Aer E researchers receive $2.4 million grant to improve decision making with food, energy and water systems

Iowa State University researchers have received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to analyze food, energy and water (FEW) interdependencies and create a simulator that will assist in better decision making with FEW systems.

Christina Bloebaum

Led by Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Interim Department Chair, Christina Bloebaum, researchers will examine how decisions made by individual stakeholders within the FEW system can have an impact on everything else in the system. Further, the team will investigate how incentive and policy structures can be developed to achieve balance across stakeholders to avoid unintended consequences.

The researchers received a $2.4 million continuous grant from the NSF as a part of the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program. Bloebaum and her team were awarded $1.1 million this year and will receive the remaining $1.3 million next year. The grant is part of a $36 million initiative from the NSF and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to research how best to provide food, energy and water throughout the world as Earth’s population continues to rise.

As decisions about food, energy and water are made at a federal level, unintended consequences can occur at a local level that have disastrous outcomes.

“Because this is a coupled system, decision outcomes propagate throughout the entire system,” Bloebaum said. “With food, energy, and water, people have been making decisions in one subsystem without having any responsibility for the impact on the rest.”

The Aerospace Engineering Connection

Although it might seem like an odd pairing, Bloebaum and aerospace engineering colleague, Peng Wei, are bringing their aerospace engineering research to FEW systems because of the similarities of the two complex systems.

“My research is in the field of multidisciplinary design optimization,” Bloebaum said. “In MDO, we want to know things like, how do you best design a complex system such as an airplane or spacecraft system? How do you rigorously model the interactions in the complex system? With this project, we’re bringing our aerospace engineering systems knowledge to the world of food, energy and water, which is another complex system, to understand the inherent couplings and to investigate the best means of supporting decisions to achieve consensus across the FEW system.”

That complex push and pull is something aerospace engineers know well. The strategies involved in designing a complex aerospace system can translate well to other situations.

“I have been developing decision support tools and automation for the aviation community for years,” Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering Peng Wei said. “This is a new challenge and I am excited to bring my work to the food, energy and water problem setting to make my contribution to this community.”

FEW in Iowa

This is intake for water drain off from a field of soybean and, in the background, corn. The water drainage often has excess nitrates. Des Moines Water Works spends more than any other water works to remove the nitrates from the drinking water in Des Moines.

Food, energy and water resources play an especially important role in Iowa with the agriculture industry. An example of the impact that changes can have on coupled systems occurred recently with Iowa at the center.

Government subsidies for biofuels caused many Iowa farmers to switch from selling their corn as food to selling it for biofuel. As enough farmers made the switch, that set off food shortages in other parts of the world  because of the lack of corn being sold as food.

Another Iowa-centric issue pertains to the unanticipated high nitrate levels in drainage groundwater from excess fertilization of farm fields. The water then flows into the Racoon and Des Moines Rivers, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The excess nitrogen has been responsible for significant environmental impacts as well as high tax rates for Des Moines residents, given the need to remove the nitrates from their drinking water.

These domino effects are what the multidisciplinary team of researchers are trying to prevent by looking at large scale systems and understanding the couplings and the impact of them.

Simulating reality

One of the tools that the research team plans on creating to improve decision making is a simulator called IFEWS (Iowa Food Energy Water Simulator). Jim Oliver, Director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University will create the interactive visualization-based environment with the cyber-based simulator embedded within.

“Jim will create an environment that allows us to visualize the environment and then use our design and decision making strategies so that you can see how a decision will propagate throughout the system and the degree to which it impacts everything else,” Bloebaum said.

The simulator, which will match reality, gives researchers an opportunity to test different incentive and policy strategies to understand what the trades are.

Due to the large scope, the project will pull researchers from many disciplines to contribute.

“We’ve got people from agriculture and biosystems engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, and philosophy,” Bloebaum said. “We’re bringing all sorts of people together so that’s a challenge, but it’s also exciting so we think that it will be fun.”

The ISU team also includes Clark Wolf, Director and Professor of Philosophy, and Amy Kaleita, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering. Wolf is the Director of the Bioethics Program at ISU and performs research in sustainable agriculture, amongst other topics. Kaleita’s primary focus is on technology for precision conservation, with expertise in crop and hydrological modeling. The team will collaborate with with Ali Abbas, Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, Director of the Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making (DECIDE).

