When President Renu Khator stepped onto the stage of the Moores Opera House for her 2014 Fall Address, she issued a challenge. “Our next defining moment in research will come not from incremental growth, but from getting a large, federally funded national research center,” she said, pledging the University of Houston’s intellectual capital to answer some of the country’s most pressing questions and suggesting two key areas would be subsea engineering and superconductivity.
Less than four months later, the pieces began to fall into place. UH was selected to lead a national research center to study and develop new technology for offshore energy exploration and production. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security last summer named UH to lead a multi-institution Center of Excellence for Borders, Trade and Immigration Research. And the University has embarked upon an 18-month planning process to create the Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute.
The three join the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, which became the first national research center at UH when it moved here in 2010, and the National Wind Energy Center, which was established the same year.
The National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, known by the acronym NCALM, is funded by the National Science Foundation and operated jointly with the University of California-Berkeley.
The National Wind Energy Center was created with funding from the Department of Energy as part of a federal effort to accelerate the development of offshore wind energy; construction on the nation’s first offshore wind farm has begun off the coast of Rhode Island, a signal that some of the key technical issues have been resolved.
UH is home to more than two dozen research centers, some drawing investigators from across the campus and others confined to colleges or departments. All add to the University’s body of work related to society’s most critical issues.
But Ramanan Krishnamoorti, interim vice president/vice chancellor for research and technology transfer, says these national research centers stand out, established with substantial external funding after peer-driven evaluation and competition.
“It puts us on the map as a serious place in research, with a critical mass of experts working in areas that can have an impact,” says Krishnamoorti, who also serves as chief energy officer at UH. “It means we are recognized as able to take a large problem and address it for society’s benefit.”
Borders, Trade and Immigration Research
The University’s newest research center will draw expertise from around the nation to focus on some of the most sensitive issues of the day.
Jeh Johnson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), criticized “the emotion and partisanship” surrounding the immigration debate during a June talk in Houston.
It should instead be ruled by data and research, Johnson told his audience. “Facts are too often drowned out by demagoguery, suspicion, exaggeration and misperception.”
To provide some of that data, DHS asked UH to lead the new Center of Excellence on Borders, Trade and Immigration Research, funded by a $3.4 million, renewable grant and involving researchers from a dozen universities.
“The center will serve as a national think tank, considering both policy and technology, and it will provide breadth and depth to these complex issues faced both in the U.S. and globally,” says Ioannis A. Kakadiaris, the center’s director and principal investigator and Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of computer science.
His management team includes: Maria Burns, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy, as Education and Workforce Development Lead; Ioannis Pavlidis, Eckhard Pfeiffer Professor of computer science, as Technology Research Lead; Shishir Shah, associate professor of computer science, as Technology Transition Lead, and Luis Torres, associate professor in the Graduate College of Social Work, as Policy Research and Transition Lead. Lan Ni, associate professor of communication, will serve as Media and Communication Lead.
Research associated with the new center includes Burns’ work on improving security at the nation’s ports and Kakadiaris’ groundbreaking research on facial recognition systems.
Facial recognition has implications not just for national security but also for any situation involving the use of forgotten or stolen personal identification numbers. It is faster than swiping a card, less invasive than a thumbprint scanner and more secure than a PIN.
Facebook and photo sharing app Picasa use the technology, which relies upon algorithms to analyze multidimensional data in search of meaningful information, to identify and tag users in photos.
But national security isn’t about listing who was at the high school reunion, and its underpinnings — passport verification, border security, safeguarding sensitive data — require a more complex level of detail.
Kakadiaris has worked in the field for more than a decade, and early on, he recognized the value of facial recognition and other biometric technologies for border security, including speeding up the process of checking passports as people enter and leave the country.
That already happens on TV. Real life is harder, and current technologies can be affected by dim or uneven lighting, different facial expressions and side or partial facial views.
The system has to be both accurate and able to function under a variety of conditions, Kakadiaris says.
His lab, the Computational Biomedicine Laboratory, has made important strides in the field — including creating facial recognition software that uses a three-dimensional snapshot of a person’s face, developed from a single 2-D image or a series of 2-D images from various viewpoints, to create a unique biometric identifier.
Kakadiaris’ team opened a new research area by proposing to have a two-dimensional image to match with a 3-D image of a subject. That is more difficult than matching 3-D to 3-D, and the work continues.
