Pairadigm for Discovery - Water-Based Renewable Energy

Baylor STEM faculty thrive on research partnerships

Like faculty at most research institutions today, Baylor researchers in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—long ago learned that joining forces with colleagues both inside and outside the institution results in a sum of accomplishments that is much greater than its parts. That’s especially true of early- to mid-career investigators whose formative years in training were spent in the interdisciplinary environments that so often characterize research institutions. Some bring with them to Baylor longstanding partnerships, while others find opportunities to develop partnerships with new colleagues with whom they share common research interests.

Collaborations can also form spontaneously between researchers whose interests simply mesh at first meeting. That’s what happened to two Baylor researchers who met during their first semester on the Baylor faculty.

It took a couple of years for Dr. Joe Kuehl, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in Baylor’s School of Engineering & Computer Science, to follow his mathematician wife, Conni Liaw, up Texas Highway 6 from Texas A&M and College Station to Waco. With doctorates in both oceanography and mechanical engineering, Kuehl had been researching ocean currents and hypersonics for nearly five years in Aggieland when a spot opened up at Baylor. Kuehl’s experience in fluid dynamics fit the bill, and then some.

Dr. Scott James, assistant professor of geosciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, came to Baylor from a private water resources company he joined after an eleven-year stint at Sandia National Laboratory’s Soil and Sediment Transport Laboratory. A registered professional engineer as well as a geologist, James became a master modeler of the movement of water, air and the massive volumes of particulate matter they carry from place to place.

Kuehl and James found themselves in the same faculty orientation class in August 2014, and the pieces began to fall in place immediately.

“I was the last of a five-professor hire for CRASR—the Center for Reservoir and Aquatic System Research—and that was designed to be a multidisciplinary hire,” James recalls. “Part of the orientation process was to talk about what our areas of interest are. When I heard what Joe was doing I thought, ‘I’ve got to sit next to this guy at lunch to talk about projects. We have a lot in common in our background.’”

“I trained as what you’d call a blue-water oceanographer,” Kuehl explains. “I do large-scale geophysical fluid dynamics. Scott does a lot of modeling of flows and mixing processes in ground water and surface water. Now he is kind of moving toward off-shore and I’m trying to work my way inland. So we are meeting in this estuary kind of interface, what we call ‘muddy water.’ That opens up some really interesting ways of looking at problems because, even though we could both look at the same region, we each have a different view of what’s going on and can come up with what we hope are some creative solutions.”

“Right,” James agrees. “I’ve done a lot of simulations on reactive flow and transport in surface and ground water systems, and Joe’s done experimental work in those areas. It was a perfect match to put the modeler and the experimentalist together.”

The two are applying their complementary skillsets to a variety of problem areas, including water-based renewable energy systems such as hydroturbines, large whirling devices that, when anchored in rivers, tidal regions or swiftly moving ocean currents, work like underwater windmills to generate electrical power.

Water is a much steadier and more predictable source of energy than wind, but it’s also problematic in different ways. One of the big problems with water-powered systems is keeping them moored to the river bottom or sea floor. The constant pressure of the current and movement of the spinning, multi-ton devices take a toll on restraints and they soon work free. The researchers are looking to trees as a possible “bio-inspired” solution.

“You’ve seen pictures of a tree in a waterfall where the water is flowing all around the tree; how does it stay there?” James asks. “We think it’s because the tree’s roots are sucking up the moisture, drying up the soil. That keeps the tree in place. We’re working to apply the same principle to moorings by developing a way to keep the sediment around the restraint from fluidizing, allowing it to pull free.”

The pair also are working with a third Baylor researcher to form a new Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Group that draws on Baylor expertise across an unprecedented range of fields.

“Most of the impetus for that came from Bruce Byars,” James says. [Byars is the director of Baylor’s Center for Spatial Research.] “He’s getting all of us together who have common interests to form a research group that will solve geophysical fluid dynamics problems that range everywhere from flows of magma in the Earth’s core all the way up through the atmosphere. So we’ll span the entire range of environmental flows.”

“Actually,” Kuehl adds, “[Baylor Institute for Air Science director] Dr. Trey Cade knows space weather. If you take in all the rest of us, we fill in the full spectrum from magma flows up to the solar wind and everything in-between; it certainly has potential.”