Paul Durbin awarded $1 million grant to study wall-bounded turbulence for U.S. Navy

Iowa State University aerospace engineering professor Paul Durbin will lead a $1,000,000 grant from the Department of Defense – U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to study wall-bounded turbulence. 

As Navy ships cruise through the water at 40 knots, even small objects along the hull such as barnacles, sand, and rivets can create turbulence that will affect the transport properties.

Paul Durbin, professor of aerospace engineering

Dr. Paul Durbin, professor of aerospace engineering at Iowa State University, received a $1 million grant from the Department of Defense – US Naval Research Laboratory to study wall-bounded turbulence by fundamental studies and data-driven modeling.

“The turbulent fluctuations are affecting the aerodynamic properties, or the drag, on the ship hull,” Durbin said. “The objective is to predict more complicated geometries than have wall-bounded turbulence to predict drag, lift, heat transfer, and lifetime erosion.”

Despite the massive size of a Navy ship, small objects can still cause problems. “Everything is bigger for the ship, so a barnacle is tiny comparatively,” Durbin said. “A barnacle for a ship might be more like dust. In aircraft engines, especially in the turbine, after the combustor you get carbon deposits that build up and that changes the heat transfer.”

Durbin, along with a researcher at the University of Michigan, will create simulations of wall-bounded turbulence that generate data. “We’re doing simulations and then we have different ways of modeling. We have two predictive strategies that we’re working on,” Durbin said.

With the first predictive strategy, Durbin will simulate the turbulence at much smaller resolutions so that it can become more practical. With the second, the researchers will develop predictive statistics through data driven modeling.

Kristin Yvonne Rozier | NSF


Kristin Yvonne Rozier


National Science Foundation

Award Title: 

CAREER: Theoretical Foundations of the UAS in the NAS Problem (Unmanned Aerial Systems in the National Air Space)

Award Amount:


Award Period Date:

February 15, 2016 – November 30, 2016





Due to their increasing use by civil and federal authorities and vast commercial and amateur applications, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) will be introduced into the National Air Space (NAS); the question is only how this can be done safely. Today, NASA and the FAA are designing a new, (NextGen) automated air traffic control system for all aircraft, manned or unmanned. New algorithms and tools will need to be developed to enable computation of the complex questions inherent in designing such a system while proving adherence to rigorous safety standards. Researchers must develop the tools of formal analysis to be able to address the UAS in the NAS problem, reason about UAS integration during the design phase of NextGen, and tie this design to on-board capabilities to provide runtime System Health Management (SHM), ensuring the safety of people and property on the ground. Read more.

Kristin Yvonne Rozier | NASA


Kristin Yvonne Rozier



Award Title: 

Multi-Platform, Multi-Architecture Runtime Verification of Autonomous Space Systems

Award Amount:


Award Period Date:






Autonomous systems are only capable of effective self-governing if they can reliably sense their own faults and respond to failures and uncertain environmental conditions. We propose to design a real-time, onboard runtime verification and system health management (SHM) framework called R2U2, to continuously monitor essential system components such as sensors, software, and hardware for detection and diagnosis of failures and violations of safety or performance rules during the mission of autonomous space systems, such as rovers, small satellites, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) flying in the skies of other planets. Read more about the research on NASA’s website.

Christina Bloebaum and The Origami Revolution

On February 15, 2017, PBS aired the documentary, The Origami Revolution, which looked at the way engineers use origami to design drugs, micro-robots, and to conduct space missions. This intersection of technology and the arts is made possible in part by Iowa State Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Christina Bloebaum.

While Bloebaum was a program officer with the National Science Foundation (NSF), she proposed a new idea for one of NSF’s more unique programs, EFRI, Emerging Frontiers for Research Innovation. The goal of EFRI is to fund high-risk research that explores the cutting-edge of science and engineering. 

Dr. Christina Bloebaum

Bloebaum’s cutting-edge idea actually involved no cutting at all. Along with Glaucio Paulino and Clark Cooper, Bloebaum’s idea was to explore the folding and unfolding of materials and structures to reduce the amount of parts used during production.  

“What I was looking at was an idea of how we could reduce parts in manufacturing using compliant mechanisms and collapsible folding parts,” Bloebaum said. “When Glaucio and I got together he said, ‘Since we’re focusing on folding and different scales, we ought to specifically think about origami.’”

