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Jordyn Benn, Anna Cardinal, Caitlin Piotrowski, and Claire Steines
June 21, 2022

Innovation in CEE Competition offers new solutions and opportunities in civil engineering

Written By: Amanda Thuss

The third annual Innovation in CEE Competition was a success with four unique and interesting project presentations. Sponsored by The Boldt Company, Innovation in CEE fosters student involvement and imagination to develop potential solutions for civil and environmental challenges. Focus areas of the competition include structural, material, water resources, transportation, geological, construction, and environmental engineering. Student teams registered for the event in late fall and developed their project over the 2021-2022 academic year with guidance from faculty advisors. Up to $500 in research funding was available to each team to support their efforts. After researching and gathering information, students then pitched their ideas to a board of judges in May.

Hydraulic fracturing for geothermal energy production

The first group to present was geological engineering juniors Ellie Johnson and Porter Garst, under the team name: Friction and Roughness in Acid- and Chemically-fractured Rock (FRACR). Their project explored whether the use of chemical fracturing to enhance the permeability of otherwise impermeable rocks, like granite, helps to reduce the risk of induced earthquakes in geothermal energy production. Hydraulic fracturing has been used to permeate the same substances, but it increases the risk of earthquakes.

To research the viability of chemical fracturing as a safer alternative, the team prepared granite and dolomite samples for testing and treated them with chemicals. Dolomite fractures were treated with hydrochloric acid, while granite was treated with sodium hydroxide. Next, the chemically treated fractures were slid under in-situ stress condition to study the outcome of the chemical treatment.

The results of their work indicate that chemical treatments for granite minimize the risk of earthquakes and the environmental impact, providing a potentially safer alternative to hydraulic fracturing for geothermal energy production.

CFRP roofing for temporary housing

The second team to present was the STEMinists, which consisted of four juniors majoring in civil and environmental engineering: Claire Steines, Anna Cardinal, Caitlin Piotrowski, and Jordyn Benn. The STEMinists focused their research on carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) roofing with the goal to create a deployable and transportable roofing system for temporary housing. The team proposes using the system in areas damaged by natural disasters as well as small villages in countries like Nepal. Some highlighted advantages of using CFRP for this purpose include the ability to create complex shapes, the ability to be modified for optimal strength and stiffness, and more.

The STEMinists conducted a series of tests to determine the ability to use CFRP as a potential temporary housing which included hinge designs, fatigue tests, and quantitative testing. While more research is needed before the product is ready for the field, the team concluded that CFRP roofing is highly beneficial because it is lightweight, easy to transport, easily constructed and deconstructed, watertight, and reusable for people in need of temporary housing.

STEMinists team members Anna Cardinal and Caitlin Piotrowski work together on a sample design for their CFRP roofing project.

Addressing bottlenecks to improve roadway safety and efficiency

The third team was Nail the Bus Stop, led by Nachuan Li, a spring 2022 graduate with a degree in applied math, engineering, and physics. Nachuan is continuing his studies at Northwestern University in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Ph.D. program, with hopes to become a professor and improve the mobility of people. His Innovation project aims to improve roadway safety and efficiency by reducing the amount of wait time drivers experience when sharing lanes with buses. This is particularly a challenge in urban areas, where busses cause bottlenecks due to their unpredictable stopping patterns. To address this issue, Nachuan created an algorithm called the cooperative gap assignment for connected and automated vehicles that operates by creating gaps for drivers to bypass buses in shared lanes. He then tested the idea through a simulation of the gap algorithm.

As Nachuan had hoped, the algorithm is successful in producing lane changes when the predicted bus dwell time is long, while favoring lane-keeping when the predicted bus dwell time is relatively short. Additional research is necessary to gather more real-world data to evaluate all possibilities, but the project lays the foundation for improved roadway safety and efficiency.

Utilizing augmented reality to streamline steel fabrication

Eddie Elder scans a QR code using the HoloLens.

And last but not least, the Augmented Reality (AR) in Steel Fabrication team brought a fresh spin to structural engineering. The team included 2021 BSCE graduates Eddie Elder and Ben (Zhaole) Liang and Nick Greene, a junior majoring in computer engineering and computer science. Together, they aimed to support spatial visualization, ease the training process of new employees and improve steel fabrication quality control by integrating AR into the steel fabrication process using the HoloLens.

The team used QR codes to accurately align the holograms onto the physical steel. When scanned, the QR code places a virtual model over real-world steel, and the developed software provides measurements and fabrication instructions to guide assembly. The team successfully tested the hologram alignment accuracy in different lighting conditions and orientations, but discovered adjustments are necessary to the QR code placement to address errors in alignment. Overall, the AR hologram alignment method works as intended and shows potential for improving the fabrication process, but like the other presentations, additional developments are necessary before it’s ready for the real-world.

Critical thinking and teamwork guide success

Altogether, the judges were impressed, and the competition was close. The STEMinists took home the first-place award of $1,000 and were applauded by the judges for the reusable and practical nature of their project. Second place ($750) was awarded to FRACR, while Nail the Bus Stop received third place ($500), and AR in Steel Fabrication took fourth place ($250).

“I would say my highest takeaway and what I found most valuable was the ability to critically think through errors, why they happened, and pivot from any problem. When we got results that were different from what we expected, we had to consider why that occurred and explain how the treatment led to that behavior. Since most of my time in school has been applying laws we know to situations and predicting the outcome, it has been interesting to work the other way from outcome to laws and correlations,” shares Porter Garst while reflecting on his experience.

With the competition behind her, Caitlin Piotrowski has one word of advice for others who may be interested in participating next year. “If you are thinking about it, just do it! I definitely recommend competing with a group of friends, it makes it so much more fun and breaks up the workload. The competition offers an invaluable experience. Many times, this project was the highlight of my week. I got to learn new things that I had a great interest in. Being able to choose our own topic of research while also having guidance from a professor is a special experience that few students get to have. Toss your doubts aside and sign up!”