Pitt | Swanson Engineering

Join With Us In Celebrating Our 2020 Graduating Class! 

Since its founding in 1893 by two legends, George Westinghouse and Reginald Fessenden, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Pitt has excelled in education, research, and service.  Today, the department features innovative undergraduate and graduate programs and world-class research centers and labs, combining theory with practice at the nexus of computer and electrical engineering, for our students to learn, develop, and lead lives of impact.

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Modeling a Circular Economy for Electronic Waste

Research, Electrical & Computer, Chemical & Petroleum, Banner

Think about how many different pieces of technology the average household has purchased in the last decade. Phones, TVs, computers, tablets, and game consoles don’t last forever, and repairing them is difficult and often as expensive as simply buying a replacement.Electronics are integral to modern society, but electronic waste (e-waste) presents a complex and growing challenge in the path toward a circular economy—a more sustainable economic system that focuses on recycling materials and minimizing waste. Adding to the global waste challenge is the prevalence of dishonest recycling practices by companies who claim to be recycling electronics but actually dispose of them by other means, such as in landfills or shipping the waste to other countries.New research from the Hypothetical Materials Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering develops a framework to understand the choices a recycler has to make and the role that digital fraud prevention could have in preventing dishonest recycling practices. “Electronics have huge environmental impacts across their life cycle, from mining rare raw materials to the energy-intensive manufacturing, all the way to the complicated e-waste stream,” said Christopher Wilmer, the William Kepler Whiteford Faculty Fellow and associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, who leads the Hypothetical Materials Lab. “A circular economy model is well-suited to mitigating each of these impacts, but less than 40 percent of e-waste is currently estimated to be reused or recycled. If our technology is going to be sustainable, it’s important that we understand the barriers to e-waste recycling.”Some U.S. firms that have touted safe, ethical and green recycling practices never actually recycle much of what they receive; instead, their e-waste was illegally stockpiled, abandoned or exported. Between 2014 and 2016, the Basel Action Network used GPS trackers in electronics delivered to U.S. recyclers, showing that 30 percent of the products ended up overseas.The researchers developed a model framework that analyzes dishonest end-of-life electronics management and what leads recyclers to pursue fraudulent activities. They find that the primary way to ensure an e-waste recycler will engage in honest practices with minimum supervision is to make it the more profitable option, either by decreasing the costs of recycling or increasing the penalties for fraudulent practices. “The main barrier to honest recycling is its cost,” said lead author Daniel Salmon, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “One of our main findings is that if we find a way to make it more profitable for companies to recycle, we will have less dishonest recycling. Targeted subsidies, higher penalties for fraud and manufacturers ensuring their electronics are more easily recyclable are all things that could potentially solve this problem.”The researchers also suggest the use of the blockchain as neutral, third-party supervision to avoid fraudulent recycling practices.“Our model mentions the influence of monitoring and supervision, but self-reporting by companies enables dishonesty. On the other hand, something like the blockchain does not,” said Wilmer, who founded Ledger, the first peer-reviewed scholarly journal dedicated to blockchain and cryptocurrency. “Relying on an immutable record may be one solution to prevent fraud and align behaviors across recyclers toward a circular economy.”The work is part of a larger NSF-funded convergence research project on the circular economy, which is led by Melissa Bilec, deputy director of the Mascaro Center, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Roberta A. Luxbacher Faculty Fellow at Pitt. The paper, “A Framework for Modeling Fraud in E-Waste Management,” (DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2021.105613) was published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling and coauthored by Daniel Salmon and Christopher E. Wilmer at Pitt, and Callie W. Babbitt and Gregory A. Babbitt at Rochester Institute of Technology.

