Category: Research

Klamkin Wins NASA Early Career Faculty Award

July 23rd, 2014 in Awards, Faculty, Grants, Recognition, Research, Research-EP, Uncategorized

Recognized for Efforts to Improve Deep Space Communication

By Gabriella McNevin

Klamkin (ECE, MSE) at the Jeppix Photonic Integration Training Workshop at the Boston University Photonics Center.

Klamkin (ECE, MSE) at the Jeppix Photonic Integration Training Workshop at the Boston University Photonics Center.

Assistant Professor Jonathan Klamkin (ECE, MSE) is one of seven university researchers nationwide to receive the 2014 NASA Early Career Faculty Award. The recognition honors early career faculty focused on space technology that address critical needs in the US space program.

Since joining Boston University in 2013, Klamkin’s impressive accomplishments include, winning the College of Engineering Dean’s Catalyst Award in 2013 and being elevated to Senior Member status of the IEEE in 2014.

Klamkin caught NASA’s attention with a proposal to develop integrated laser transmitter technology for deep space communications. NASA recently completed a mission, the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD), which demonstrated high-rate laser communication between Earth and the Moon. Now NASA wants to further this technology for future missions to Mars, and Klamkin will develop technology to allow for such deep space communication.

High-rate space communication is made possible by laser communication transmitters. The laser sends data to Earth through space similar to how ground-based lasers send data over fiber-optic cables for the Internet.

With funding from the NASA grant and partnerships with MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Klamkin expects to apply photonic integrated circuit technology to reduce the size, weight, and power of space laser transmitters. Photonic integration is a means to integrate several photonic functions on a chip in a manner analogous to integrating transistors in an electronic integrated circuit. Klamkin hopes that this technology will inspire new design methodologies for space laser transmitter hardware.

NASA’s Early Career Faculty Award will serve as a benchmark to measure the achievements to come for Professor Klamkin. To put the award into perspective, Michael Gazarik of NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate said, “Technology drives exploration, and these researchers will provide fuel for NASA’s innovation engine.”

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Research Grants for Three ECE Undergraduates

July 14th, 2014 in Awards, Grants, Recognition, Research, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students

By Paloma Parikh (COM’15)

Three ECE undergraduate students won grants from two programs affiliated with Boston University’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Annie Lane (ENG’16) and Maya Saint Germain (ENG’16) are recipients of the Clare Boothe Luce Award; and Dean Shi, (ENG’16) won the Hariri Award.

Annie Lane; Clare Boothe Luce Award Recipient

Annie Lane; Clare Boothe Luce Award Recipient

Annie Lane won the Clare Boothe Luce Award for her research project, “Data Center Power Regulation Modeling,” which she is working on with mentor Assistant Professor Ayse Coskun (ECE). The goal of the project is to minimize electricity costs for data centers. To do so, Lane is developing a power control policy based on a mathematical model. Additionally, she will evaluate alternative research models in the hopes of finding the most effective process. Lane believes the practicality of her project caught the attention of the judges. In an email correspondence, Lane mentioned that the project has potential for real-life application, “BU has partnered with other universities, the state, and companies to build and manage the Massachusetts Green High Power Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke, MA. The research results will help increase energy savings at MGHPCC.”


Maya Saint Germain; Clare Boothe Luce Award Recipient

Maya Saint Germain; Clare Boothe Luce Award Recipient

Maya Saint Germain, with mentor Professor and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies Hamid Nawab (ECE), won the Clare Boothe Luce Award to fund a project entitled “Human-in-Circuit Signal Processing.” Saint Germain explains Human-in-Circuit Signal Processing as, “a subfield of signal processing in which the signal that is being processed is produced by a human, and – after processing – will be perceived by a human.” Her goal is to improve how the signal is processed. Saint Germain feels proud that she won the award, “It means that my research is important and relevant.”



