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College of Engineering and Computing

  • Breakthrough Award winners: Chen, Banerjee, Matolak

2019 Breakthrough Award Winners

This year, three CEC faculty members were selected as Breakthrough Award winners:

Breakthrough awards, presented each year by the Office of the Vice President for Research, recognize faculty and graduate students for their research and scholarly excellence. The Breakthrough Leadership in Research award recognizes the university’s distinguished senior faculty and the Breakthrough Star award honors outstanding early career faculty. Learn more in Breakthrough publications.

Sourav Banerjee

Material world: Using ultrasonic acoustic waves to detect material damage and prevent catastrophic failure

You’ve heard of dog whisperers and horse whisperers. Meet Sourav Banerjee, the material whisperer.

Banerjee, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has developed a patented technology that uses ultrasonic acoustic waves and sensors to diagnose the condition of metal and composite materials in aerospace vehicles and concrete in structures including bridges. Acoustic waves are transmitted through the material, and sensors gather unique vibrational signatures that are analyzed to detect cracks or stress points.

“With sensors, you can diagnose material breakdown long before it results in a catastrophic failure,” Banerjee says. “The traditional approach of detecting a crack, then repairing it, works for civil structures like bridges. But for aircraft structure we don’t have that luxury of time. Once there is a crack, it’s already too late.”

Banerjee’s new quest is to further refine his ultrasonic wave technology to detect material breakdown before it’s visible. He points to composite material now used in many airplanes and spacecraft that appears undamaged even after sustaining a physical blow. The material is perhaps degraded, like an invisible bruise, he says, and it develops a “memory” of the stresses it has endured.

“I’m looking into a more physics-based understanding of these materials,” Banerjee says. “We want to ‘talk’ with this material using ultrasound acoustical waves. I want to be able to determine if it’s going to fail even before any symptoms of unwellness have appeared.

“There’s no way to diagnose material memory so far, be we have found a unique feature in the linear and nonlinear ultrasonic wave — we call it the coda or tail wave — that can perhaps tell us what memory has been collecting in a material.”

Banerjee has worked on material health research with most of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers and is currently involved in a NASA-funded project that involves analyzing materials that will be used for the next Mars mission.

On another front, Banerjee is exploring how to harvest energy from large structures by tapping into their ever-present vibrations. Think of a busy bridge with traffic rumbling across it, he says. “Why can’t we put some type of harvester in place with smart materials to capture the energy and store it in a battery?” This isn’t an idle dream: Bannerjee has already applied for a patent for the energy-harvesting plan.

Extending his acoustical energy research in a biomedical direction, Banerjee envisions developing artificial ears that can sense sound in ranges below and above mere human capability, a bio mimic that could make Banerjee the ultimate “whisperer” in sensor technology.

Frank Chen

Solving energy’s challenges: Engineering professor hopes to inspire next generation of researchers

As the lead investigator of a nationally recognized energy research program, it might seem surprising to find Fanglin “Frank” Chen at a local elementary school family night.

He’s there to share the marvels of hydrogen fuel cell technology with parents and students and support public engagement with science both at the expert and non-expert level. Chen’s hope? To inspire them to consider science and engineering as future careers.

As a child, Chen first became fascinated by chemistry and materials. That fascination endures whether he’s working with elementary students or top-tier energy researchers who are drawn to the University of South Carolina for research.

“Our society and civilization are largely defined by the accessibility of energy,” he says. “You cannot create or destroy energy and energy is embedded in the universe. Consequently, energy conversion and storage technologies are critical in order to access energy reliably, cost-effectively, efficiently, sustainably and environmentally friendly.”

Earlier in his career at the College of Engineering and Computing, Chen was instrumental in helping secure a $12.5 million Energy Frontier Research Center grant from the Department of Energy, the largest single competitive grant in the university’s history. The multi-institutional grant led by South Carolina included collaborators from Princeton University, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, University of Connecticut, University of Utah, University of California-Santa Barbara and the Savannah River National Laboratory.

In addition to that landmark award, Chen has received 49 grants totaling more than $14.4 million from a variety of funding sources since joining the university in 2007. Chen was the university’s first faculty member to receive a grant from the Department of Energy-Nuclear Energy University Program.

One of his proudest accomplishments is the establishment of a world-class solid oxide fuel cell research infrastructure and program — a program that incubated in the basement of the Department of Mechanical Engineering as the Horizon I building was being upfitted. The center has now garnered more than $54 million in external funding and a No. 1 ranking among all the SmartState centers in South Carolina. Chen credits his academic success to the support and encouragement from his academic colleagues, especially Ken Reifsnider, the founding director of the Solid Oxide Fuel Center, who recruited him to the university.

Driven by Chen’s commitment to clean energy research, the university’s foothold as one of the nation’s premier energy research institutions continues to shine. Chen looks forward to the support of curious young South Carolinians who were first energized for science the day they saw hydrogen fuel cell technology in the school cafeteria.

David Matolak

Ground control to major grants: Electrical engineering professor guides young researchers, while winning his own major grants

Ten successful doctoral candidates supervised since 2012, 18 funded research projects, 109 refereed conference papers, more than 70 journal articles — by almost any metric, David Matolak is a leader in his field.

A professor of electrical engineering in the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing, Matolak has made significant contributions to such fields as airport surface area analysis, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, air-to-ground settings and public safety communications. In the process, Matolak’s research has brought the university into the international wireless communications engineering community — not simply as a player but as a leader.

Look no further than his longstanding relationship with NASA, which dates back to the early 2000s, and has led to leadership roles in major research projects. Notably, since 2016, he has been part of a $1.3 million NASA project exploring ground channel modeling and air interface evaluation for lower altitude unmanned aircraft systems.

“He was the key team member for the most comprehensive air-ground channel measurement and modeling campaign in history,” says Asif Khan, Carolina Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering.

Matolak’s efforts, according to Khan, have spanned activities from initial specification of test equipment and test flights through analysis of measurement data to channel modeling and performance evaluation of candidate air-ground radio communication systems and networks.

“With these significant advances in characterization and modeling of communication channels and air-ground radio performance, the country will soon be prepared to open the airspace to unmanned vehicles and to the vast commercial and cultural opportunities that will ensue,” says Khan.

Since 2017, Matolak has only expanded his work with NASA. Under the agency’s new University Leadership Initiative, he is now supervising a $4.4 million project to develop new channel models, communication theoretic approaches, new radio techniques and standards for aircraft communications.

“Professor Matolak has created an entirely new research area that didn’t exist at USC and is spearheading collaboration with researchers within and outside our institution,” says colleague Mohammod Ali, a professor in the electrical engineering department. “His works also contribute to the development of international standards for the public good.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.