He says facial recognition has advantages over the use of fingerprints to prove identity — an increasingly common technology, often used with cell phones — including the fact that it doesn’t require the subject to touch anything, or even to be aware of the process.
That brings up a thorny issue, and Kakadiaris says researchers take seriously the need to protect public privacy while increasing national security. “One has to be mindful of the individual and the context in which it is applied,” he says.
Burns faces a similar dilemma with her work on global trade and transportation. About 10 billion metric tons of cargo is transported by ship around the world every year, more than two billion of which is traded to or from the United States. Population growth and new trade agreements will push the volume higher.
Markets and consumers expect transport to be as fast as possible, she says. “It’s the era of instant gratification.”
But ensuring the cargo arriving on U.S. shores is secure — and is what the shipping documentation and hazmat labels claim — takes time, in the form of inspections and scanning.
Burns’ research involves innovative technology assessment for security and cargo detection protocols, aiming for the sweet spot between speed and security.
She represents the transportation sector on the Private Sector Advisory Council, created to advise the Texas governor on homeland security. She also is chair of the subcommittee on supply chain security at the National Academies, the umbrella group for the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.
About 90 percent of global trade involves maritime transportation; one-third of that is containerized cargo. The sheer volume requires enhanced security measures.
The challenges go far beyond illicit drugs, counterfeit purses and the public perception of illegitimate trade and transport and include cybersecurity, cargo theft, sea piracy and hijacking, terrorism and money laundering. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear hazards are also a threat.
Ensuring only legitimate cargo and passengers land at the nation’s ports begins long before a ship nears U.S. docks. Technology can help in tracking the ships beyond U.S. borders, but the task also requires an awareness of global geopolitics and specific security situations.
Burns looks for patterns of security breaches and investigates new risk management and contingency planning strategies to address the challenges and safeguard key ports.
“Our research is trying to build a resilient transportation system, which means we identify and mitigate vulnerabilities while exploring contingency planning for the speedy recovery of our system,” Burns says.
The new DHS Center also includes an education component, teaching current workers about the latest technology and research, as well as training future workers.
“We’ll get them ready to serve our nation and to serve the industry,” Burns says.
Subsea Systems Institute
Five years after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, industry and government are focused on preventing the next disaster, even as the long-term consequences continue to be tallied.
Cue the Subsea Systems Institute, announced in January and dedicated to the study and development of technology for safe and sustainable offshore energy exploration and production.
Krishnamoorti, who serves as principal investigator, says the goal isn’t to tinker with the status quo but to produce radical change.
“Our vision is to create an institute that is recognized around the world as the undisputed leader in transformative deep-water technology,” he says. “We’re not focused on making incremental improvements.”
UH already was active in offshore energy, offering the nation’s only subsea engineering program and working with industry to solve technical problems. The Subsea Systems Institute solidifies its stature.
Bill Maddock has been hired as director; he is an engineer with 30 years of experience in the offshore and marine fields, including stints with BP America and ExxonMobil Development Company.
Initial funding came from the federal RESTORE Act, which collects penalties from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and distributes them to pay for research aimed at protecting the region.
Texas established two Centers of Excellence with its initial $4 million RESTORE payment: the Subsea Systems Institute and Texas OneGulf, led by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The UH Law Center is part of Texas OneGulf.
UH partners at the Subsea Systems Institute include Rice University, the NASA Johnson Space Center, Texas Southern University, Houston Community College and Lone Star College.
Industry is another key partner, helping institute researchers identify problems and funding certain projects.
Chuck McConnell, executive director of the Energy and the Environment Initiative at Rice, says industry relationships will be crucial to the institute’s success.
“Technology only transforms if it is adopted by industry,” he says. “Our focus and strategic direction will be set by our industry partners.”
UH long has had close relationships with energy companies; it started a master’s degree in subsea engineering in 2013 — one of just a handful in the world.
UH also re-started an undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering in 2009, both at the request of companies who needed those skills. The UH Energy Advisory Board is filled with executives from global energy companies.
The University also works with industry through the Ocean Energy Safety Institute, collaborating with Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin to offer the latest offshore safety information to regulators and industry.
The Subsea Systems Institute will go beyond those efforts, Krishnamoorti says, testing equipment and conducting research to promote safety and efficiency in the ultra-deep Gulf of Mexico and the Alaskan Arctic. It also will oversee workforce training through area community colleges and universities.