Dean Shi; Hariri Award Recipient

Dean Shi; Hariri Award Recipient

Dean Shi won the Hariri Award for his project, “Power Optimization and Development of Power Policies on Mobile Devices,” which he is working on with mentor Assistant Professor Ayse Coskun (ECE). Shi is working to lengthen battery life for cell phones. To do so, he is researching how cell phones use battery power through different functions, such as applications. With this understanding, he will be able to optimize power usage and make cell phone batteries last longer. Shi recalls, All of my friends are always complaining, ‘Oh I just charged my phone this morning but it’s already at 10% battery.’” This award will help Shi achieve his goal of lengthening cell phone battery life.


The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) is a supportive resource for faculty-mentor research. It provides grants to students through various organizations such as the Clare Boothe Luce Program and the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. The Clare Boothe Luce Program aims to support women in science, mathematics, and engineering. Recipients of the undergraduate research awards receive funding to conduct a research project with a faculty mentor. The Hariri Institute promotes innovation in the sciences of computing and engineering. With the Hariri award, they provide grants for collaborative research and training initiatives.

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2014 Best ECE Ph.D. Dissertation Award goes to Dr. Jie Meng

July 10th, 2014 in Alumni, Awards, Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, Recognition, Research, Students

By Donald Rock (COM ’17)

On May 17th, Dr. Jie Meng received a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and was presented with the 2014 Best ECE Ph.D. Dissertation Award. Her dissertation is entitled Modeling and Optimization of High-Performance Many-core Systems for Energy-Efficient and Reliable Computing and focuses on improving the energy efficiency of many-core processors and large-scale computing systems.

PhD Story Block Quote

Accomplishing this goal, as Meng’s thesis argues, requires detailed, full-system simulation tools that can simultaneously evaluate power, performance, and temperature. Her award-winning thesis includes the design of such simulation methods and leveraging these methods for the development of dynamic optimization policies for computing systems.

This prestigious award is just one of a number of awards that the ambitious engineer has received throughout her Ph.D. career. In 2012, Dr. Meng won the Best Paper Award at the High Performance Extreme Computing Conference; in 2011 she won the A. Richard Newton Graduate Scholarship Award with her advisor, Assistant Professor Ayse Coskun (ECE), at the Design Automation Conference; and in 2010 she received the Google Scholarship at the Google GRAD CS Forum. Furthermore, Dr. Meng has won a number of awards from Boston University, including the Outstanding Graduate Teaching Fellow in the School of Engineering and the 2009 ECE Graduate Teaching Fellow of the Year Award.

Professor Ayse Coskun (left) and Dr. Jie Ming (right) at the 2014 College of Engineering Ph.D. Commencement Ceremony (Photo provided by Professor Ayse Coskun).

Professor Ayse Coskun (left) and Dr. Jie Ming (right) at the 2014 College of Engineering Ph.D. Commencement Ceremony (Photo provided by Professor Ayse Coskun).

Dr. Meng started her academic career at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), where she earned a Bachelor of Engineering Degree in Electrical Engineering in 2004. She went on to earn a Master of Applied Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering at McMaster University before coming to Boston University in 2008 to pursue her Ph.D.

Dr. Meng simultaneously pursued career advancement while maintaining her academic workload. She landed an internship at the Intel Corporation, and another at Sandia National Laboratories.

Currently, Dr. Meng works as a software engineer at CGG, a French-based geophysical services company. “To be specific, I am working on developing software modules for modeling and imaging geological structures in the exploration [of] seismic field,” Meng clarified in an email correspondence.

When Dr. Meng reflects back on her time at BU, she remembers, “I was very lucky and grateful to have Professor Ayse Coskun as my advisor. [She was] a role model for me.” Professor Coskun felt similarly, noting, “Jie is a very hard-working researcher and she has the necessary perseverance to succeed. Seeing Jie graduate successfully as my first Ph.D. student and continue to her career has been among the most satisfying accomplishments of my time at BU.”

