Before Wilbur and Orville Wright succeeded in flying the first manned, controlled, power-driven, heavier-than-air craft in North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1903, the brothers conducted extensive research on the concepts of how things fly with the goal of creating a working airplane.
They studied the successes and failures of others, read books on aeronautics, corresponded with engineers, and transferred knowledge that they had acquired from working on printing presses and bicycles and by building kites. They devoted time to observe birds in flight, which helped them understand and apply the technique of roll control by warping a portion of an airplane wing. After all, in the words of Wilbur Wright, “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.”
More than a century afer the Wright brothers’ flight, researchers— including Baylor faculty—continue to look skyward to advance the knowledge of aviation.
Faculty and students in the University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) take part in research to improve a variety of issues in the aviation industry—from icing on wings and turbines and composite materials for jets to radar, gas turbines and quiet propellers—to impact safety, performance efficiencies and cost effectiveness.
Dr. Stephen McClain, associate professor of mechanical engineering, joined the ECS faculty in 2007 and is among those whose research is helping to forge the future of aviation.
”The Christian mission of the University as well as the commitment to excellence in both engineering research and education were primary reasons I wanted to come to Baylor.”
“The Christian mission of the University as well as the commitment to excellence in both engineering research and education were primary reasons I wanted to come to Baylor,” he says.
McClain now works to make meaningful contributions to the University’s Christian mission through his research and teaching.
He is engaged in three externally sponsored projects directly related to the aviation industry, and in all of those projects, collaboration with fellow faculty and students is key.
One of his research projects is a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) collaborative agreement focusing on airframe in-flight icing physics.
“The specific issue of interest is measuring and modeling roughness on aircraft surfaces that forms during the early stages of ice accretion events and quantifying how the ice roughness affects the energy transfer from the water to the airstream,” McClain says. “This research is intended to improve ice accretion codes developed by NASA that will be used by U.S. manufacturers in the design of future-generation aircraft.”
Another project is a collaborative endeavor with Dr. Dennis O’Neal, ECS dean, that focuses on developing models that describe the frost accumulation and frost roughness evolution when an aircraft sits at an airport with full wing fuel tanks following a flight.
“The project is intended to provide reference information for the FAA to enable evaluation of certification exemption requests from aircraft manufacturers for take-off with frost contaminated wings,” McClain says of the work funded by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant.
He also is working on a privately sponsored venture with Dr. Randall Jean, the project’s lead researcher and professor of electrical and computer engineering. This research involves developing microwave technologies to detect ice inside the compressors of turbofan jet engines.
“The effort is intended to provide pilots with early warnings of high-altitude, ice-crystal icing events long before an engine power roll-back or flame-out occurs,” McClain says.
McClain’s work in aircraft icing research led to his election as an Associate Fellow for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The honor recognizes individuals “who have accomplished or been in charge of important engineering or scientific work, or who have done original work of outstanding merit, or who have otherwise made outstanding contributions to the arts, sciences, or technology of aeronautics or astronautics,” as defined by the AIAA. He is one of 134 Associate Fellows being inducted in 2018.
Also with the potential to impact the aviation industry is a Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory project through Pennsylvania State University that McClain is working on in partnership with Dr. Lesley Wright, associate professor of mechanical engineering. The research deals with design methodologies for additively manufactured gas turbine components that impact roughness.
“Gas turbine engines are the engine of choice for most aircraft,” Wright, whose work mostly focuses on research related to gas turbine cooling technology, says. “Increasing the temperature of the air within the engine increases the amount of power the engine can produce. Due to the extreme temperatures and mechanical stresses seen in these engines, most components are made of metal. These components must be actively cooled so that they can withstand the rising temperatures within the hot section of the engine.”
Wright and McClain have worked with the government as well as engine manufacturers to develop new cooling technology for both the combustion and turbine sections of
“Increasing the maximum temperature within the engine allows for more power production while maintaining/reducing the overall weight of the engine,” Wright says. “Increasing the thrust-to-weight ratio of the engine increases the overall performance of the aircraft.”
McClain adds, “While this project focuses primarily on land-based turbines for power generation, these technologies may eventually make it into aviation gas-turbine engines.”
He has hope that his research will provide positive benefits for the aviation industry.
”My ultimate aviation goals for the research are the same as for any engineering project: make the products safer, more energy efficient, and more cost effective.”
“My ultimate aviation goals for the research are the same as for any engineering project: make the products safer, more energy efficient, and more cost effective,” McClain says. “The three projects that are directly aviation industry-related are safety issues. Airframe icing, cold-soaked fuel frost on wings, and engine icing are all serious safety concerns for the aviation industry. As the physics of each situation are better understood, the objective is to enable designs that are safe while meeting the weight and fuel consumption requirements of future-generation aircraft.”
McClain has conducted much of his research in the Rogers Engineering and Computer Science Building, including work using the Baylor Subsonic Wind Tunnel; however he is beginning to migrate his equipment—such as the new Liquid Film and Cloud Tunnel, which is a smaller wind tunnel—to set up shop in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC).