Toby Baker, commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, says the state’s scientists are ready to get to work.
“Through these dedicated financial resources, we can now get to work and focus on the research and development needed to protect and revitalize our Gulf Coast and enrich our state’s economy impacted by this disaster,” he said in announcing the Subsea Systems Institute and Texas OneGulf.
The institute will be governed by the three lead partners — UH, Rice and NASA — and representatives from industry.
It will be modeled in part on a similar project in Norway, where North Sea drilling has spawned world-renowned technology centers in conjunction with Bergen University College.
The Subsea Systems Institute, like the facility in Norway, will take advantage of geography: With more than 3,600 oil and gas companies in the Houston area and with almost 20 percent of all U.S. oil production coming from the Gulf, institute leaders say the city is an obvious choice.
National Center For Airborne Laser Mapping
Like so many people before him, the director of the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping came to Houston in search of opportunity.
Ramesh Shrestha had worked with Joseph Tedesco, now dean of UH’s Cullen College of Engineering, when both were at the University of Florida, where NCALM was founded in 2003. Tedesco’s recruiting efforts came at the perfect time.
“I was trying to grow the center, and the 2008 recession happened,” Shrestha says. “Florida was one of the worst places hit. I moved here to expand.”
NCALM now has six faculty members and approval to hire three more, up from just three in 2010.
It has launched master’s and Ph.D. programs in geosensing systems engineering and sciences, and its researchers have moved beyond laser mapping to other geosensing technologies — geosensing equipment records and measures environmental data in a way that can be linked to a specific geographic location — including satellite data analysis and multi-sensor signaling.
But their core technology is LiDAR, or light detection and radar, a field pioneered in part by Shrestha and Bill Carter, chief scientist for NCALM, who have worked with lasers since the 1960s.
The center is the model of a modern research organization, funded by the National Science Foundation but guided by an entrepreneurial spirit to provide high-quality scientific data to academia, government agencies and private industry.
It has been involved in seminal work in archeology, energy, environmental studies and homeland security over the past decade.
Using thousands of laser pulses per second to produce richly detailed, three-dimensional topographical maps, NCALM has found a previously unknown ancient settlement in Central America, measured the impact of a warming climate in Antarctica and searched for crumbling levies, eroding coastal areas and the lingering impact of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Beyond producing scientific data and making it publicly available, Shrestha says the center is developing new geosensing technologies, as well as training the workforce that will use them in the future.
The latter objective is well underway, with a master’s degree program approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2012 and a Ph.D. approved last spring.
The interdisciplinary program — the only one of its type in the world — involves faculty from both the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the Cullen College of Engineering, where Shrestha is Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Three dozen graduate students are enrolled, and the number is expected to grow along with the faculty. That’s just to keep up with demand as technological advances lead to new uses.
New geosensing techniques allowed Craig Glennie, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-principal investigator at NCALM, to work on the discovery of an inexpensive, cell phone-based earthquake early warning system.
Breakthroughs in LiDAR technology have been even more remarkable.
LiDAR works by shooting thousands of short laser pulses from a specially equipped airplane to the ground and back, calculating the distance by measuring the time between transmission and detection of the reflected signal. That information, along with details about the plane’s movement and location, are used to produce a topographical map.
The newest equipment sends 900,000 laser bursts per second to the terrain below, a 300-fold increase over the 3,000 bursts per second that was state-of-the-art in the mid-1990s.
“Back then, we dreamed of one million pulses per second,” Shrestha says. “We’re almost there.” More pulses provide more detail, critical for some assignments.
Although modern LiDAR can penetrate water, it can’t pass through ice, foliage or even clouds. But a new technology under investigation by NCALM could solve that dilemma — the system uses radar, which would be able to deliver data currently available only from satellites equipped with interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR.
NCALM researchers also are finding new ways to adapt LiDAR: Glennie developed a helicopter-based system, which Shrestha says is less expensive and can fly lower than the traditional airplane-based system, hovering directly over a small space to provide amazingly detailed maps.
The center has been funded by NSF from the beginning, most recently through a $3.18 million, five-year grant approved in 2013. The money covers operational costs, including salaries for graduate students and some researchers.
It doesn’t cover the cost of collecting data, and outside researchers contract with the center for their projects. Researchers funded by NSF get a discount.