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Bellotti Receives Two Grants for Engineering Advancements

July 8th, 2014 in Awards, Faculty, Grants, News-CE, Recognition, Research, Research-CE

Professor Bellotti Receives Two New Grants to Develop Vertical Power Electronic Devices and Heterogeneous Computer Architectures

Bellotti’s work will benefit a number of industries including railroad transportation and electrical power distribution. The switch concept is expected to improve utility pole efficiency and reduce developmental costs of electric trains. Image provided by Photobucket (GreenThoughts), and

Bellotti’s work will benefit a number of industries including railroad transportation and electrical power distribution. The switch concept is expected to improve utility pole efficiency and reduce developmental costs of electric trains. The left image provided by Photobucket (GreenThoughts); and right image provided by

The Computational Electronics Group led by Professor Enrico Bellotti (ECE, MSE) has been awarded funding for two new programs to study novel power electronic devices based on III-Nitride semiconductors and to develop and evaluate heterogeneous computer architectures to simulate advanced materials and devices.

The new grant from the National Science Foundation will provide Prof. Bellotti with $336,000 over a period of three years to establish the theoretical foundation of vertical power switches based on III-Nitride semiconductors. If successfully developed, the power switches proposed in this program may lead to a number of breakthroughs in the areas of energy conversion that may profoundly change how and to what extent energy is consumed by society. First of all, these devices will aid in the implementation of the smart grid concept, delivering an unprecedented quality of service to the utilities’ customers while reducing transmission losses and increasing the capacity of these systems for wind and solar sources. In the area of transportation systems, they will enable the cost and size effective design of electric drives, not only for cars, but also for large vehicles, such as trucks or buses with immediate environmental benefits. They will reduce the development cost of electric trains, reducing the size of the motor control systems, leading to a further expansion and upgrade of local and regional railway systems.

The Army Research Office (ARO), through a DURIP Award, will provide the Computational Electronics Group with the resources totaling $150,000 to develop a heterogeneous computational hardware platform composed of distributed and shared memory systems integrated with GPUs to evaluate novel simulation methodologies for the design of electronic and optoelectronic materials and devices. Exploiting heterogeneous computing platform may significantly increase the ability of material scientists to predict novel material properties and possibly design new ones with specific properties.

For further information contact Prof. E. Bellotti at

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Andrew Kelley Wins The Center for Space Physics Undergraduate Research Award

May 19th, 2014 in Alumni, Awards, Events, Recognition, Research, Senior Design, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students, Video

Kelley found his passion while working with the BU Satellite Program & Rocket Group

By Gabriella McNevin

On May 5, 2014, Andrew Kelley (middle) received The Center for Space Physics Undergraduate Research Award at the senior capstone event, ECE Day. Standing to Kelley's left is Associate Professor Semeter, and to Kelley's right is ECE Department Chair Professor David Castañón. Photo by Chitose Suzuki  for Boston University Photography.

From left to right: Associate Professor Semeter, Andrew Kelley (ENG ’14), and ECE Department Chair Professor David Castañón. Photo by Chitose Suzuki for Boston University Photography.

Andrew Kelley (ENG ’14) won The Center for Space Physics Undergraduate Research Award for his contribution to the BU Satellite Program and the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group. The award recipient was decided by the Director of the BU Center of Space Physics, Professor John Clarke (AS); and Associate Director of the BU Center for Space Physics, Professor Joshua Semeter (ECE).

Kelley’s success was achieved in a relatively short period of time. Kelley entered BU excited to gain a versatile education in computer engineering in an accelerated 3-year program. For his first two years, like many, Kelley was unsure of his passion and did not know what career would best unite his academic skills and interests. He explored the possibilities by researching extracurricular activities that involved computer engineering. Ultimately, Kelley joined his first space program venture after his freshman year, and realized his passion in the field after his second year. It was not until his third and final year at Boston University, that Kelley dove, head-first, into space programs.


Andrew Kelley showing off one of the BU Rocket Propulsion Group’s model rockets in Amesbury, MA.

A future that blended computer engineering and space programs was first proposed to Kelley at Splash Day his freshmen year. Splash Day is an annual fair that features student organizations. Kelley recalls noticing a ten-foot model rocket hoisted on the shoulders of two students laughing and jogging to the opposite side of the field. He thought to himself, “follow those footsteps!” The name of the student organization in charge of that rocket, now known as the BU Rocket Propulsion Group, was painted on the side.

