Science and technology news from Iowa State University

Students engineer sustainable solutions

Teams of Iowa State University students are working to understand how a Brazilian university powers its campus with renewable energy and how drinking water in Uganda can be quickly and safely cleaned. The goal of the Brazil project is to produce a big-picture, computer model of the university's energy system. And that should help the Federal University of Vicosa reach its goal of operating entirely by renewable energy by 2010. The goal of the Uganda project is to develop a simple, sustainable and small-scale system to disinfect water. The students are considering technologies that use solar ultraviolet radiation and a photocatalyst to speed the cleaning process. The projects are part of the Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and the Planet program. The program is a competition that provides grants to teams of college students so they can find sustainable answers to environmental problems. The program awarded each of the Iowa State teams nearly $10,000 for phase one of the competition. Teams will present their projects to judges in May. Winners will receive more money to move their projects toward implementation. Both teams are composed of students from the Iowa State chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, a group dedicated to reducing poverty and improving global sustainability. Brian Steward, an Iowa State associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and a leader of the Brazil project, said the research will help students see a bigger picture. "The ability to look at things from a systems perspective is very, very valuable," he said. "In engineering education, we have tended to train at the detail level. Contemporary and future issues, such as global sustainability, will require engineers to have systems-thinking skills." Say-Kee Ong, an Iowa State associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, is a leader of the Uganda project.

For more information, contact Steward at (515) 294-1452, Ong at (515) 294-3927 or Michael Snodgrass, the chapter president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, at (515) 321-2343.

Counting everybody

The U.S. Census and other population surveys don't always count everybody. Minorities, renters, people in their 20s and other groups are harder to count because they can be harder to find. A team of Iowa State University statisticians is working to solve that problem. Making sure everybody is counted is important to a place like Iowa, said Song Chen, an associate professor of statistics. Congressional seats and federal money are all on the line when the U.S. counts its population every 10 years. The National Science Foundation has awarded Chen and two other Iowa State researchers -- Jean Opsomer, an associate professor of statistics, and Sarah Nusser, a professor of statistics -- $280,416 over three years to come up with a way to account for people missed in population surveys. The researchers are affiliated with Iowa State's Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology. They plan to use a combination of statistical methods to come up with a new and efficient way to count populations of people and even wildlife. Chen said the U.S. Census Bureau has taken an interest in the research project.

For more information, contact Chen at (515) 294-2729 or the Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology at (515) 294-5242.

Improving forecasts of thunderstorm rainfall

Clusters of thunderstorms sweep across Iowa every summer, dropping enough rain to keep the state green and growing. But it's hard to predict how much rain those storm clusters will produce. A research team led by Bill Gallus, an Iowa State associate professor of geological and atmospheric sciences, has won a National Science Foundation grant of $345,229 over three years to find a better way to make predictions. Gallus will work with Moti Segal, a scientist in Iowa State's agronomy department. Current rainfall forecasts for the complex storms rely on computer models. Gallus said those models haven't been very accurate. But as computer technology gets more and more powerful, Gallus said forecasters are able to run multiple models to look for the most likely storm activity. They're also able to run more precise models featuring many more grid points on their forecast maps. Gallus said the researchers will also study whether better forecast methods can accurately predict the winds in thunderstorm clusters. These storms are very important to Iowa and the Midwest. "Without these storms," Gallus said, "the Midwest would be a desert."

For more information, contact Gallus at (515) 294-2270.

Engineering help for developing countries

Mark Bryden, an Iowa State associate professor of mechanical engineering, hopes engineers will develop an ethic of pro-bono service. He certainly has. Bryden has a lab and some of his research team dedicated to studying how the wood-burning cook stoves used by billions of people in developing countries can be safer and more efficient. He's also the founding and current president of a group called ETHOS, Engineers in Technical and Humanitarian Opportunities of Service. The group will meet in Kirkland, Wash., on Jan. 28 and 29 to discuss the latest lab research, field tests, technology standards and policy issues involving cook stoves. And Bryden is proposing a new engineering course that would take students to developing countries. The course could take students to Honduras this summer. The efforts won't help everybody who depends on a simple cook stove -- the work is like "shoveling sand against the sea," Bryden said -- but he's going to keep at it. "The job is enormous," he said. "But we're making a difference one family at a time."

For more information, contact Bryden at (515) 294-3891.

Iowa State students defend their cyber defense title

Members of Team Alpha successfully defended their title in Iowa State University's Cyber Defense Competition. This fall's win qualifies the team -- Ben Blakely, a sophomore from Alleman; Greg Rice, a doctoral student from Honey Brook, Penn.; Andrew Pease, a junior from Princeton, Ill.; and Bryan Venteicher, a junior from Pella -- for a regional computer security competition at Iowa State. That competition is tentatively scheduled for March 10 and 11. Doug Jacobson, an Iowa State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and a competition organizer, said the winners managed to keep a team of attacking computer professionals out of their network for the competition's 18 hours. Blakely, Pease and Venteicher were part of the team that won last spring's first Cyber Defense Competition at Iowa State. Pease said that experience helped the team know what to expect this time around. He also said the spring competition made other teams harder to beat because they knew what to expect, too. Venteicher said he signed up for the competition because he enjoys setting up computer systems. Blakely said the competition offers students a chance to learn outside their textbooks. And Rice said the competition offers real-world challenges.

For more information, contact Ben Blakely, electrical and computer engineering, (515) 306-3408; Andrew Pease, management information systems, (515) 520-7879; Greg Rice, electrical and computer engineering, (515) 441-0153; Bryan Venteicher, electrical and computer engineering, (641) 780-3377; Doug Jacobson, electrical and computer engineering, (515) 294-8307