A Day in the Park

Article Author: 
By Julie West, features editor, Office of Research and Economic Development; cover photo by Julie West

Three men who look to be in their early twenties are quietly discussing heat transfer coefficients and thermodynamics. The engineering terms are complex. The conversation builds in intensity, and the language suddenly shifts from English to Hindi. It is a typical day on the bus. People mostly keep to themselves, but it is not unusual to hear conversations in Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, and other languages. Each day the University of North Texas bus ferries students four miles north of main campus to a sprawling 300-acre park. Students make the daily trek not for outdoor adventure but for new knowledge and innovation in subjects such as materials science, computer science, electrical, mechanical and energy engineering, learning technologies, and library and information science. The bus ride itself is a microcosm of the park’s international student population, 13% of who come from countries other than the United States.

Discovery Park, interior view —photo by Julie West



The gathering place is Discovery Park, UNT’s offsite campus for the College of Information and College of Engineering and also research hub for the development and commercialization of cutting-edge patents and technologies. Advanced facilities include a zero energy lab, nanofabrication facility, and clean room. Having a complement of disciplines and specialized resources in one location makes the park a unique destination for creativity, collaboration, and discovery. Yet for many students and faculty on UNT’s main campus, Discovery Park is a mystery. Most have never visited the campus and have a limited notion of what goes on there. It would take more than a tour to unravel a fraction of the expertise that takes place in its labyrinth of laboratories and classrooms, but a day in the park yields an intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpse of activities.

The heart of the park is the 550,000 square-foot modern industrial building. Exposed iron beams and ductwork painted sky blue crisscross the interior of the former Texas Instruments facility.  Huge skylights in the loft ceiling bring natural light. Open stairwells lead to the second floor balcony, and glass walls partition offices, classrooms, and laboratories.  Wide corridors offer a variety of lounge areas for recreation and study. Students cluster at tables and on sofas with their notebooks and laptops, or talk quietly over coffee at the café. Others unwind over a game of Ping-Pong or air hockey. A melody wafts from the grand piano and dissipates in the vast warehouse space. There is activity in every corner, but a hushed intensity permeates the place. This is a research atmosphere, and as students will attest, the work is challenging and anything but a “walk in the park.”

Honeycomb Structures

(Above) Metal cast mold experiment alongside photopolymer resin model; (Below) Honeycomb structure detail of photopolymer resin model — photos by Julie West

Ganapathy Kodira holds a metal object produced from a mold he has made. Its form is crude, misshapen. “You can see it’s not yet a successful prototype,” he says. “This metal solidified prematurely without flowing through the passages and taking form.” He compares the cast to the intricate geometries of a photopolymer resin model. He explains that, by nature, molten metal resists flow. Aluminum especially tends to stick to itself. “The goal is to improve the metal’s fluidity.  Understanding temperature gradient and capillarity are key variables in tackling the problem,” he says. 

Kodira, a third semester masters student, is a research apprentice to Dr. Jaehyung Ju, assistant professor of mechanical and energy engineering. He and other students in Ju’s lab are studying the properties and behavior of honeycomb structures in materials such as metal and rubber. Designed for elasticity and strength, the origami-like cell matrices of the honeycomb pattern improve both structural and thermal properties, giving materials the potential to be lightweight, durable, withstand impact, and provide better thermal dissipation. This means the technology could be used in numerous applications, from automobile bumpers, tires and soldiers’ helmets to building materials and aerospace vehicles.

A cellular spoke design is at the core of a patented non-pneumatic, or airless, polyurethane tire that Ju co-invented for the Michelin tire company. The technology provides a 10% lower rolling resistance than traditional tires, which translates into better fuel efficiency and a safer road experience without risk of flat tires. He is currently developing a new tire from polyurethane cellular composite materials that will potentially bring a 20% rolling energy savings.         



