Rowan engineering students' airplane research crystal clear

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Forget delays, lines and ticket costs — for many people, flying isn't just an aggravation, it's an outright phobia.

Forget delays, lines and ticket costs — for many people, flying isn't just an aggravation, it's an outright phobia.

Thanks to research conducted by an engineering professor and College of Engineering students at Rowan University, those airplane passengers may be a little less fearful in the future.

The Rowan team has been focusing on ice clouds and crystals, which can contribute to plane crashes. Some crashes occur because ice crystals collect on a plane's wings as it passes through a cloud, causing the shape of the wing to change, reducing the lift force needed for flying.

Though these clouds pose a serious threat to airplanes, there is no way to determine which clouds are hazardous to fly through. Enter Rowan engineers.

The team has re-created ice clouds in an ice cloud chamber on a small scale, successfully forming ice crystals with the same characteristics of those in nature. Using these lab-created crystals, they can project a laser beam through the chamber, measuring its change in polarization, which is dependent on the size, shape and distribution of ice crystals in the cloud. The polarization state of light is invisible to the naked eye, but measurable using sensitive lenses and photodetectors. Eventually, this process could enable a pilot to use low-power lasers to detect the crystals in time to allow the plane to avoid the crystal-bearing clouds.

"No one has previously done what we are doing in terms of this lab scale and the ability to vary as many elements," said Todd Nilsen, a 20-year-old junior (spring 2008 semester) from Brick studying mechanical engineering and a member of the team working on this project.

Other members of the team during the past year were:

  • Metin Ahiskali, an electrical and computer engineering senior from Randolph
  • Matthew Costill, 23, of Mantua, a senior chemical engineering major
  • Anthony LaBarck, 21, of Vernon, a senior mechanical engineering major
  • Joseph Urcinas, 20, of Flemington, a junior mechanical engineering major
  • Shawn Sacks, a civil engineering junior from West Berlin
  • Rane Pierson, an electrical and computer engineering senior from Sparta
  • Dr. Paris VonLockette, advisor for the project and associate professor of mechanical engineering

During the course of two semesters, the team constructed an insulated Plexiglas unit — the ice cloud chamber — to house the ice crystals they would create using liquid nitrogen and water-chilling the chamber to a literally freezing -40 degrees Celsius. The entire system is computer-controlled. A microscope attached to the unit allowed the team to magnify the 40-micron crystals, which are roughly as wide as a human hair, and then take pictures.

After producing the ice cloud in the chamber, a laser beam was directed into the unit. The light that bounced back from the ice crystals, called backscattered light, passed into a detector. The data collected from this process can be used to determine which clouds contain ice crystals detrimental to airplane flight.

Thus far, the team has successfully re-created the ice crystals that have characteristics that are needed for further research. This is a significant step toward providing a method to detect the specific crystals in the path of aircrafts. The ability to re-create ice crystals that have the same characteristics as those found in nature, on such a small scale, enables further research by other companies with little financial burden.

The team's research is sponsored by a $5,000 grant from R.L. Associates, Inc., a research and development company specializing in optical technology located in Chester, Pa.

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