Before joining a team, Kelley weighed his enthusiasm about the BU Rocket Propulsion Group with his interest in other groups, and his collegiate goals. He spent the remaining year developing relationships with organization members, contemplating rocketry, and discovering how to best manage his time.

At the end of the academic year, Kelley and a member of the Rocket Propulsion Group were chatting about the organization. Kelley’s friend expressed some concern about the group’s leadership. The group insider mentioned that the vice president was expected to graduate with no prospect of a predecessor. Instinctively Kelley responded, “I will do it.”

Two years later, Kelley recalls those four words as the best he ever said. Joining the group helped Kelley to realize his passion for space programs, and introduced him to a network of some of his most trusted advisors, including Professor Semeter and Principal Fellow at Raytheon Missile Systems Joe Sebeny.

Towards the end of his second year at BU, Kelley was at a crossroad. He needed a summer job, and had been denied internships at Google and Microsoft. Uninterested in returning to his home in Texas, Kelley took the advice of Professor Semeter and applied to work at Boston University Student Satellite for Applications and Training program, specifically ANDESITE. It was a pivotal time for the satellite program, as it had recently been awarded an Air Force Research Laboratory grant and joined a national competition to win the opportunity to launch a satellite to orbit. As one of the newest members to the satellite program, the Texan embraced the organization’s mission to design, fabricate, and operate a low-earth-orbiting satellite.


Kelley stands ready to present a poster on his honors thesis research topic at ECE Day. Photo by Chitose Suzuki for Boston University Photography.

In September 2013, the beginning of Kelley’s final year at BU, his extracurricular and academic interests melted into one. Kelley opted to complete his academic capstone requirements by completing an honors thesis, rather than a senior design project. His theses work, entitled “Design and Implementation of a 3-DOF Rocket Autopilot,” advanced both the BU Student Satellite and supported the BU Rocket Propulsion Group.

“Design and Implementation of a 3-DOF Rocket Autopilot” provided an analysis and design investigation of rocket trajectory systems to develop a functioning autopilot. Without trajectory control, a rocket would run the risk of becoming a missile.

After graduation, Kelley will spend a week with his family in Fort Worth, Texas before jet-setting to Los Angles, California to be a Space X intern.  Kelley will be involved in vehicle and systems integration for the Dragon capsule.

Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group Watch the group’s second hot fire test:

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Dr. Filbert Bartoli Reveals Biosensor Proposal to ECE Community

April 29th, 2014 in Events, Faculty, Lectures, Research

Gabriella McNevin

Bartoli lecture

Dr. Bartoli

What do environmental monitoring, food testing, homeland security and drug discovery have in common? Each market segment relies on biosensors to analyze chemicals.

Dr. Filbert Bartoli, a leader in biosensor advancement, is working to produce an alternative commercial biosensor that is optimized for modern performance needs. His goal is to eliminate molecule labeling, decrease sensor interference with target molecules, and lessen sensor-manufacturing costs.

Bartoli is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Chandler Weaver Chair and Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Chair at Lehigh University, and Director of the Biophotonics and Optoelectronics Lab at Lehigh University. While visiting Boston University on April 9th, Professor Bartoli presented the work he collaborated on with Professor Xuanhong Cheng and student Bu Wang. The lecture was part of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series.

During the talk, Professor Bartoli disclosed his sensor proposal, which is technically referred to as a plasmonic interferometric sensor. He demonstrated how the instrument operates on principles established by preexisting SPR biosensors, but differs by utilizing a simple optical setup. Essentially, the proposed device works by first controlling the plasmon line shape, which is made possible by structurally tuning the phase and amplitude of interfering surface plasmon polarities. The control allows the chemical’s molecules to be altered for testing. The surface area of the device is then measured for protein surface coverage in a process that minimally disturbs the targeted molecules.

“The successful transformation of SPR technique from prism-coupling to this far simple optical setup would lead to major advances in low-cost, portable biomedical devices as well as in other high- throughput sensing applications including proteomics, diagnostics, drug discovery, and fundamental cell biology research.”