Diagram courtesy of Dr. Jaehyung Ju's lab

Second year masters student Shaheer Iqbal works with Ju to improve the energy efficient absorption of these elastomer materials for high speed impact resistance. “We design our own materials using simulation to see if they absorb more energy, and then we prepare and manufacture our own samples.” Various mechanical tests are used to deliberately stress the new materials for strength and flexibility. The 3-D cellular structures absorb more energy because of their design ratio. “The more you crush or compress it, the more load it bears,” he explains. “Once you know what a material can handle, you can apply the technology anywhere — from earthquake structures to tires.”

First year PhD student Jiwon Mun transferred to UNT to study with Dr. Ju. She brings mathematical modeling and simulation skills to the team for the development of multifunctional cellular solid materials.  Working with computer programs such as ANSYS-FLUENT, she creates 3-D designs and anticipates results prior to mechanical testing. An important part of her job is to investigate the code and improve the parameters using a specialized user subroutine function. When the materials are manufactured, she compares her simulation research against the experimental results to gage their effectiveness.


Kodira says,  “Industries will be interested in our work because we are actually testing results. We are developing inexpensive manufacturing techniques so that industries can reproduce these results on a larger scale.” He adds, “I want to work in industry when I graduate and am grateful to Dr. Ju for creating the opportunity for me to do experimentation. He personalizes his time with students and takes care of us like family.”    

And how do Ju’s students like working at Discovery Park? “There are pros and cons to everything,” says Iqbal. “It can be isolating, but I like working here because it is a specialized environment that gives me access to engineering expertise.  This is good.” The cafeteria food and hours, on the other hand, are a common lament. “There aren’t a lot of options if you’re a vegetarian, like me,” he adds. "And if you get hungry after 2 p.m. then you are out of luck.”

Additional Context

The Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering in the College of Engineering is the first of its kind in the nation and one of only a handful offered worldwide with a focus on sustainable solutions for building and energy.  Located on the first floor in the F wing of the Discovery Park building, the department offers a variety of classes in mechanical design, analysis, and synthesis of systems, with additional expertise in the packaging and manufacturing of electronic materials, biomedical solutions, transportation, sensors, and dynamic and robotic systems.  Affiliated facilities offer opportunities for advanced research and include the Zero Energy Research Laboratory — a living space and working lab used to test emerging, sustainable technologies and materials to achieve a net-zero consumption of energy in buildings, Thermal Fluid Science Lab, and Laboratory of Small Scale Instrumentation.

The Discovery Park Library

If engineers need to bolster their understanding of heat transfer and thermodynamics, they can find information in the Discovery Park Research Library, located on the first floor in the B wing of the building. The library is a comprehensive branch within the network of UNT Libraries that provides the Colleges of Engineering and Information with specialized information resources.

The reference desk is the hub of the library, and trained professionals help students and faculty find materials in the extensive engineering and information science book collection and databases. Setareh Keshmiripour, a student assistant in the reference section and a first year masters student in the Department of Library and Information Sciences (LIS), says, “Being available to users and instructing them in a way that gives them a meaningful and positive experience is one of the important roles in my job.”

Keshmiripour, who plans on becoming a librarian when she graduates, introduces researchers to premier databases such as Engineering Village, Science Direct, and Web of Knowledge, each of which offers access to organized material such as citation indexes, conference papers, and full-text journal articles and book chapters from thousands of peer-reviewed journals and books. The databases can be challenging to navigate.  “You have to know which database to use in the first place,” she says. “The interface can be hard to grasp.” Another way she helps is to suggest different methods for searching content using synonyms, concepts, and inquiries that might otherwise elude users. Custom support, writing workshops, tutorials, and access to collections and digital technology tools are among the services available to library users.

Keshmiripour is one of the many passengers who ride the bus to Discovery Park.  Once she arrives, she stays all day. She loves her job and schoolwork but confesses that the park environment is not especially conducive for socializing or meeting friends. She attributes this in part to the fact that many library and information science students take their classes online, which reduces interaction. And the building itself confines students to their departments. But she likes to chat with friends at the coffee bar and hear people play the piano. “The grand piano is the best part of the park,” she grins. “It’s nice to hear all levels of skill.”