Origami is the centuries-old tradition of folding two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional shapes. One of the most common origami
structures that people are familiar with is the paper crane, but Bloebaum, Paulino, and Cooper wanted to see if that type of thinking could be applied to engineering, biology, and medicine.

The new program, ODISSEI, Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation, received a majority of the EFRI funding in the first year, despite being one of three programs. The program’s success led to an unprecedented second year of funding

ODISSEI awarded nearly $30 million in 2012 and 2013 to 15 projects that all explored new paths of technology through the eyes of origami.

The PBS documentary profiled a few of the 15 projects that received funding, including self-folding robots, a collapsible solar array, and the folding of proteins to fight disease. In addition to exploring the engineering side of origami, the documentary also showed the advances being made on the biological side, which is something Bloebaum wanted to focus on when creating the program.

A foldable solar array is an example of using origami for engineering purposes.

“We wanted to do something more than just traditional engineering structures,” Bloebaum said. “Before my pitch I talked with Larry Howell, one of the people who was on the documentary that we funded, about the potentials of compliant mechanisms.

The idea behind compliant mechanisms is to use one piece of material that can move and change function as force is applied in one way or another. Hinges and levers aren’t used, thereby reducing the potential for failure. Compliant mechanisms and origami have many similarities, including using one material than can bend and fold as pressure is applied.

The use of origami design in science and engineering is only beginning to grow, and at a rapid pace. Since the creation of the ODISSEI program, scientists have found ways to create an Origami fold pattern from any object, as well as creating a 3D structure with a single sheet of paper.  

Click here to watch the full documentary from PBS which features a number of the research projects funded by ODISSEI.

Engineering researchers collaborate to study pipeline corrosion

Ashraf Bastawros, professor of aerospace engineering, has received a $300,000 grant from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA). Along with Dr. Kurt Hebert from chemical engineering, Dr. Pranav Shrotriya from mechanical engineering, and Dr. Leonard Bond from the Center of Non Destructive Evaluation, Bastawros will develop advanced detection methods to calculate the physical and mechanical changes associated with early stress corrosion cracking in high strength pipeline steel.

Ashraf Bastawros, Leonard Bond, Kurt Hebert, and Pranav Shrotriya

The United States currently has almost 210,000 miles of liquid pipeline, with some of those pipelines ranging in age from 50-80 years old. As those pipelines age and endure corrosion from the soil
they start to crack, which can lead to shutting down the pipeline or even worse, leaks or explosions that can cause death and massive amounts of destruction.

“The trouble with stress corrosion is the limits of detection,” Bastawros said. “People discover these cracks and it is already too late. The cracks are small and can not be detected.”

To perform an inspection, technicians will shut down the pipeline and run a robotic device through the the line as it takes readings on the interior of the pipeline. At this point, the device will only be able to read large cracks in the steel.  

“Our approach is very different. Pipelines will have a lot of sub-surface changes. What we are trying to identify is at a very early stage, what are those sub-surface changes and if we can measure them.”

The group will investigate how to identify the precursors of a large crack in a pipeline. If they can find a way to identify a problem before the crack reaches tens of millimeters, they can remedy the problem before mass damage occurs.

Bastawros envisions that the progress made in pipeline research could be applicable for many other uses. “Corrosion is not prone only to pipeline, it is everything,” Bastawros said. “It is a multibillion-dollar annual loss. It includes infrastructure, airborne assets, marine assets, energy distribution lines, as well as nuclear power.”

If the group can find success increasing the lifespan of pipelines, future opportunities are endless.

Two professors and Phd student predict new phase transformation in physics journal

Valery Levitas_Phase Transformation Figure 3Valery Levitas, Schafer Professor and faculty member of aerospace engineering and of mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering PhD student Hao Chen, and Assistant Professor Liming Xiong published their work in Physical Review Letters, a highly ranked physics journal.

In the paper, the researchers predicted and studied a new type of first-order phase transformations. Levitas, Xiong, and Chen found that if they apply special different stresses along different directions during transformation, the phase transition will occur homogeneously.

The energy barrier between phases that exists during normal phase transformation, disappears during the new homogenous transition. This means that that the entire volume of the material can be homogeneously compressed/decompressed between two phases and there is no need for nucleation and growth.

