We live in an age of security threats, both overseas and at home. Some of these threats are real and daily challenges, while others are theoretical and far off into the future. Engineers at the University of Kentucky are helping to create a more secure future for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the rest of the United States. Whether they’re protecting our buildings and valuable infrastructure, helping first responders act more quickly, ensuring the integrity of our food supply or building better surveillance that still protects privacy, engineers are using their technical skill to create a better and more secure tomorrow.
Strengthening our buildings and power grid
Dr. Braden Lusk of the department of mining engineering is looking for ways to protect against bombings targeting buildings, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. “Flying glass is one of the biggest threats to human safety during a blast,” Lusk says. He hopes that the project will result in “more effective mitigation of explosive damage to targeted structures and, in congested areas, collateral damage to surrounding structures.” At the same time, Lusk is working on ways to protect against attacks to our electrical grid’s power transformers. In these two projects, with a combined funding amount of $1.6 million from the National Institute of Hometown Security’s (NIHS) and Kentucky Critical Infrastructure (KCI) program, Lusk is helping strengthen the infrastructure and protect our nation’s buildings.
Most large modern buildings, especially those with civic or governmental importance, are constructed using a “curtain wall” system, which uses a concrete and steel core to support the weight of the building. From this inner core radiates a lighter-weight aluminum and glass exterior. While curtain wall architecture creates tall and striking building designs, the thin outer walls can be particularly susceptible to explosions.
Lusk’s project focuses on determining which exterior architectural designs minimize the number of glass fragment projectiles produced by windows exposed to blast effects. UK will collaborate with the University of Missouri-Columbia on this project, and with private industry collaborators Winco Window Company and SMI Systems.
Much of the research occurs at Lusk’s blasting facility in Georgetown. The blast tube is 8 feet wide, 8 feet tall and 120 feet long. The window is at one end, where the tests happen. It’s made from five standard-sized shipping containers – the same things that hold consumer goods shipped overseas – laid end-to-end. (Eventually Lusk wants to expand the tube to be 12 feet tall and 20 feet wide.)
The blast tube helps Lusk simulate a larger blast. “We know we can simulate large explosive charges with just a small amount of explosive,” he says. “Instead of blasting in a free field, it funnels the blast. We expect to see good results based on some of the window tests we did in the past,” Lusk says.
In these tests, Lusk has help from a team of students. He is working with graduate students Kyle Perry, Josh Hoffman and Chad Wedding, as well as undergraduates David McLane and John Rathbun, who have been heavily involved in the testing process.
“The mining aspect was what drew me in, even before I knew about the blasting,” McLane says. “It’s technical, and scientific, and it’s not work that’s just sitting at a desk. Who doesn’t want to blow things up all day long?”
One of Rathbun’s frequent tasks is going down into the blast tube to set it up. He helps run power lines and sets up the high-speed camera and pressure sensors used to record the experiments. By analyzing the slow-motion footage and data from the pressure sensors, Lusk and his research team can determine how to tweak future experiments.
Protecting curtain wall buildings against explosions fits nicely with Lusk’s transformer-protection project, another ongoing research effort that is also supported by a KCI grant from NIHS. Because the electric power grid of the United States is distributed more than 3 million square miles, it is very difficult to protect from terrorist attacks. Transformers, the most vulnerable components in the grid, are expensive and time-consuming to replace. Right now Lusk is testing the individual components of the transformer system, placing them in the blast tube to find their susceptibility to blasting. “Once we see their level of blast resistance,” Lusk says, “we’ll move on to larger-scale tests.”
Rathbun and McLane are often found behind the high-speed camera during these experiments, videotaping the test in slow motion and then downloading the footage onto a computer for later analysis.
“It’s pretty incredible to witness,” Rathbun says. “You push the button and everything shakes.” The explosives used in the tests look mundane – like gray putty. But, Rathbun says, “you don’t really respect or appreciate it until you’ve been there holding a handful of it, and realize how destructive it is.”
“Potentially, you’re saving someone’s life,” Rathbun says. “It’s not just another student job. Doing these tests is going toward something good and helping people.”
Protecting our dams from attack
Another blast-protection project will soon be underway in the department of civil engineering. Also funded through the KCI program under NIHS, the research is overseen by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS/S&T).