Additional Context

The UNT Libraries is an international leader of enterprising work in web harvesting, archiving, and preservation. Education for librarianship at the University of North Texas spans a period of more than eight decades. The Department of Library and Information Sciences in the College of Information offers nationally recognized programs at the graduate and undergraduate level, including the first online program of its kind the U.S., one of the nation’s best medical informatics programs, and the nation’s largest interdisciplinary PhD program in information science. It is a member of the iSchools organization, a collective of information schools dedicated to advancing the information field in the 21st Century. The department is located on the second floor above the coffee bar in the C wing of the building.

Advanced Characterization of Materials

One of the most advanced university facilities in the nation for research involving materials synthesis and analysis is located at Discovery Park. Engineers and scientists of diverse backgrounds use the specialized instruments and open access resources of The Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) for true 3-D characterization, processing, and cross-disciplinary analysis of materials, from atomic to macro scales. Over two-dozen sophisticated tools are available, such as the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer, the Tribometer, the High-Resolution Analytical TEM, and the Local Electrode Atom Probe.  CART was established in 2004 through substantial funding from the Army Research Laboratory and the university to support the scientific activities of UNT-affiliated researchers, other universities, and industries. Sandia National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Texas Instruments, Lockheed Martin, Semiconductor Research Corporation, Pratt and Whitney, and Ohio State University are among the outside collaborators who use CART.

3-D X-ray tomography view of graphite foam coated with zirconium oxide — image courtesy Tom Scharf

Dr. Thomas Scharf, associate professor of materials science and engineering, and his team of graduate and undergraduate researchers use numerous CART equipment, such as 3-D X-ray tomography, dual beam ion and electron microscopy, and transmission electron microscopy to analyze the microstructure and chemistry of high temperature solid lubricant materials they have created using atomic layer deposition techniques. In addition, they have also been using the CART facilities to study structure-property relationships of hybrid composites, such as blended nickel, titanium, and graphite powders to yield a balance of solid lubrication with high fracture toughness to protect bushings used in jet engines and other complex mechanical systems to combat heat, friction, and wear.

Scharf and team are also using CART equipment sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant to study how novel solid lubricant materials endure in extreme conditions where atmospheric changes in pressure and temperature are applied. Improved lubricant coatings that can perform optimally over a wide range of conditions are needed in applications such as satellites and other spacecraft. “My research group heavily relies on daily use of the state-of-the-art CART equipment for successful and sustained research,” says Scharf.  “We have continually used the CART facilities since I joined UNT in 2005, and without it, I could not have a sustained research program.”  

Nova NanoSEM view of Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) structures — image courtesy Justin Youngblood

The Nova NanoSEM and the Profilometer are two CART instruments that aid the research of Dr. Justin Youngblood, assistant professor of chemistry whose work investigates the design and synthesis of new organic semiconductors and solar cell technologies. The Nova NanoSEM is an ultra-high resolution scanning electron microscope capable of taking magnified photos at the nanoscale. Youngblood uses the 3-D reconstructions to analyze dye-sensitized solar cells with thin, nanocrystalline films of oxide semiconductors such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and cuprous oxide that have been seeded, hydrothermally grown, and annealed on conductive glass.  He looks for growth features and inconsistencies that may lead to unwanted “short-circuit” contacts between electrodes in the solar cells.

“The access that my team has to the Nova NanoSEM and the Profilometer have been essential to our efforts of learning to control the morphology of nanostructures across a range of oxide semiconductors.  We couldn’t have gotten our research up and running without these instruments.  My students love getting the chance to do organic synthesis and nanomaterials growth, and I never get tired of the pictures of nanocrystals they bring back from CART.”

The SEM’s power is enhanced when used in combination with the Omniprobe Autoprobe Nano-Manipulator, a tool capable of scanning site-specific areas of the film with in-depth analysis and real-time visualization. Operating like a stylus on an LP record player, the Profilometer is a probe with a pin that meticulously traces and measures the vertical depth of a surface. Together, these two instruments accurately yield important data about the structural integrity and morphology of the oxide nanostructures that can explain the behavior of the solar cells.

