UTA energy-related work and grants

As the University of Texas at Arlington continues efforts to be recognized as a top tier research university – qualifying it for access to the state’s National Research University Fund – its faculty continues to hit home runs in both world status and grants, including the growing arena of energy research.

Here is a sampling of UT Arlington’s recent noteworthy achievements in the energy spectrum.

Dereje Agonafer: The Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department professor was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Agonafer holds eight U.S. patents – mostly in energy-related areas – and has a ninth application pending. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on energy efficiency through cooling of computer servers. His selection to the academy is also considered yet another benchmark for the university’s eventual elevation to Tier 1 status.

Ankur Jain: He is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Jain’s expertise in Li-ion batteries and their safety recently resulted in a National Science Foundation five-year, $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development grant to develop a fundamental understanding of how heat flows in materials within a Li-ion battery, so that those batteries can be used safely in more applications.

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“Li-ion batteries are used widely in electric vehicles, consumer electronics and other applications,” Jain said. “The current performance of these batteries is limited by the fact that a battery tends to overheat when discharged. Improvement in heat removal from a battery will directly improve its performance, as well as its safety and reliability.”

Jain’s NSF grant comes on the heels of yet another grant he has been awarded, for examining ways to use heat lost from autos, buildings and other man-made heat collectors.

Wei-Jen Lee: As a professor of electrical engineering and director of UT Arlington’s Energy Systems Research Center, Lee has received more than a hundred funded commissions globally to study and recommend solutions to energy grid issues, more than would be possible to list here.

The center’s mission is to develop the knowledge base necessary to understand the problems faced by the electric power industry and to provide evaluations and alternative solutions encompassing engineering, economic and social considerations. Lee has published more than 360 energy-grid-related journal papers, while providing on-site training courses for power engineers in Panama, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Singapore.

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Kathleen “Kate” Smits: Smits’s research focuses on better locating gas pipes that need repair before more incidents happen like the recent Atmos explosions in Dallas. Nearly 2 million miles of natural gas pipelines crisscross the United States, most buried underground, and some of those pipes develop leaks and allow gas to escape.

Smits, an associate professor of civil engineering, recently received a $414,000 grant from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to develop a method to predict the conditions under which gas migration may occur and to establish best practices to improve response to gas migration incidents and to finding and fixing leaks.

“The methods being used today to detect natural gas leaks from pipelines are flawed because most of the technologies are not sensitive enough, the methods aren’t consistent enough, and there’s a general denial that there’s a problem,” Smits said. “We’re hoping that by providing data-based guidelines for industry first responders that allow them to take all of the environmental and geological factors into account at a potential leak site, leaks will be detected and repaired before they become a larger problem.”

David Nygren, Ben Jones: Working together, the two UT Arlington researchers won a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a detector that may offer a key insight into the lingering mystery of the universe’s matter-antimatter imbalance. The theory is that if they balanced, we wouldn’t exist.

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The new detector will be integrated into an international physics experiment called NEXT, or Neutrino Experiment Xenon TPC, that was conceived by Nygren, UT Arlington’s Presidential Distinguished Professor of Physics. The project is being carried out in northeastern Spain at the Canfranc Underground Laboratory.

“With this project, UTA is competing strongly with teams from Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of North Carolina on one of the main outstanding questions in particle physics and cosmology – why are we here?” Nygren said.

Nygren’s and Jones’ lab in 2018 brought in more than $1.8 million in new grants.

David Wetz: The associate professor of electrical engineering has received more than $2 million in recent grants – more than a half dozen – virtually all related to creating batteries that operate safely, store greater amounts of energy and operate at high power rates. One recent example was an $801,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research that investigated how batteries age.

“The keys for the Navy are safety, size and weight due to the limited amount of room on a ship,” Wetz said. “To fit within the space, the batteries often need to be run at higher power to accomplish the mission, even if that results in a slightly shorter battery lifetime. This work is different from most other battery research – for cell phones, cars or even the grid, for example – since in those applications safety and lifetime are key so that consumers are not burdened with the frequent cost of replacement.”