Lusk is helping the project as the senior consultant for blasting and blast mitigation. The two investigators, both from the department of civil engineering are Dr. Sebastian Bryson, whose areas of expertise are numerical modeling, sensors used for civil infrastructure monitoring and evaluating infrastructure response to severe events, and Dr. Michael Kalinski, whose areas of expertise are inspection and monitoring of earth dams and dynamic behavior of earth dam materials.
The project aims to develop cost-effective and practical ways to reduce the risk of water-side surface and underwater attacks to dams. Bryson says he and Kalinski are focusing on concrete dams and gated spillways, but may expand their scope to include earth dams in the future.
“In a water-side attack, dams may be weakened to a point where they are ultimately breached, leading to a sudden uncontrolled pool release,” Bryson says. The consequences of such a release would be catastrophic, with results that could possibly include hundreds of fatalities, widespread flooding, billions of dollars of downstream damage, and severe consequences for the local economies that relied on the lost pool and downstream waterway.
Bryson says they are basing their investigation on a set of theoretical attack scenarios. He envisions swimmers detonating an explosion adjacent to the dam, explosives-laden boats deliberately crashing into a dam or an attack that involves projectiles, such as rockets, launched at the dam.
Dr. Lindell Ormsbee is the senior consultant for hydraulic systems and infrastructure policy for this project. Dr. Kamyar Mahboub is the senior researcher for materials engineering for this project with particular emphasis in fracture mechanics.
Building better surveillance while protecting privacy
Dr. Samson Cheung has two projects ongoing at the College of Engineering focused on protecting personal privacy in security applications. A professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, he is working both on building a privacy-protected video surveillance system and creating an anonymous biometric access control method. “The two projects share a common theme,” he says, “enhancing privacy protection on the latest security equipments.” Video surveillance and biometric control are both important ways of protecting critical infrastructure against intruders. But, he says, they also provide sensitive identity, action and location information which, in the wrong hands, can significantly undermine personal privacy.
“Our privacy protected video surveillance system mitigates the privacy concern by automatically tracking and eraseing images of authorized individuals in surveillance videos,” Cheung says. Persons authorized to be in a certain area are identified by a software system and removed from the video feed – effectively rendered invisible in the video. A network of cameras helps identify where people are in the frame.
Cheung works with Dr. Michael Hail, professor of political science at Morehead State University and Dr. Ruigang Yang, professor of computer science at UK. Graduate students and postdocs have also helped. The video surveillance research is supported by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security for nearly $700,000.
“We have just added a new thermal camera to our network of regular cameras,” Cheung says. “The thermal camera captures temperature variation of the environment and provides superior performance over regular cameras in identifying where the humans are.” Relaying this information to other cameras was challenging at first, but Cheung’s student Jian Zhao developed a technique to quickly “warp” the thermal image in real-time to a neighboring regular camera. They have recently presented this idea in a conference in Kyoto, Japan.
“My research makes America safer in two ways,” Cheung says. “First, our government has invested billions of dollars in security equipment, but complaints about privacy invasion from civil liberty groups and citizens prevent many of these projects from being implemented. These new technologies we are proposing can mitigate some of the privacy concerns without sacrificing the utility of the security equipment. Second, our research, though primarily focused on privacy protection, has significant overlap with the research in surveillance and biometric technologies. So we are also making contribution in those areas as well.”
As both projects are interdisciplinary, Cheung feels his biggest challenge is “to ensure that we are on top of the latest developments in all the areas involved.”
Helping first responders
Dr. Thomas Dziubla’s project is ambitious. He and his co-investigators are looking to create a set of nanoparticles that, when applied to wounds, will work in conjunction with a tourniquet to contain the loss of blood for longer periods without causing additional damage. At the same time, he is trying to develop a “lab-on-a-chip” system for evaluating the health of cells on the insides of blood vessels, which will enable him and his co-investigators to gauge the nanoparticle system’s effectiveness.
“This is of unique importance in catastrophes, such as environmental, bridge collapses or terrorist actions, where there are large numbers of injuries,” Dziubla says. “First responders can work to stabilize patients and hospitals will be afforded more time for follow-up care with better patient outcomes.”
Tourniquets help first responders stop blood loss immediately after a catastrophe, but there is a limited window of time in which a tourniquet can remain on a patient before it begins to cause further complications. Dziubla’s proposed treatments could also have application in a variety of related medical conditions where blood flow is momentarily stopped or suppressed such as during organ transplants, strokes or heart attacks.