A Computational Look at How Genes Change the Human Brain

Electrical & Computer, Banner, Research, Grants

Liang Zhan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, received a $500,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to develop computational tools that improve our understanding of the human brain.In this project, he will leverage brain modular structure to study brain imaging genetics and develop new computational tools to illuminate how genetic factors impact brain structure and function. Researchers can use this technology to examine how specific genes, or their variants, affect neural systems and contribute to brain disorders. This work could ultimately advance the fields of biomedical informatics, neuroscience, and data science.Zhan’s team will specifically study Alzheimer’s disease – a condition that currently affects 5.8 million Americans and is projected to nearly triple to 14 million people by 2060.“There is no clear evidence to show how Alzheimer’s disease develops,” said Zhan. “Researchers are developing a variety of methods to uncover the mechanisms behind Alzheimer’s onset and progression, but there is a lack of effective computational tools to study this disease.”Though this work focuses on Alzheimer’s disease, the proposed tools can be applied to other brain research as well.“Current brain imaging genetics studies assume a one-to-one linear relationship between genes and imaging features, but linearity is too simplistic and does not allow researchers to identify high-level patterns,” explained Zhan. “Additionally, MRI research often focuses on small regions of the brain, which reduces the complexity of the imaging down to one-dimension and discards important information on brain dynamics. Instead, my group will focus on characterizing higher-level brain network features.”Connecting the Dots with the Human ConnectomeIn collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), he will couple this CAREER award with two R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health to further investigate brain function in neurological disorders.Maintaining essential brain function, such as learning and memory, requires synapses to pass electrical and chemical signals between neurons. Synaptic dysfunction is a hallmark of many neurological disorders – including Alzheimer’s disease – and leads to hyperexcitation in neuronal circuits. However, neural network changes related to normal aging make it difficult for researchers to distinguish disease-specific alterations from normal changes.Zhan and collaborators will develop innovative computational tools to characterize hyperexcitation patterns in aging and Alzheimer's Disease and validate their framework with longitudinal mouse models and human data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative and the Human Connectome Project.“The brain needs to have a balance between neural excitation and inhibition,” said Zhan. “The synaptic dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease leads to hyperexcitation in neuronal circuits, and this abnormal balance may contribute to disease onset and progression. The hyperexcitation indicator (HI), defined using multimodal MRI data, will signal an imbalance between neural excitation and inhibition.”Adding to the complexity of this research, other psychiatric conditions may be significant contributors to accelerated cognitive decline and progression to dementia. Zhan will collaborate on another R01 at UIC to examine late-life depression and uncover its impact on neurodegeneration. They will apply a similar approach to this study and clarify the relationship between depression and neurodegenerative processes in late life.A preliminary study demonstrated the effectiveness of the group’s hyperexcitation.“We matched cognitively normal individuals with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease with a group of individuals without a genetic predisposition, based on age and sex,” said Zhan. “The results supported the idea that genetically predisposed women, who are four-times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men, exhibited hyperexcitation at age 50, and our method was more sensitive at of detecting this difference.”The goal of this work is to accelerate the discovery of more robust, non-invasive imaging biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.

Building a Foundation for High-Power Tech

Grants, Electrical & Computer, MEMS

As electrification advancement accelerates and more renewables are integrated into the electric grid, improved power electronics systems are needed to convert AC or DC power into a usable form. New semiconductor device materials and advanced magnetic materials can enable an unprecedented combination of voltage levels and power handling capabilities.However, the latest class of new switching devices, which use so-called ultra-wide bandgap (UWBG) semiconductor materials, will also require improved soft magnetic materials and manufacturing approaches not currently available.Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering are working to solve that problem with new materials and manufacturing processes that will establish a foundation for UWBG semiconductors in novel power electronics switching devices. Their investigation received $820,000 in funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to support graduate students to explore new ideas in magnetic materials, advanced manufacturing, and advanced component design methods and techniques.“Ultra-high frequency soft magnetics technologies, ranging from 50 kilohertz to as high as the megahertz range, are going to play an important role in the next generation of power electronics and power conversion technologies,” said Paul Ohodnicki, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, director of the Engineering Science program and the Advanced Magnetics for Power and Energy Development (AMPED) consortium. “Our work will help to overcome limitations of current materials and manufacturing, and we will also develop and demonstrate new methods and techniques for optimized magnetic component design leveraging these latest advances.”Applications for this new technology include power dense electrical power conversion technologies for electric vehicle design, aircraft electrification, or power converters for grid integration applications. For many of these, the converters need to be as small and light as possible while still handling the same amount of electric power. The higher switching frequencies made possible by these new materials would be more efficient and could, for example, increase the range of electric vehicles.Ohodnicki is leading the project with Ahmed Talaat, visiting assistant research faculty, and Brandon Grainger, Eaton Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Grainger is also associate director of the Energy GRID Institute and co-director of AMPED at the University of Pittsburgh.The four-year project will address the need for advanced ultrahigh frequency soft magnetics and focus on creation of new ferrite-based systems, advanced manufacturing of components for optimal performance, and the design of optimized transformer and inductor components. The work will also demonstrate enhanced design and optimization tools for inductors.“Emerging ultra-wide bandgap semiconductor materials have enormous potential for high-power applications, but there needs to be a pathway for the magnetic material and component design first,” said Brandon Grainger. “Our project will establish the fundamental research necessary to make that happen.”