The Tribometer, CART

Recent work by Dr. Witold Brostow, Regents Professor of materials science and his team in the Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials (LAPOM) included the thorough characterization of newly developed coatings for industrial wires and cables using CART instruments such as the Tribometer.  The machine is used to simulate real-life, practical wear situations and gives precise control of parameters such as humidity and temperature, speed, frequency, and contact pressure. Brostow’s samples were extensively tested for adhesion, scratch-resistance, friction performance, and heat degradation, among other conditions. “In our lab we pride ourselves on solving problems for industry,” Brostow says. “We are lucky to have CART here with a large variety of a state-of-the-art equipment for investigation of new materials we are developing. Other universities around the country might have strong research in materials science and engineering but less multi-dimensional equipment available and thus lesser capabilities.”

Managed by the Office of Research and Economic Development, CART is a university facility open to researchers across disciplines and housed next to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering on the first floor and E wing of the building. CART is undergoing a renovation that will make it a one-stop shop for specialized research.  Its equipment will be consolidated next to an adjoining new Class 1000 cleanroom so that materials can be synthesized, tested, and transferred in close proximity under controlled atmospheric conditions. The suite of nanofabrication resources will create a powerful combination of capabilities in one location.

CART director and UNT professor of materials science Dr. Raj Banerjee anticipates a bright future for the center. "CART at UNT is truly a state-of-the-art facility for characterization and analysis of advanced materials,” Banerjee says. The uniqueness of this facility lies in the complementary nature of some of the advanced equipment housed in this facility. And its new location adjacent to the new clean room and business incubator facilities will make this a one-of-a-kind facility that will not only serve the university community but will also attract researchers and scientists from other parts of the State of Texas and the nation."

The Office of Technology Transfer

Marketable forms of intellectual property and novel materials such as the solid lubricants created by Thomas Scharf greatly benefit from patent protection. Scharf holds two 2012 utility patents for these materials. Patents grant exclusive rights to inventors for a limited period of time, and the patent holder can give or withhold permission for an invention to be made, used, distributed, or sold. The Office of Technology Transfer guides faculty researchers through the necessary steps to help them convert a great idea into a commercial application. Serving under the direction of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, the office manages the process for all patent, trademark, and copyright matters relating to inventions and other intellectual property created at UNT. It represents UNT in implementing Intellectual Property Policy with governmental entities, industry, and the public.

Since joining UNT in 2004, intellectual property (IP) manager Rick Croley has worked with IP officers to improve the patent process and maximize opportunities for faculty researchers.  He says that staying informed is key to producing successful patents. “I analyze market trends and study the legal terrain so that our faculty are equipped with the latest information and strategies to advance their case.” A patent review committee meets throughout the year to evaluate the merit of a potential product or idea and makes recommendations to optimize design and work through problems.

Dr. Shuping Wang, associate professor of engineering technology, believes that her patent, Methods and Systems for Thermal Compensation for Optical Current Transducers, could benefit the power industry. The invention is designed to overcome temperature-induced inaccuracy for optical current transducers used in high voltage transmission lines. The technology differs from conventional transformers in that it integrates a thermoelectric sensing element into an optical transformer, which measures electrical current by capturing the magnetic field, not the direct current itself. The technology provides a safer, low cost, lightweight alternative that yields greater thermal stability. “The transducer will greatly assist in the monitoring of electrical current activity,” Wang says.  “Power companies can more easily predict and avoid outages and dangerous surges in the electrical field and effectively monitor the overall distribution of electricity.” Wang is currently exploring licensing options with several power companies who have expressed an interest in her invention.

