Alabama academic researchers work to power new discoveries

Alabama academic researchers work to power new discoveries
Phillip Ligrani, UAH eminent scholar and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, with the school's $2 million wind tunnel system. (Michael Mercier/UAH)

Researchers at universities across Alabama are involved in groundbreaking work that is bringing promising new developments to industry, health care and community life.

In many instances, the projects have been recognized by national research groups, which are funneling millions of dollars in funding into the state.

At the University of South Alabama, an engineering professor has extensively studied carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites, which are increasingly used in new airplane construction.

Kuang-Ting Hsiao’s work has been funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. He’s also collaborated with aerospace giant Airbus, which began delivering its first Alabama-made passenger jets in 2016.

Airbus, as a global leader in the aerospace industry, is definitely a great partner to help us in aligning and renewing our research vision and effort toward the innovative research in composite materials,” Hsiao said.

Airbus also has worked with USA and Auburn University by donating large airplane components for students and faculty to use in their studies. The partnership is helping to create aviation leaders of the future, the company says.

At the other end of the state, at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a new $2 million wind tunnel system is capable of supersonic flow research with airspeeds of up to 2,000 mph.

The facility puts UAH in an elite group of institutions nationwide with such research prowess, according to Phillip Ligrani, UAH eminent scholar in propulsion and the project’s principal investigator. Test applications include supersonic engine intakes, scramjets and hybrid space vehicles and components.

The wind tunnel has also provided valuable experience for students.

“I’m really glad I got this opportunity, because not a lot of people can say that they worked on a supersonic wind tunnel as an undergraduate,” engineering student Andrew Miller said. “I think it’s going to contribute a lot to my future career and it’s really been a unique experience.”

An estimated $2.4 billion in federal research and development funds are spent each year in Alabama, ranking it 11th among the 50 states, District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to a report from the nonprofit think tank RAND Corp.

Here’s a look at several other compelling research projects happening at Alabama’s universities.

Battling red tide

At Auburn University, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has received a five-year, $703,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to study the problem of coastal red tides.

Steve Mansoorabadi, an assistant professor in Auburn University’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, oversees student research in his lab. (Auburn University)

Steven Mansoorabadi’s project, “Mechanistic and Biosynthetic Studies of Dinoflagellate Bioluminescence,” looks at dinoflagellates, which are marine microorganisms found in coastal and freshwater environments that bioluminesce, or glow.

Mansoorabadi and his team are studying a particular enzyme that causes the dinoflagellate to glow to better understand how it works.

“Once we have a better understanding of the enzyme, come the applications,” he said. “We can then create algaecides for red tides and even use enzymes that glow as a biological tool for cell imaging and tracking infection in the body. The enzyme can really be developed for a number of potential applications.”

From snakes to treatments

Stephen Secor, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama, is exploring the ability of snakes to grow and restructure particular organs, and that work could affect future treatments for diabetes and other diseases in humans.

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