The biggest challenge is optimizing the release of antioxidants with the expected injury, Dziubla says. Newer polymer systems are being developed which have a wider tunable release range, which is expected to overcome this limitation.
Dr. Richard Eitel, Dr. Kimberly Anderson and Dr. Zach Hilt are all co-investigators. They are also involved in the multidisciplinary IGERT graduate fellow traineeship program funded by the National Science Foundation focusing on Engineered Bioactive Interfaces and Devices, Dziubla says.
This project was funded by the Office of Naval Research through the Department of Defense Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (DEPSCoR). The award was nearly $600,000 from ONR, with an additional $100,000 from the Commonwealth of Kentucky and $200,000 from UK.
“Our group is highly involved with undergraduate research,” Dziubla says.” So far, we have had three undergraduates on various aspects of this project. However, each lab has several undergraduates working on various projects at any given time.” In the past year the team published four papers which had undergraduates as co-authors.
“Recently, we have successfully formulated an antioxidant polymer composed of a vitamin E derivative, trolox,” Dziubla says. “In the lab, this polymer has demonstrated the ability to suppress oxidative injury in cultured cells.” These findings have been accepted for publication in Advanced Functional Materials.
“We have also developed and fabricated prototype ‘lab-on-a-chip’ systems, which will use electrical resistance measurements to monitor the health of cultured cells in real-time,” Dziubla says. “Justin Poag presented these preliminary studies at the Society for Biomaterials’ Biomaterials Day conference and won first place in the poster award competition.” Dziubla says he and his co-investigators have submitted an invention disclosure on this device and plan to pursue patent rights.
Keeping our food supply safe
In our modern food supply chain, bulk food handling and transportation security protocols are of great importance due to potential health threats to our society. The United States Department of Homeland Security has identified potential contamination of bulk milk as a major focus area for security improvements. While existing protocols for security ensure consumer safety and product reliability, the current methods used for securing milk during transport are manual, paper-intensive and prone to errors.
Dr. Frederick Payne, a professor in the department of biosystems and agricultural engineering, and Chris Thompson, senior agriculture regulatory specialist in the UK College of Agriculture, have been working on the research project to solve the issues of bulk milk transportation since late 2005 when funding was received from the US Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute for Hometown Security. The team of UK researchers includes BAE graduate and undergraduate students, researchers from the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky University along with milk producers, processors, and transportation companies.
The research team at UK is now very close to a solution to the problems incurred by the current manual methods used for securing milk during transport with development of the milk transport security system which improves accuracy, traceability, efficiency, and security – significantly adding to the security infrastructure for bulk food transport.
The bulk milk security system created by Payne and Thompson consists of a handheld device, a data server and a processor-based system installed on the milk transport tank. The handheld device and server operate similar to the UPS system for identifying package pickup using barcodes except, in this case, the driver identifies the farm using a barcode and enters the milk data at each dairy farm when the milk is picked up. The transport monitoring system monitors the electronic locks on the tank, the GPS location, and temperatures as well as automatically sends this information to the server via cell phone communications.
The first step in the bulk milk pickup is data collection with the handheld device. The information is then organized into security sessions. The security of the transport tank is maintained from the beginning of the tanker wash cycle to the unloading at a processing plant. The hardware system of the TMS consists of electronic locks, temperature sensors, user-interface, and an auxiliary power supply. Activities that exceed the specified criteria will be “red flagged” and quickly communicated to system users, such as inappropriate access to the tanker, tanker wash tag expiration, or an elevated milk cargo temperature.
After the milk has been securely unloaded to the processing plant, data stored on the server can be viewed via internet interface. Users can easily view, print or download a variety of forms and reports where hard copies are still required by law.
Commercial testing was performed on the system in New York and Kentucky from September to December 2009. A patent application was submitted on the concept of securing milk in a transport tanker by the University of Kentucky Research Foundation with the goal of widespread commercial implementation of the technology.
As the War on Terror continues, researchers at the College of Engineering are helping to make sure that buildings, infrastructure, food and, as a result, our lives in general are safer. Not only are researchers making discoveries that will have a real impact on the country’s security, but they’re also helping encourage future research through the involvement of their students.
“That was one of the things I loved about it. I was just a sophomore, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Rathbun says. “Dr. Lusk came and let me do this research and it’s helped me find my direction.”
“With the war and everything, it’s good to know that you’re doing research that can maybe help prevent a terrorist attack, or save some lives,” Rathbun says.
Andrea Frye contributed to this article.