Many NCALM projects are in the United States, but it is best-known for work in some of the most remote corners of the world.
That includes Honduras, where researchers used airborne LiDAR to map a remote region of the rainforest in 2012, uncovering evidence of a previously unknown ancient civilization.
Their findings were verified earlier this year when NCALM researcher Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz returned to the site on foot, accompanied by Honduran and American archeologists, a documentary film crew and a reporter and photographer from National Geographic.
The resulting publicity spread around the globe, bringing a heightened profile for the center and for the possibilities of LiDAR. Back in center headquarters in the UH Energy Research Park, there was a brief pause to enjoy the moment.
And, then it was on to the next project.
Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute
Superconductor manufacturing is hard. Understanding the benefits of creating an Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute in Houston, however, is easy.
“In the near-term, it would be a lot of jobs, a lot of federal funding,” says Venkat Selvamanickam, director of the Applied Research Hub at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. He is principal investigator for a $500,000 planning grant, awarded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to guide a consortium of academia and industry as it prepares for the proposed Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute.
The institute would eventually become self-sustaining, but the potential rewards for society would continue to grow beyond the economic impact of the facility itself – increased energy efficiency through the use of superconducting wire and other devices, better medical diagnostics, a surge in high-speed transportation.
“The value of this technology is known, but after 25 years, it hasn’t happened on a wide scale,” Selvamanickam says.
That’s where the planning process comes in. Lightweight and powerful, superconductors already are here — if you have had an MRI, you have benefited from a superconductor. They also are used in other health care applications, along with energy, transportation and other fields. Among their advantages? Increased efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
But as Selvamanickam suggests, the industry isn’t fully formed. Tools to surmount the technical barriers that have prevented today’s small-volume manufacturing from expanding to low-cost, high-volume production will be developed during the 18-month planning period.
Selvamanickam will lead the work – his research with superconductors includes developing high-performance superconducting wire, with support from agencies including U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, Army Research Laboratory, Office of Naval Research and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds early-stage, high-impact energy technologies. His lab is noted for improving the performance of the wire fourfold over the past few years.
Although UH is leading the process, the Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute isn’t about the University or any one researcher. It will serve the superconductor industry, and a number of company executives are part of the effort, which has no less lofty a goal than maintaining the United States as a leader in the field.
Governments in Asia and Europe spend 10 times what the U.S. government does for superconductor research, says Michael Tomsic, president of Hyper Tech Research, an Ohio-based manufacturer of superconducting wire. Foreign governments finance large demonstration projects, while the United States has not, he says.
With or without U.S. investment, experts say the industry is growing, including for utility transmission lines, fault current limiters, wind turbine generators and motors and generators for trains, ships and aircraft.
But no company — or university — can do it alone.
Solving the obstacles to high-volume manufacturing and increasing the power and efficiency of superconductor devices will take work from industry, academia and the federal government.
“These improved superconductor products can lead to billions of dollars of manufacturing in the U.S. and thousands of jobs,” he says.
Hyper Tech Research is one of about 30 companies involved in the effort, and Selvamanickam says more will be added.
Technical hurdles to large-scale manufacturing are just one hindrance. Lowering costs, improving reliability and convincing end-user companies to switch to superconductor technology must be addressed, too.
There have been numerous test projects, including the world’s first demonstration of thin film superconducting cable in the electric power grid, a project led by Selvamanickam in Albany, N.Y., before he joined UH in 2008.
“The key is the wire itself,” he says. “It has to be cost-effective. It has to be available from multiple companies at high volume.”
That’s required to convince utilities and other companies to upgrade their existing equipment. “They’re concerned about capital costs, they’re concerned about ROI (return on investment),” Selvamanickam says. “They have existing generators, transformers, motors. Even though they’re not ideal, they already have them.”
He predicts companies will come around once the manufacturing hurdles are removed, as they realize the advantage of superconducting devices and grow comfortable with the reliability of both products and supply.
The consortium first has to agree on the challenges, as well as on a handful of projects to tackle first.
Like Tomsic, Selvamanickam is confident the market is there. He’s not so confident that the U.S. will remain a leader without a boost from the Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute.
China and Korea are among the countries pushing ahead, with significant government support, he says. “They are using a lot of the know-how developed in this country,” he says. “It’s not too late. I think there is an opportunity to recoup some lost time.”