From here to there: Rowan researchers get travelers on the road

From here to there: Rowan researchers get travelers on the road

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Rowan Engineering takes its research to the road, tackling major regional, national transportation-related issues
Rowan Researchers at work

Rowan University College of Engineering professors and students are figuratively and literally taking their research to the road, helping to make travelers’ journeys — and the environments in which they are taken — safer.

Numerous professor and student teams are working, often in collaboration with other universities or industry partners, on regional and national initiatives that have garnered millions in outside funding.

Dr. Yusuf Mehta, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rowan, is working with researchers from across the country on a series of transportation-related projects.

Mehta, who oversees an asphalt lab in the South Jersey Technology Park in Mantua Township, is studying the environmental impacts of recycled asphalt pavement, or the restructuring of asphalt materials removed from previous roadways, under a $452,490 grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT).

His research team, which also includes investigators from Columbia University and Stony Brook University in New York, are working to identify all non-roadway applications, including aboveground applications, for the reused asphalt that are safe for people and the environment and comply with federal and state environmental guidelines.

The research explores innovative uses of asphalt, including the construction of guardrails and walls, but also identifies potential hazards that may result from the reused asphalt.

Environmental agencies are uncertain whether there are environmental and/or health risks associated with reused asphalt, and this research will provide further insight on the issue.

Last fall, the NJDOT also awarded Mehta $450,000 to investigate alternatives to nuclear density testing of soils, a common but expensive quality control process during construction. Nuclear density testing is nuclear-reactive, with engineers using gamma rays to determine the density of a material. An optimum density is critical to achieving better-performing roadways. The project — which also includes researchers from Columbia University and Advanced Infrastructure Design, Trenton, New Jersey — is designed to determine a new method to substitute this costly practice, thus saving taxpayer dollars in the long run.

“Nuclear density testing has strict protocols of usage,” Mehta said. “[The NJDOT] wants to find an alternative that is repeatable and accurate. They are willing to explore all options and have kept a very open mind.”

Dr. Kenneth Blank, vice president of Health Sciences at Rowan, said collaborations like Mehta’s are a result of Rowan’s recent research institution status, which New Jersey designated in 2013. Projects such as these, he noted, enable Rowan to better address issues facing the region and the country while also expanding the University’s “national footprint.”

“We are working with nationally recognized research institutions to solve practical problems,” Blank said.  “That’s a major goal of Rowan University — to conduct research that addresses real-world issues and to bring solutions to those problems to the marketplace.”

Powered by algae

Rowan has a long history of transportation-focused research that extends well beyond Mehta’s work.  For example, the United States Department of Energy (DOE), New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), NJDOT and United States Department of Transportation awarded close to $1.2 million in recent years to Dr. Kauser Jahan, professor of civil and environmental engineering, to conduct research on several transportation-related projects.

Under a $750,000 DOE grant, she is studying the use of algae as a possible alternative fuel source. Jahan, who says using algae is one of the most promising alternatives to traditional biodiesel fuel — plant and animal oils such as soybeans, corn and canola oil and animal fat, materials that need to be replenished through farming — is partnering on the study with Rowan Engineering colleagues (chemical engineering professors Dr. Robert Hesketh and Dr. C. Stewart Slater, chemical engineering associate professor and program chair Dr. Mariano Savelski and civil and environmental engineering associate professor Dr. Will Riddell).

The Rowan team is conducting a two–part study: a life-cycle analysis that will determine the most efficient and environmentally friendly way to manufacture biodiesel fuel from algae and, in collaboration with Preston, Minn.-based Algaedyne Corporation and Bordentown-based Garden State Ethanol, Inc., a study of the effect of membrane technology on the growth of algae. The work employs an innovative use of membrane technology to provide carbon dioxide gas to promote algae growth.

Algae, Jahan said, may provide a viable energy source and require far less land that other biofuels require, taking up less property that can be devoted to food production.

According to Jahan, algae reproduce quickly, produce oils more efficiently than crop plants and require relatively few nutrients for growth. Ultimately, she said, if algae are viable, they can be grown on land considered substandard for agricultural purposes and possibly mass produced indoors as well.

And she noted,  “If it is found algae are a viable cost-effective biofuel source it will radically charge the future of countries that do not have fossil fuel resources and reduce dependency of other countries on petroleum. Algae will be an alternative fuel source not only for rich countries but for countries that have no fuel at all.”

Jahan also has worked in the past on studies for the NYSDOT on field tests to determine the lead in bridge paint and the use of natural brine for roadway anti-icing and de-icing and for the NJDOT on heavy metal contamination of highway marking beads, among other projects. The United States Department of Transportation also funded Jahan $100,000 to conduct a regional session of the Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program, a mentoring program for high school students interested in transportation research.

Protecting land and air travel

Dr. Beena Sukumaran, chair of Civil & Environmental Engineering, has been conducting research for the NJDOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for more than a dozen years, including studies with international collaborators.

Currently, she is working under a $222,227 grant from NJDOT/University Transportation Research Center to use laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) to identify problematic minerals in aggregate stone. Aggregate stone is used on New Jersey roadways, and if there is the presence of certain problematic minerals, roadways can deteriorate faster. The LIBS analysis technique would replace much more time-consuming and expensive tests done at present by the NJDOT. The LIBS chemical analysis technique involves firing a pulse laser at a sample to remove material and evaluate the composition. Once the LIBS approach has been tested in the laboratory, a LIBS portable unit will be implemented in the field so that NJDOT can do a rapid analysis at construction sites. Working in conjunction with Rowan physics professor Dr. Michael Lim, electrical and computer engineering professor Dr. Ravi Ramachandran and graduate student Andrew Branin from Howell, New Jersey, Sukumaran will advise the NJDOT whether its contractors are using appropriate construction materials in order to ensure the quality of Garden State roads.

Sukumaran also is working with post-doctoral scholar Dr. Carlos Cary, a Peru native who received his Ph.D. from Arizona State University; Marie Lecorvaisier, a French student working on her graduate thesis at Rowan; and undergraduate students Adam Bagriacik from Burlington, New Jersey; Robert Cohen from Philadelphia; Jerrett Clark from Pilesgrove, New Jersey; and Kokeb Abera from Williamstown, New Jersey, on a $70,571 funded project for the FAA to determine the suitability of the Superpave Gyratory Compactor (SGC) to replicate field performance of aggregates during construction and trafficking of airfield pavements.

“When you construct an airport pavement, you compact it, but under the heavy loads imposed by aircrafts such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus 380, you can deteriorate the airport pavements faster. We want to come up with an approach that would extend the life of the airport pavements by formulating new compaction standards,” Sukumaran said.

Blank said that while numerous professors are conducting research on transportation issues, that field is just one of dozens of areas on which Rowan professors, students and university and industry partners are focused. To learn more about Research at Rowan, visit www.rowan.edu/research.