Swanson School Space Computing Team Heads to Houston

Electrical & Computer, Student Profiles, Banner, Features

"If I told my 10-year-old self I was going to work with NASA one day, I wouldn’t believe it,” said Seth Roffe, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at the University of Pittsburgh. “Any kid who is interested in space dreams of that opportunity.”That dream became a reality for Roffe, his fellow students and their faculty leads, who recently delivered their newest space system to NASA for launch at the NASA Kennedy Space Center on SpaceX-24 this fall. The system of innovative new computers and sensors, uniquely designed for space and dubbed the Configurable and Autonomous Sensor Processing Research or CASPR system, is part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program (STP), which provides an opportunity to perform cutting-edge technology research on the International Space Station (ISS).The students and faculty are members of the NSF Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing (SHREC) headquartered at Pitt. SHREC is a national research center sponsored by the National Science Foundation and dedicated to assisting U.S. industrial partners, government agencies, and research organizations in mission-critical computing. Both SHREC and the CASPR mission are led by Dr. Alan George, Mickle Chair Professor and Department Chair of ECE.“SHREC provides Pitt students with the unique opportunity to work with dozens of leading space agencies and companies while earning their engineering degrees,” said Dr. George. “CASPR is the third space system and mission led and developed by SHREC students and faculty, and it represents one of the most advanced space systems ever developed by students and faculty at any university.”Observing Earth from AfarAs part of their recent delivery to NASA, the SHREC team added two new types of space sensors that will be used to get a better view of Earth and its surroundings.The sensors include a high-resolution binocular telescopic imager, developed by SHREC collaborator Satlantis, and a neuromorphic event-based camera, developed by Prophesee and created by Dr. Ryad Benosman, professor of ophthalmology and ECE at Pitt.“This binocular telescope will point to Earth, and its ground-resolved distance (GRD) will enable us to see things like cars, roads, or trees from the ISS,” said Roffe, who is project manager of STP-H7-CASPR. “There are other telescopes with this level of GRD, but this one is small – roughly the size of a toaster oven.”With this hardware and an algorithm from Satlantis, they hope to get more detailed images of Earth’s coastlines and other areas of interest for researchers.Unlike the binocular telescope, the neuromorphic sensor will face the horizon, in the direction that the ISS is moving. The device emulates the human retina and will be used to track fast-moving objects in space and improve situational awareness.“When you take a photo with a normal camera, you take a frame, capturing everything in a field of view,” Roffe explained. “This camera is special because it only captures events by looking for changing light intensity in each pixel, which makes it really good at tracking motion.”Let’s say that you used this technology to take a picture of someone walking. The resulting image would only reveal the person in motion, omitting the static background. This device could ultimately help mitigate collisions or assist in docking to the ISS.Leveling Up Computing PowerPerforming research on the ISS requires small yet robust tools that are equipped to handle space’s harsh environment. In addition to new sensors, the CASPR system also includes a pair of new high-performance computers for space, each known as a SHREC Space Processor (SSP), which is built to withstand these challenging conditions and perform better than its predecessors from SHREC.“With SSP, the SHREC team has created one of the most innovative, powerful, dependable, and adaptable types of space computers in the world, and our space computers have been adopted by groups across the country for a growing list of recent and upcoming space missions,” said Dr. George. “The SSP features a unique mix of fixed and reconfigurable electronics, as well as a hybrid combination of commercial and radiation-hardened technologies, resulting in a system that is very powerful, versatile, and resilient and yet very small in size, weight, power, and cost.”The computing system will also test a commercial GPU, or graphics processing unit, to evaluate how it performs in space. GPUs are more powerful than their CPU counterparts for some applications, which for example would allow modern satellites to perform machine learning or improve graphics rendering in space.“This project is really cool because GPUs haven’t flown very often, so it is really leading edge, and our team is doing great work adding resilience to machine learning,” Roffe added. “The area of a GPU that is vulnerable to radiation is much larger than that of a CPU, so we’re excited to see what happens.”A Space for Students to ShineSHREC gives students in the Swanson School of Engineering a unique opportunity to interact with experts at NASA or the Department of Defense and see their work take flight.In May 2019, a collaborative effort sent the Spacecraft Supercomputing for Image and Video Processing (SSIVP) computer cluster to the ISS on the STP-H6 mission. Like CASPR, this project involved faculty and students from the Swanson School’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Sciences. In the latter department, the faculty lead for CASPR is Dr. Matthew Barry, an expert in thermal and mechanical issues for space systems.In addition to Roffe, the project leads for the CASPR system include the following graduate students: Noah Perryman, electronics lead, who designed and built all of the electronics; Theodore Schwarz, mechanical lead, who designed and built the structure; Antony Gillette, software lead, who wrote most of the flight software that will control everything in flight; Evan Gretok, operations lead and expert on commanding the system after launch, as well as applications to run in flight; Tyler Garrett, GPU lead, who was responsible for software and hardware development related to the GPU; Sebastian Sabogal, FPGA lead, who designed and wrote all of the firmware that works alongside the software; and Thomas Cook, power lead, who designed the system that distributes electric power to everything in CASPR.# # #Banner: The CASPR delivery team. From top left: Noah Perryman and Antony Gillette. From bottom left: Seth Roffe and Theodore Schwarz. Credit: Paige Mcclung from STP.Photo caption 1: Both SHREC and the CASPR mission are led by Dr. Alan George, Mickle Chair Professor and Department Chair of ECE.Photo caption 2: CASPR, SHREC’s third space system, features two new SSP space computers, two new space sensors, and a GPU. Credit: Theodore Schwarz.