The 300,000-square-foot BRIC is the cornerstone of a 21-acre Central Texas Technology and Research Park, and it has helped put Baylor on the academic map as a nationally ranked research institution replete with state-of-the-art spaces for research centers, wet and dry labs, workforce training, and academic symposia.
Having ideal spaces conducive to conducting top-notch research is one thing, but it’s the Baylor community of faculty, students, administrators and other partners that makes the most difference.
“In addition to being capital assets for research, the facilities are significant in recruiting good students and new faculty members,” McClain says. “Baylor cultivates highly talented students with excellent work ethics. I would not be able to work on the projects I have today without the past and current students who have worked so hard in my lab.
“Further, I have incredibly gifted colleagues who are called to their work and who are passionate about both engineering research and education.”
Randall Jean was called to his work, indeed, when one Sunday morning in 2002 he opened an electrical engineering magazine before church and happened upon a posting for a faculty position in Baylor ECS.
“I wasn’t looking for a job when I opened up a magazine to the page of the Baylor ad and read the words ‘active Christian mission.’ It was as if God walked into the room, and I knew without question at that minute that I’d be joining Baylor,” he says. “I told my wife that morning that we were moving to Waco.”
Jean and his family did move to Waco some nine months later.
Prior to joining the Baylor ECS faculty, Jean began his research at Texas A&M University, where he developed an interest in microwave-applied metrology as a doctoral student and conducted research at the Remote Sensing Center to build upon NASA studies involving the use of metrology in the lunar program. Jean served on the faculty of Texas A&M for eight years, leaving academia to run his own startup technology company specializing in microwave sensors for about 17 years.
Jean’s wealth of combined experience in the academic and business worlds provides indispensable insight and guidance in the lab, the field and the classroom and influences undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students who are working alongside faculty members in their research.
Such influence on ECS students is invaluable. It was thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of Chris Faulkner, BSECE ’12, MSECE ’14, that Baylor received a donation of a $90,000 Pratt & Whitney engine.
“We were in need of a turbine engine for our research. Chris went in search of an engine at the Waco airport and asked the local company, Blackhawk Modifications, if they had a suitable engine,” Jean says. “Blackhawk had received an ideal engine that day and graciously agreed to donate it to Baylor.”
Baylor students also have proven to be influential in Jean’s research being conducted along with McClain.
“Dr. McClain was talking about his research, and the question arose: can you measure ice in jet engines?” Jean says. “[From there,] we started conversations with people at NASA and others in the aviation industry and convinced investors that we could measure it.”
Part of that process requires building a working prototype, and the well-equipped facilities of the BRIC are vital to create such technology.
“I’ve been in the BRIC since 2013, and it’s fantastic,” Jean says. “When you bring potential sponsors into the BRIC, they have to take you seriously.”
Investment and proof of concept are also part and parcel in the process of earning patents.
”The patent process is expensive and arduous. It can often take up to five years or more.”
“The patent process is expensive and arduous. It can often take up to five years or more,” Jean says.
Nevertheless, earning a patent represents the highest level of excellence in your research. Jean holds more than a dozen U.S. patents and corresponding international patents in the field of microwave-applied metrology. He may soon earn another as Baylor has applied for a patent for the jet engine technology. [Editor’s Note: Jean will take a leave of absence this year, and Dr. Brandon Herrera, BSECE ’08, MSECE ’11, PhD ECE ’15—one of Jean’s former doctoral students—will continue Jean’s microwave research.]
Working with such enterprises as L-3 Communications, Birkeland Current, Delta-G Aerospace, Sandia National Laboratories and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dr. David Jack, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is immersed in research with application in several industries including aerospace. His work using ultrasound technology—a nondestructive testing method—to reveal the structure of composite materials, such as that used in the wing of an airplane—has led to the first patent application originating from work in the Materials Characterization Laboratory at the BRIC, and a number of other related patents are in process.
Jack’s research centers on the analysis and design procedures that effectively and efficiently represent the relationship between the processing conditions and product performance for composites fabricated from a broad spectrum of engineering inclusions.
His work, which ranges from nano- to macro-levels, involves industrial applications that include everything from niche military aerospace multifunctional aircraft panels to large-volume, low-price automotive components. Far from being solely an academic endeavor, the work involves useable technology that is critical for quality control of manufactured parts, which is essential when it comes to operating and cost efficiencies and to safety—for example, by predicting the likelihood of accidents.
More than a dozen Baylor undergraduate and graduate students have worked alongside Jack in the lab in multidisciplinary research, including on projects that require a high level of mathematics.
Pursuing research in a Christian environment for a “bigger purpose” is important to Jack, who came to Baylor in 2009 and was attracted to the University because of its Christian mission and commitment to teaching the next generation of Christian leaders in their chosen vocations.
”I had been taught in school [that] your religion and your career are separate, but at Baylor, I learned it was not the case.”