Bartoli with student

Dr. Bartoli with an ECE student after the lecture.

Biosensors are increasingly used in medical and non-medical applications. Business Wire offered examples of the rising use of biosensors by pointing to the formation of the biodefense industry, the growing diabetic population, and an increase in home health care in 2013 Report on the International Biosensors Market- Trends and Forecast to 2018.

To view the PDF presentation, titled “Nanostructured Plasmonic Interferometers for ultrasensitive Label-Free Biosensing”:

Fall 2014 Distinguished Lecture Series speakers will be announced this summer. Please contact with inquires or comments regarding the upcoming series. 

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Interdisciplinary Team Sheds Light on How Proteins Blind

April 9th, 2014 in Faculty, Research

Finding Could Open Up New Drug Discovery Opportunities

By Mark Dwortzan

"Transient encounter complexes" of an enzyme produced by a bacterium present in the human gut binding to a fragment of a protein in turkey eggs which inhibits the enzyme.

“Transient encounter complexes” of an enzyme produced by a bacterium present in the human gut binding to a fragment of a protein in turkey eggs which inhibits the enzyme.

Over the past six years, an interdisciplinary team of College of Engineering faculty members—Professor Sandor Vajda (BME, SE), Research Assistant Professor Dima Kozakov (BME), Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE) and Associate Professor Pirooz Vakili (ME, SE)—have been developing a set of powerful optimization algorithms for predicting the structures of complexes that form when two proteins bind together—structures that, in some cases, generate erroneous cell signaling pathways that can trigger cancer and other inflammatory diseases.

Incorporated into Vajda’s and Kozakov’s protein-protein docking server ClusPro—a website to which any user can submit the three-dimensional coordinates of two proteins and receive a supercomputer-calculated prediction of the structure of the complex formed by those proteins—these algorithms have enabled more than 3,000 research groups across the globe to better understand the inner-workings of the cell and explore potential drug targets without having to run expensive, time-consuming lab experiments.

Now the research team behind these algorithms has, through lab experiments and computational analysis, obtained a sharper understanding of how two proteins come together to form a complex, and plans to apply that knowledge to boost the speed and accuracy of ClusPro’s predictions. They and collaborators from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report on this new development in a new article in eLife, an open source journal for outstanding biomedical research.

A joint effort of Boston University’s Center for Information and Systems Engineering and Biomolecular Engineering Research Center supported by a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the NIH, the project combines Paschalidis’ and Vakili’s expertise in optimization and systems theory with Vajda and Kozakov’s knowledge of biophysics and bioinformatics.

“The research was a beautiful combination of physics with mathematics,” said Paschalidis. “We leveraged techniques popular in control systems developed to describe movement of complex 3-D objects, such as a robot arm, as well as machine learning methods used to analyze large data sets.”

“Preventing proteins from binding to the wrong partners is an increasingly prominent concept in drug design,” said Janna Wehrle, PhD, of the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which partially funded the research. “These new computational methods developed by the Boston University team will help researchers quickly discover both healthy protein pairs and disease-causing pairs that we might want to break up.”

Until now, scientists were unable to characterize how protein-protein complexes form from two individual proteins—each analogous to a distinctly-shaped Lego block—because their interactions from the moment they come in contact to the moment they “snap into place” were too fast to detect. But an emerging nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technique has made it possible to track their rapidly changing configurations from rendezvous to docking using radio waves.

Applying this technique, the College of Engineering team determined that its protein-protein docking algorithms were already generating these exact transitional states, but labelling them as “false positives” alongside the correctly identified final protein-protein complex.

“What we have so far been calling false positives are ‘transient encounter complexes,’ temporary structures the proteins form as they ‘search’ for the one orientation that will enable them to bind successfully,” said Paschalidis.

All protein-protein encounter complexes are characterized by low energy, with the lowest energy expected to occur at the final, stable complex. By systematically analyzing the energy values corresponding to the transient complexes, the researchers found that with each successive interaction, the intersecting proteins have fewer and fewer ways to twist and turn, thereby accelerating their path to binding. This explains how two proteins can dock very quickly despite the many nooks and crannies that must line up to seal the deal.