Over one hundred UNT patents were filed in the years 2007 through 2012, and the numbers of patents filed in 2012 has nearly tripled from those filed in 2007. Croley anticipates a continued increase in the overall number of patent applications submitted in future years and relies, in part, on existing UNT patent holders to share their experiences of the process to encourage involvement among faculty peers. Scharf has worked closely with UNT technology associates through the years. He says, “I have been very satisfied with the whole patent application process from the original patent disclosure to the provisional/utility patent stage.” The office receives compelling patent proposals from faculty of diverse disciplinary expertise — from plant biology and engineering to electrical engineering and computer science. Yet Croley says many great ideas go untapped. “Even the best ideas might never be known if a faculty member doesn’t perceive the potential market value of their research.  We want to get the word out that our office is here to help,” he says.

UNT pursues entrepreneurial collaborations with the private sector to advance research and economic development. The office provides the infrastructure for licensing inventions and transferring new technologies as well as supporting the creation of start-up companies and new business collaborations so that products can be developed and made available for commercial use in the marketplace. The office is located a short walk from the bus stop at the front of the park building in the administrative wing.

Work hard. Play hard.

Natalie Parde, senior in computer science and engineering — photo by Julie West

With its cross-pollination of expertise from businesses, industries, and faculty and student researchers, Discovery Park is fertile ground for training and the development of tangible R&D technologies. For Natalie Parde, computer programmer and senior in computer science and engineering, it is a great place to further one’s education.  Working under the direction of Dr. Gayatri Mehta, assistant professor of electrical engineering, Parde and a team of electrical engineers and computer scientists are developing a web-based game, UNTANGLED, in which scores are based on how well players efficiently organize blocks of information. In addition to being a fun experience for users, the game records the patterns of top scoring players in real time so that Mehta and team can visually and mathematically analyze how content is efficiently organized — information the team will use to create new algorhythms that can help engineers develop the next generation of electronics.

Graphic detail from UNTANGLED
Image courtesy Gayatri Mehta's lab

Parde says, “I work with a great research team.  I like how we’re using a game to actually solve a scientific problem.  I think that’s a novel idea — that you can take something that people actually have fun doing and produce a scientific result.” Parde says she likes working at Discovery Park.  She acknowledges that she’s often the only female among her peers, but she shrugs this off. “You get used to it. It is nice to walk through the halls and hear people talking about things of interest to me.”

UNTANGLED was recently selected as one of the top ten computer game finalists in the Games and Apps category from the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge (SciVis).

At the end of a long day in the lab, Mehta’s students balance R&D with some serious fun in a game of table tennis. The stakes? Best three out of five wins the game. Play for play the ball effortlessly skips over the net, close to the edges of the table but within the lines. It is a good match. The level of skill is high and the competition is fierce, but it is the spirit of fun that wins the day. Work hard. Play hard. It’s all in a day at Discovery Park. 


Additional Context

College of Information

The College of Information houses two departments: Learning Technologies and Library and Information Sciences. Several facilities and research centers provide in-depth resources for research, among them the Texas Center for Digital Knowledge, the Texas Center for Educational Technology, and the Institute for the Integration of Technology into Teaching and Learning. The monthly Colloquium Series features renowned researchers and professionals who address research topics and engage audiences in scholarly discourse. The College of Information main offices are located on the second floor at the back of the building in the E wing of Discovery Park.

College of Engineering

The College of Engineering offers five degree-granting departments: Computer Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Engineering Technology, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical and Energy Engineering. Specialized laboratories and centers support research and include the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, Center for Information and Computer Security, Net-Centric Software and Systems Center, PACCAR Technology Institute, and Zero Energy Laboratory.  The College of Engineering main offices are located on the first floor at the front of the building in the administrative wing of Discovery Park. The College offers year-round information sessions and student-led tours of the college and Discovery Park.

RAVE: Research and Visualization Environment

The RAVE offers excellent computer resources to help scholars visually analyze large amounts of complex data for graphically intensive research, simulations, statistics, and design. The state-of-the-art space features high-powered workstations, visualization software, and a large-scale, video display wall for analysis with superior graphical output to enhance and explain research. RAVE is part of the Computer Information Technology Center (CITC), a serve department of the UNT System whose mission is to provide effective university-wide, shared resources of computing hardware, software, data and voice communications, and professional personnel to facilitate instruction, research, and administration.