“I had been taught in school [that] your religion and your career are separate, but at Baylor, I learned it was not the case,” Jack says. “You don’t have to disconnect your faith and your vocation; they are intricately tied together. You are one person, not two separate people.”
Dr. Charles Baylis, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is also mentoring the next generation of Christian leaders in the classroom and the lab with research opportunities in RF/microwave amplifier and oscillator design; biological applications of RF/microwave measurements; and transistor modeling and related measurement techniques.
Baylis is working with Dr. Robert Marks, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, and professors from Purdue University and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) scientists and engineers, in a Collaborative Alliance (CA) to develop next-generation radar hardware. Building from their research with colleagues in the Wireless and Microwave Circuits and Systems labs in the BRIC developing algorithms for advanced radar systems with a grant from the National Sciences Foundation, their pursuits coincide with work being conducted at the Adelphi Laboratory Center (ALC) in Adelphi, Maryland. The CA is infusing more than $850,000 in funding into the research, providing invaluable opportunities for Baylor undergraduate and graduate student researchers in the BRIC and at the ALC.
Baylis, who came to Baylor in 2008, also serves as the director of the Baylor Wireless and Microwave Circuits and Systems Program.
“Unlike conventional radar, next-generation radar transmitters coexist with wireless communication devices using the same airwaves and can adjust themselves on the fly and allow for adaptation to battlefield conditions,” he says. “Most importantly, next-generation radar will assist American warriors who sacrificially put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.”
The developments for future radar systems are expected to go into operation around 2030.
Dr. Kenneth Van Treuren, associate dean of research and faculty development and professor of mechanical engineering, is among many participating in advancing Baylor’s reputation for research.
After retiring from a successful 21-year career as a pilot in the United States Air Force (USAF), which included teaching cadets at the USAF Academy in aeronautics, Van Treuren joined the Baylor faculty in 1998. At the time, his interest was more on the University’s Christian stewardship and excellence in scholarship rather than potential research opportunities.
”I saw the environment at Baylor—the small class sizes, the excellent students and the Christian mission—and was impressed; it was a calling to come here.”
“I saw the environment at Baylor—the small class sizes, the excellent students and the Christian mission—and was impressed; it was a calling to come here,” Van Treuren says.
In the span of his 20-year tenure at Baylor, however, he has witnessed ECS’s rise to include more master’s programs, the introduction of doctoral programs, new high-tech lab spaces, increased funding sources, and the addition of highly esteemed faculty active in vital research. Baylor now ranks as a “university with high research activity,” as deemed by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education; and in line with the University’s Pro Futuris vision, ECS is an instrumental component of the University’s aspiration to attain international recognition as a “Carnegie-classified Research University with very high research activity.”
Although he has witnessed the dramatic changes at ECS—and Baylor—through the years, Van Treuren says one aspect has never changed: the Christian mission.
“The growth of ECS has been amazing, and our engineering programs are tremendous. In particular, mechanical engineering nationwide has grown tremendously; the versatility of the mechanical engineering degree exposes students to many different topics and opens a lot of doors,” he says. “Of course, you can go to any of 40-plus universities in Texas for an engineering degree, so why come to Baylor? Because of our Christian mission and heritage. We offer outstanding engineering programs in the context of Christian principles. That’s who we are. We help make [students’ education] meaningful and prepare them to face the world.”
Another constant is that the area of aviation is traditionally popular among students within ECS. Van Treuren brings a treasure-trove of insights and experience as a veteran Air Force pilot into the classroom and the lab, adding a dimension to learning that can’t be obtained from a textbook.
His current work includes three projects, which have had as many as 10 students participating in the research process at any given time. Van Treuren and his team have already achieved remarkable levels of success on a project for the USAF in which they are designing new propellers for unmanned aerial systems to make them more efficient and quieter than the currently used stock propeller.
They also are working to design and optimize a small wind turbine that will work well in places that aren’t ideal for wind turbines.
Additionally, they are researching low-pressure turbine flow separation in jet engines, a problem that is compounded when flying at high altitudes; by studying the physics of how flow separation happens, they are learning how to fix the problem and, as a result, design engines that operate more efficiently.
Van Treuren says conducting research helps students and faculty stay sharp and up to date with—if not ahead of—technology and innovative ideas.
”Hands-on experience through labs helps students learn better. Research informs what they’re learning in the classroom.”
“Hands-on experience through labs helps students learn better. Research informs what they’re learning in the classroom,” he says. “Also, the more our students get outside the building and present papers at conferences, it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Students gain the experience and confidence concerning their research. Baylor gains some prestige because when our students go out the door, they’re an extension of us, and they reflect very well on Baylor.”
As the Wright Brothers altered the course of history through ingenuity, hard work, perseverance and determination, so, too, are Baylor researchers and students as they navigate the uncharted skies of the aerospace industry—an industry with virtually endless research possibilities.
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Synergy, ECS’s magazine. To view the entire issue, visit baylor.edu/synergy/2018.