The College of Engineering team next aims to exploit its findings to make its docking algorithms faster and more accurate. The researchers also plan to examine the implications of their work for protein-DNA and protein-small molecule interactions that are important in genetic regulation and drug discovery, respectively.

See movie of transient protein-protein encounter complexes.

Applying the Control Theory to Red Blood Cell Counts

April 4th, 2014 in Events, Lectures, Research

Simplification and Customization
Chelsea Hermond (SMG ’15)


Professor C.V. Hollot, Department Head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

“I wanted to do something that would impact the world,” exclaimed Professor C.V. Hollot, Department Head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Hollot appeared as part of Boston University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series in early March. His forum focused on the regulation of cell populations in individuals using feedback-based drug-dosing protocols.

Dr. Hollot explained the drug protocol that he promotes by comparing it to the current drug-dosing system. Currently, a doctor guides the drug-dosage that is administered to a patient through a manual protocol. If one cell population is irregular, a doctor will use a chart to determine the specific drug dose to prescribe. In other words, if the cell count is between A and B, the doctor will administer the corresponding dose as is it shown on the chart.

In contrast to current standards, Dr. Hollot’s research suggests a more efficient drug-dosing process: automatic regulation of cell populations through feedback mechanisms. Dr. Hollot lectured that feedback-based mechanisms could potentially replace doctors using the feedback loop. The automatic dosing protocol is supported by Dr. Hollot’s research on real patients that were prescribed a drug named EPO, which regulates red blood cells in individuals with chronic kidney disease.

In summary, Hollot touted simplification and customization; “we need to be able to individualize protocol for each patient.”

To see a PDF file of Dr. Hollot’s slideshow, click here.


ECE will host Dr. Filbert Bartoli, Chandler Weaver Chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Lehigh University as the next distinguished lecturer:

  • Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at 4:00 pm
  • Photonics Center, 8 Saint Mary’s Street, Room 211
  • Topic: Interferometric Plasmonic Biosensor Arrays for High-Performance Label-Free Biomolecular Detection.
  • To learn more, please see the event flyer.

Complexity Made Simple…at a Small Price

March 28th, 2014 in Faculty, Research

Cassandras Delivers Distinguished Scholar Lecture

By Mark Dwortzan

Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) delivering Distinguished Scholar Lecture (Photos by Dan Aguirre)

Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) delivering Distinguished Scholar Lecture (Photos by Dan Aguirre)

For 30 years, Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) has solved countless complex problems by translating them into simpler terms and then applying optimization, computer simulation and other tools of the systems engineering trade. A pioneer in the field of discrete event dynamic systems analysis, used extensively in the development and operation of manufacturing, transportation, communications and other complex systems, he has laid the mathematical groundwork for everything from swarms of surveillance robots to hassle-free Smart Cities.

On March 19, Cassandras shared some of the most powerful techniques in his problem-solving toolkit in the 2014 College of Engineering Distinguished Scholar Lecture, “Complexity Made Simple* (*at a Small Price).” Speaking from the podium at the Boston University Photonics Center Auditorium, he addressed students, faculty and researchers from throughout the BU academic community and beyond.

Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) (2nd from left) with Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen (2nd from right) and two previous recipients of the Distinguished Scholar Award, Professors Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE, 2011) (left) and Irving Bigio (BME, 2010) (right), at post-lecture reception

Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) (2nd from left) with Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen (2nd from right) and two previous recipients of the Distinguished Scholar Award, Professors Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE, 2011) (left) and Irving Bigio (BME, 2010) (right), at post-lecture reception

Complexity Made Simple

Focusing his remarks on the optimal design, control and management of complex dynamic systems, Cassandras highlighted methods he’s developed to solve difficult problems by exploiting their specific structure and asking the “right” questions. He demonstrated how these methods outshine conventional engineering approaches, resulting in time and cost savings, enhanced security and other benefits.