“There are large stresses at interfaces that can damage material as phase grows during traditional transformations. When you do direct-reverse phase transformation many times, there can be material damage and energy dissipation and then it will stop working,” Levitas said.

The three researchers found that by applying special stresses from different sides, the transformation can occur without the drawbacks of traditional phase transformation. “There are no nuclei, there are no interfaces, there is no damage, and there is no energy dissipation,” Levitas said. 

With no damage or energy dissipation, the material can serve much longer and without requiring the need for extra energy. This may revolutionize numerous practical applications, such as for actuation and biomedical applications utilizing shape memory alloys and energy transformation with caloric materials.

The theoretical work is the first of it’s kind and paves the way for new fundamental and applied directions in phase transformations.

Cracking the ice problem

Three aerospace engineering professors are combining their talents to investigate a widespread issue in the field of aerospace engineering. Ashraf Bastawros, Wei Hong, and Hui Hu will all contribute their expertise to a three-year NASA project which will explore mitigating icing on aircrafts.

Three Professors
Bastawros, Hong, and Hu

NASA, seeking data on reducing ice adhesion, as well as improving ice shedding from aircraft surfaces, sent out a request for researchers looking to study the issue. Not only would the researchers need to be qualified in the micromechanics of fracture, multiscale metaphysics modeling, and experimental aerodynamics, but they would also need to use an icing wind tunnel, of which only a handful exist in the US. 

It just so happens that Iowa State has the only university-based multi-functional icing research tunnel in the entire country. Built in 2014, the icing research tunnel can simulate icing phenomena over a range of conditions for various anti-/de-icing applications.

Not only does the aerospace engineering department possess the right equipment to do the research, they also have the right people for the job.

Hui Hu has researched icing physics and anti-icing/de-icing technology for NASA in the past, and will generate the ice using the wind tunnel. Wei Hong, with his expertise in multiscale multiphysics modeling, will develop predictive modeling capabilities for ice adhesion and assess the role of different surface topology and chemistry. Finally, the three professors will need to examine how the ice cracks as it sits on the wing, which is where Ashraf Bastawros will lend his knowledge of fracture mechanics and experimental micromechanics.

“That is the unique attribute of this proposal. It really transcends many fields which is why I liked to find Wei and Hui along with myself, Bastawros said.”

The trio will print a 3D model of the aircraft wing and let the ice build up on it inside the wind tunnel. From there, they can start to crack it under the same humidity and wind speed it would experience during flight.

“The whole idea is to determine how that ice is attaching to the aircraft critical control surfaces. We will study different coatings and surfaces that effect this interaction,” Bastawros said. “Now, can you characterize the different coatings with a number? Can you say, this coating is better than that coating and by how much?”

By experimenting with surface coatings, Bastawros, Hong, and Hu hope to find an effective way to repel the ice or to create a surface where the ice won’t adhere at all.

NASA will be interested in the field data that the researchers develop and hope to recreate any findings in the icing wind tunnel at the NASA Glenn Research Center.

Levitas receives ISU award for outstanding achievement in research

Dr. Valery Levitas, Iowa State’s Schafer Professor of aerospace engineering and of mechanical engineering, has been named the 2016 recipient of the ISU Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research. This award recognizes faculty members for outstanding career achievements in research, outstanding national and international recognition in the academic community, and a substantial positive impact of their mentorship and/or teaching on undergraduate students, graduate students and/or postdoctoral associates.

Dr. Levitas developed the first conceptual multiscale approach for high pressure mechanochemistry. This theory predicts new methods of material synthesis (in particular, for superhard materials) and search for new materials. Notably, his team transformed boron nitride from graphite-like to superhard at record low pressure, which may serve as a precursor of new technologies.

He also discovered virtual melting as a new mechanism of crystal-crystal and crystal-amorphous phase transformations and plastic deformation  at temperatures hundreds and thousands degrees below the melting temperature. Virtual melting is predicted using a developed, advanced thermodynamic approach and confirmed by large-scale molecular dynamics simulations of shockwave propagation in metals,  by experiments on phase transformations in ferroelectric nanofibers, and by phase field simulations for energetic materials.

Currently, Dr. Levitas is working on two long-term projects supported by National Science Foundation and projects from Office of Naval Research, Army Research Office, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.