University of Pittsburgh Collaboration Supports Energy Innovation at NETL for More Than a Decade

Electrical & Computer

NETL amplifies the impacts of its nationally recognized technical competencies through collaboration with a variety of organizations, including university partnerships crucial to early-stage development of energy technologies that will lead the nation to a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050.One prime example of these valuable partnership efforts is the work of an ongoing collaborative research team comprising NETL and University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) researchers who have developed and commercialized sensor technologies, won multiple Carnegie Science Awards, produced more than a dozen patents and pending patents, advanced the understanding of energy production through high-impact research papers, and most recently, applied a first-of-its-kind distributive sensing method to solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) — a promising clean energy technology.For the most recent accomplishment, which was aimed at improving the durability of SOFCs, Professor Kevin Chen, Ph.D., led the Pitt researchers, who leveraged the extensive research laboratories of the University’s Swanson School of Engineering, to fabricate and functionalize the distributed sensors that were then tested and characterized by NETL researchers in their own cutting-edge facilities.“NETL has been collaborating with Dr. Chen’s group on a variety of sensor projects since approximately 2008,” said Michael Buric, Ph.D., who leads current NETL work on the team. “At that time, we were working to construct the world’s fastest Raman gas analyzer using novel hollow waveguide technology. After patenting and licensing the Gas Analyzer technology, we focused on optical fiber sensors that enable distributed sensing capabilities, which means they have the ability to sense parameters of interest all along the optical sensing fiber.”The NETL-Pitt team continued developing the distributed sensing technology, applying their novel sensing methods to a range of measurement and monitoring applications across the energy infrastructure spectrum to enable new capabilities in operational efficiency, reliability and safety. The team found that optical fibers are capable of performing at high temperatures, in erosive or corrosive environments, and in highly oxidizing or reducing conditions. This led to the discovery of a fiber optic sensor capable of measuring the temperature and gas concentration distribution inside an operating planar SOFC.“This was a truly collaborative effort, as we used a unique laser fabrication capability to create the high-temperature stable and hydrogen-resistant distributed fiber sensors at Pitt,” Chen said. “And this work wouldn’t have been possible without NETL’s extensive sensor development and testing facility, fuel cell testing facility and modeling capability.”After the success of the SOFC distributed sensor work, the team is looking to the future to develop even more robust sensors capable of operating in even more extreme conditions, which will lead to greater power generation efficiencies. Furthermore, the team is working to apply this sensor technology to support efforts that address climate change. Chen explained that the team envisions using their unique sensor capability to harness valuable data with high temporal and spatial resolution to develop better engines, turbines, battery systems and solar thermal systems.“We are extremely grateful for NETL’s incredibly open attitude toward university collaborations,” Chen said. “Our graduate students and faculty are able to tap into NETL’s wide range of research expertise, which has resulted in not only world-class university research, but also highly trained personnel. NETL’s materials, sensor and modeling expertise supports innovation across so many fields, and previous collaborative work with the Lab has helped to produce energy experts that are now advancing the fields of SOFCS, combustion, rare earth elements, renewable energy and many others. For us, since the Lab is just down the road in South Park Township, NETL is a true national treasure right in our neighborhood.”The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory develops and commercializes advanced technologies that provide clean energy while safeguarding the environment. NETL’s work supports DOE’s mission to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy and environmental challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.###

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