Cassandras first challenged the effectiveness of “brute force” trial-and-error techniques, which are often used to systematically learn and predict the behavior of a complex system, but are invariably slow, inefficient and intrusive. He showed how this learning could be achieved far more quickly through simple “thought experiments” constructed at a “small price.”  For example, rather than expend hundreds of years of manpower manually testing different alternative configurations of a manufacturing transfer line to improve its efficiency, he explained, one could model the system’s performance with algorithms that evaluate multiple scenarios in less than an hour in a single, low-cost run.

Cassandras next explored two methods to reduce the complexity of a system to make it easier to model: decomposition, or breaking down a complex system into simpler components, and abstraction, or zooming out to a far less detailed representation of the system. Decomposition can provide fast, accurate solutions to difficult problems; abstraction can dramatically simplify such problems at the “small price” of some loss of accuracy.

“Can the abstraction model be used to predict the real system’s behavior? Bad question,” said Cassandras. “Can the abstraction model be used to control or optimize the real system’s behavior? Good question.”

Finally, he challenged conventional time-driven methods for sampling, control and communication in wireless, networked systems. Noting how communication actions dictated solely by clock time drain precious battery power, exacerbate security risks and are often unnecessary, he argued that these actions could instead be triggered by specific events at the “small price” of identifying suitable action-triggering events. To illustrate the point, he showed how communication among a team of cooperating robots patrolling a defined space could be minimized to achieve a specified goal while saving energy and enhancing security.

Cassandras concluded the lecture by highlighting his ongoing efforts to design Smart Cities that collect data, process information, make decisions and control and optimize actions aimed at making urban life easier, safer and more efficient. He also announced a new endeavor to model the progression of cancer as a discrete event system.

“My hope is to turn this into a new direction of research where discrete event systems analysis can be applied to see how treatment and therapies can be used by simulating how cancer progresses with real data, and play what-if games with drugs,” he said.


Three Decades of Taking on Complexity

A member of the BU faculty since 1996, head of the College’s Division of Systems Engineering and cofounder of BU’s Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE), Cassandras has published five books and more than 300 refereed papers. He was editor-in-chief of the IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control from 1998 through 2009, and the 2012 president of the IEEE Control Systems Society (CSS). He has chaired several technical conferences and served as plenary speaker at various international conferences, including the American Control Conference in 2001 and the IEEE Conference on Decision and Control in 2002, and Distinguished Lecturer for the CSS.

Cassandras’s numerous awards include a 2012 Kern Fellowship, a 2011 prize for the IBM/IEEE Smarter Planet Challenge competition, the 2011 IEEE Control Systems Technology Award, the Distinguished Member Award of the IEEE Control Systems Society (2006), the 1999 Harold Chestnut Prize (International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC) Best Control Engineering Textbook) for Discrete Event Systems: Modeling and Performance Analysis, and a 1991 Lilly Fellowship. He is also a Fellow of the IEEE and IFAC.

Initiated in 2008, the annual Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series honors a senior faculty member engaged in outstanding, high-impact research at the College of Engineering. The previous five recipientsare Professors Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE), H. Steven Colburn (BME), Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE), Irving Bigio (BME) and John Baillieul (ME, SE), and Professor Emeritus Malvin Teich (ECE, BME).

Self-Cleaning System Boosts Efficiency of Solar Panels

March 24th, 2014 in Faculty, Grants, Recognition, Research

ENG team has a creative solution to a costly problem

By Leslie Friday (Video by Joe Chan), BU Today

Within seconds, the transparent EDS sweeps away at least 90 percent of dust and sand atop a solar panel. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Within seconds, the transparent EDS sweeps away at least 90 percent of dust and sand atop a solar panel. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

The energy from the sun that hits the Earth in a single hour could power the planet for an entire year, according to the US Department of Energy (DOE). One of the best places to harness that free, abundant, and environmentally friendly energy is a desert, but deserts, it turns out, come with a nemesis to solar panels: sand. The particulate matter that constantly blows across deserts settles on solar panels, decreasing their efficiency by nearly 100 percent in the middle of a dust storm. The current solution is for solar field operators to spray the dust with desalinated, distilled water.

