solar power. Partners on the three-year, $1.72 million grant (DE-AR0000262) from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy are TVN Systems, University of Kansas and Vanderbilt. Collaborating on the four-year, NSF Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation work are Vanderbilt, University of Kansas, University of California-Santa Barbara, and University of Texas at Arlington. Pintauro's team on the NSF project includes Research Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Ryszard Wycisk and Ph.D. student Jun Woo Park .


Changing World, Changing Water Needs
U.S. headlines are full of stories about drought conditions, water restrictions and disputed water sources. Water scarcity is even worse in developing countries like Sri Lanka. Population growth, shifts in land Hornberger use, competing demands for water and energy, and changing climate conditions create challenges for a country that traditionally has relied on irrigation for agriculture. George Hornberger , the Craig E. Philip Professor of Engineering, leads an interdisciplinary institute studying water scarcity and agriculture in the South Asian island nation and what it might mean for the rest of the world. Since irrigated agriculture accounts for nearly 90 percent of fresh water usage, water resource management is vital for food security, health and political stability. Using a five-year, $3.7 million NSF grant, Hornberger and co-researchers from the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment are examining how small rice farmers respond to drought and other climate changes. From the data, the team will generate possible scenarios that would help farmers and by extension, other populations be less vulnerable to water scarcity. Like other VIEE initiatives, the project involves Vanderbilt experts and students from the social and natural sciences as well as engineering.

Hornberger, a National Academy of Engineering member and the director of VIEE, focuses on how hydrology and environmental engineering can help balance environmental impact and human needs.

The project is supported by NSFEAR 1204685.


Spring Rescue
They didn't pave paradise and put up a parking lot, but it was almost as bad. Approximately 100 years ago, an abundant underwater spring under Nashville's historic Centennial Park was capped and piped into the city's sewer system where Centennial Parkit was unnecessarily treated as wastewater. The spring was rediscovered recently during development of a multimillion-dollar master plan for the 116-year-old park, which is listed on the National Register for Historic Places. With internationally known consulting, design, construction and operations firm CH2M Hill as their client and partner, students in Vanderbilt's Civil and Environmental Engineering program developed a component of the plan that calls for the spring to be excavated and used as a water feature enhancing the natural beauty of the green space. The spring will also be used to feed to a new lake created as part of the design, irrigate the park and fill existing park lakes. The existing two lakes will also benefit from new pumps and water flow that will improve water circulation, cut down on odors and brackish appearances, and make visiting the park—a popular green oasis in the middle of the city—a better experience for residents, visitors and wildlife. Uncovering the spring and using it as a water source for irrigation is a key sustainable component of the master plan, reducing stress on the sewer system and use of domestic water by the park.