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Faculty Win Navy Young Investigator Awards

Two engineering faculty have captured competitive Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program (YIP) awards to carry out research involving underwater communications channels and microreactors for use in fuel cells. Drs. Benjamin Wilhite, an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering, and Shengli Zhou, an assistant professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, garnered the YIP awards, which were presented to just 33 young faculty members nationally from over 200 submissions.

Dr. Wilhite’s three-year, $300,000 YIP award will involve the design, fabrication and testing of a new class of micro-channel reactors capable of efficiently producing hydrogen for use in fuel cells by clever design of thermal gradients and heat integration in multi-stage microreformers. The U.S. military is keenly interested in fuel cells as replacement power sources for the mobile electric power systems currently used in field applications. Fuel cell-based power systems offer the advantages of light weight, sustainability, and small size needed to sustain overseas operations.

ben-shengli4 (64K)Dr. Wilhite’s novel reactor design will incorporate two major features, micromachining and ceramics extrusion. He explained that micromachining will permit complex, two-dimensional radial distribution patterns within the reactor, improving the transfer of heat throughout the unit and affording process intensification. Extrusion manufacturing of the reactor will allow for versatile fabrication of scalable micro-channel networks over a range of thermal, mechanical and catalytic properties not possible with current microreactor fabrication methods. In combining the two separate techniques, Dr. Wilhite’s breakthrough design will lead to portable fuel reformers that are capable of efficiently converting logistics fuels, such as jet fuel, into hydrogen. The resulting hydrogen can then be employed by next-generation fuel cell systems at efficiencies significantly greater than conventional combustion engine systems.

Furthermore, the unique design will overcome barriers to thermal efficiency, system complexity and size. Dr. Wilhite said the novel microreactors and supporting design models will provide the basis for creating comprehensive single-unit, cartridge-based diesel-to-hydrogen fuel reformers to meet the advanced energy needs of the Navy.

Dr. Wilhite received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame du Lac in 2003. He spent three years as research associate and research scientist within the Microsystems Technology Laboratory and Microchemical Systems Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the Chemical Engineering faculty at UConn in 2005 and has played an active role in the Center for Clean Energy Engineering and the Connecticut Biofuels Consortium.

ben-shengli4 (64K)Dr. Zhou’s $360,000 YIP grant will support his intended development of a multicarrier acoustic modem with channel- and network-adaptivity for underwater autonomous distributed systems.

Dr. Zhou explained that many naval applications require networks of underwater vehicles to act cooperatively. To do so, it is necessary to achieve advanced underwater acoustic communication between the different components, data transfer and networking solutions. Dr. Zhou noted that, in addition to naval applications, interest is mounting for underwater wireless sensor networks that may be used in a spectrum of aquatic applications such as environmental observation for scientific exploration, commercial development, and coastline-protection/target-detection in military or anti-terrorist areas. The challenge, however, is to overcome the performance limitations that plague current underwater acoustic channel designs as a result of long transmission delays and complex channels that are bandwidth- and energy-limited.

Dr. Zhou will develop a novel multi-carrier acoustic modem that not only enhances the performance, but also supports a variety, of network functionalities. He expects to design a network architecture with hybrid radio and acoustic components, and to employ two highly innovative approaches to overcome the major difficulties in underwater networks with disruptive links and large delays. The two approaches include multi-path multi-sink routing – where terrestrial or above-water radio networks greatly assist underwater networking by providing multiple entry points and multiple routes – and non-flow-based data delivery based on recent ground-breaking digital-fountain coding strategies.

Dr. Zhou earned his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota (2002) and joined the University of Connecticut in 2003. He co-directs the Underwater Sensor Network Lab at UConn.