“That might not sound like a big deal, but if you have millions of square feet of solar panels out in a desert, it ends up being costly—especially if water is a scarce resource,” says John Noah Hudelson (ENG’14), one of several graduate students working to find a better solution with Malay Mazumder, a College of Engineering research professor of electrical and computer engineering and of materials science and engineering, and Mark Horenstein, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We’re looking to use just a small amount of electricity to statically push the dust off the surface of the solar panel or the solar mirror.”

The BU team’s answer, called a transparent electrodynamic system (EDS), is a self-cleaning technology that can

Stark (left) and Hudelson taking a specular reflection reading last year on mirrors they installed at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Stark

Stark (left) and Hudelson taking a specular reflection reading last year on mirrors they installed at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Stark

be embedded in the solar device or silkscreen-printed onto a transparent film adhered to the solar panel or mirror. The EDS exposes the dust particles to an electrostatic field, which causes them to levitate, dipping and rising in alternating waves (the way a beach ball bounces along the upturned hands of fans in a packed stadium) as the electric charge fluctuates.

The entire process takes seconds and uses a minuscule amount of power, generated by the solar device itself—about 1/100th of what it produces daily. In its final version, the EDS will be programmable or will automatically detect the presence of surface dust and switch on. “There’s nothing like this on the market,” Horenstein says.

The inspiration for the EDS came to Mazumder more than a decade ago from an unlikely source: human lungs. He remembers thinking that the organs, outfitted with self-cleaning hairs that sweep dust up and out of the respiratory system, were “ingenious defense mechanisms.” He thought he could mimic that tidy biological system and apply it to other mechanisms.

In 2003, NASA, whose scientists thought the technology could be used on future Mars missions to keep equipment free of cosmic dust, gave him a three-year, $750,000 grant. When that funding expired, a $50,000 Ignition Award from BU’s Office of Technology Development kept Mazumder’s research afloat while he searched for alternative funding. His big break came in 2010, when he gave a presentation on the EDS at an American Chemical Society conference in Boston. News of the technology spread through articles in such publications as the New York Times and the Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

Mazumder received a call from David Powell, a research and development manager at Abengoa Solar, a global pioneer in the construction of CSP (concentrated solar power) and PV (photovoltaic) power plants. The company operates the Solana Generating Station in Gila Bend, Ariz., and the soon-to-open Mojave Solar Project near Barstow, Calif. Each has the capacity to produce 280 megawatts—or the ability to power more than 100,000 homes. With at least two plants in desert locations, Abengoa was keenly interested in the success of the EDS and eager to test Mazumder’s prototypes.

In 2012, Mazumder and Abengoa landed a two-year, $945,000 grant from the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to further test and expand the capacity of the EDS. Horenstein and Nitin Joglekar, a School of Management associate professor of operations and technology management, are co–principal investigators of the grant, and Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., signed on to help evaluate the prototype’s efficiency and develop larger-scale models. With a $40,000 grant from the Mass Clean Energy Council, the team’s total funding rose to nearly $1 million.

For two months last year, Hudelson and doctoral candidate Jeremy Stark (ENG’14) tested nearly 20 EDS prototypes at the Abengoa and Sandia sites before rain and snow cut their work short. They found that the system performed as expected, removing at least 90 percent of dust particles from solar panel surfaces. Next, the BU team must figure out how to protect the EDS from Mother Nature and to upscale to industrial-sized models.

Mazumder estimates that the United States would need to produce one terawatt (one trillion watts) of solar power to meet household and industry demand. That kind of output is a distant goal, but he sees great potential in getting started by building solar plants in the Southwest—specifically the Mojave Desert. The arid region has an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet, receives regular sun, and has fewer dust storms than other desert regions.

“The Mojave Desert and the Southwest, if fully utilized and assuming the existence of a reliable distribution system,” he says, “could provide most of the US demand with respect to our energy needs.”

Mazumder will submit a proposal soon to the DOE for renewed funding, but he must first identify a manufacturing partner willing to produce industry-scale panels equipped with EDS technology. Once that goal is reached, he thinks, the self-cleaning system could hit the market after two years.

“We must proceed fast,” he says. “The need is there.”

See video.