Texas A&M Team Earns Air Force Grant to Study Turbulence, Efficient Aircraft Design
COLLEGE STATION -- Big things often start in the smallest of ways. What began about a year ago with a trio of faculty members from a pair of Texas A&M University colleges scrawling notes on a napkin at Starbucks has resulted in a recent $2.2 million grant from the United States Air Force intended to help the government create more efficient aircraft.
Simon North, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, is teaming with Rodney Bowersox and Diego Donzis, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) researchers and professors in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, to pool their expertise in the project, which they credit for enriching a collaboration they hope will last long after this particular study is complete.
At a time when academic leaders nationwide are stressing the need for researchers to step outside their fiefdoms to create synergies across campus, North says the chemistry-aerospace engineering partnership appears to be a natural fit to execute the needs of the federal government. And although the researchers may be studying turbulence, they say the cross-college collaboration has been nothing but a smooth ride.
"This project is interdisciplinary in the true sense," North said. "There are many projects where individuals work on parts of a problem in isolation, and then everything is stitched together at the end. But we talk over lunch or coffee almost every day and give each other constant feedback. It's been fantastic and stimulating."
The grant, announced in July by the Air Force's Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), will fund the group's study of the complex interaction between turbulence and thermal non-equilibrium, where specific types of energy in molecules are at a different temperature than their surroundings. By artificially raising the molecules' temperature -- a process which occurs naturally through the shock waves often present at hypersonic speeds -- and monitoring the effects on turbulence as they cool down to their surroundings, the researchers hope to better understand model turbulence flows, with the broad goal of providing the Air Force with the necessary information to build more efficient aircraft.
Bowersox notes that high-speed flights can cause molecules to get extremely heated, leading to chemical reactions. Heat is a hindrance in certain places -- such as the external surface of the aircraft, which it would degrade -- and beneficial in others, including the engine, because it translates to thrust.
"So one question is, can we take the energy on the outside of the airplane being generated due to frictional heating, store that in the molecules and somehow release that energy into the engine to increase thrust efficiency?" Bowersox said. "There are lots of different applications. The next question is, what science do we need to understand in order to enable these types of applications? And that's where we all come in."
Bowersox specializes in studying the effects of thermal non-equilibrium, Donzis in large-scale computations and North in the intricate details of the chemistry. A fourth researcher -- William Hase, a professor in Texas Tech University's chemistry and biochemistry department who specializes in numerical computations -- also is involved in the project.
The Air Force grant also is helping to fund the group's analysis of possible new technological advances in strategies to generate and control turbulence. Specifically, the researchers are investigating a new concept to generate turbulence via photoexcitation -- the use of lasers to create thermal non-equilibrium -- to gauge the effects on turbulence.
"We are discovering new ways of generating turbulence," said Donzis, who serves as the principal investigator for the grant.
The professional relationship between North and Bowersox began around 8 years ago, when they met through a colleague and soon realized overlapping research interests. They are both co-directors of an aerospace engineering lab at Easterwood Airport, a facility known as the National Aerothermochemistry Laboratory -- click here to see a map of the overall aerospace engineering-related complex -- at which some 15 to 20 students can be found working on any given day. Roughly a dozen of them, graduates and undergraduates, will work on the Air Force grant.
"Students in the lab are getting educational opportunities to learn things no one else in the world has seen before," Bowersox said. "So the research has a very positive impact on education."
Bowersox says the lab has benefited from more than $20 million in federal grant funding during the last 8 years, including a $10 million award from the National Hypersonics Center to study laminar-turbulent transition. The principal investigator on that grant is William Saric, a distinguished professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering.
To learn more about the Air Force project, visit Donzis' website at http://aero.tamu.edu/people/faculty/?id=529.
For more on North's research, go to http://www.chem.tamu.edu/faculty/north.
Contact: Vimal Patel, (979) 845-7246 or email@example.com or Dr. Simon North, (979) 845-4947 or firstname.lastname@example.org