Rowan University’s Center for Research & Education in Advanced Transportation Engineering Systems (CREATES) has been awarded a $30 million, five-year contract—with the first two years funded at $11.5 million— from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), to expand Arctic region research.
Led by Yusuf Mehta, Ph.D., and Ayman Ali, Ph.D., CREATES researchers are developing innovative construction technologies and materials to withstand fluctuating temperatures and surface conditions in cold regions impacted by climate change. The work spans a wide range of projects, including the design and evaluation of new pavement materials, as well as their production and maintenance.
Among other projects, the additional Army Ground Advanced Technology funding will support:
Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost and eroding coastlines are challenging the military’s transportation infrastructure in the Arctic, affecting roads, runways and bridges. Research engineers from ERDC’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) work closely with universities around the country, guiding studies, providing expertise and helping to develop the next generation of engineers.
“Our collaboration with Army Corps research engineers allows us to explore creative solutions for cold regions, from pavements that can melt ice and detect frost to more resilient asphalt and concrete materials that can withstand cold conditions,” Mehta said. “Even better, we’re developing the next generation of engineers who will continue to advance the field of transportation engineering.”
Accompanied by a team of scientists, Dr. Ivan Beckman, CRREL deputy director, spent several days recently at Rowan University visiting labs and hearing the latest updates on the center’s progress. He said he was impressed by the center’s facilities, laboratories and procedures, as well as the professionalism of Rowan faculty and students.
“The lifeblood of CRREL is academia,” Beckman said. “Students, scientific research and very basic scientific understanding is very important to our mission and cold regions research. We always seek out great ideas and great partnerships with universities.”
In addition to site visits, Danielle Kennedy, CRREL program director and a research civil engineer, meets weekly with various teams from CREATES.
“We have been working with Rowan since 2016 and the CREATES program has grown a lot since then,” Kennedy noted. “It’s helped us grow our technology areas at the ERDC a lot, as well. We’re going to conferences with the students and presenting work together. We’re publishing papers together. It’s really been a beneficial relationship for both ERDC and Rowan. I think there’s a lot of potential for future capabilities with all these projects that we’re developing now.”
The collaboration includes workforce development. Earlier this year, CRREL hired Seth Wagner, a Rowan University doctoral student at CREATES. Wagner visited campus recently in his professional capacity.
“I went through graduate school specifically so I could continue doing research,” said Wagner, a civil engineer who received his bachelor’s degree in 2016 and his master’s degree in 2019, both from Rowan. “And now I’m being paid full time to do research. It’s pretty much exactly what I was looking for.”
Besides driving innovation and developing new technologies, the center is fully invested in workforce development, noted Rowan University Provost Tony Lowman.
“Ever since CREATES launched in 2016, Dr. Mehta and his team have worked with industry and government partners to meet their needs for workforce training and research goals,” Lowman said. “What has been particularly successful is how well they prepare students to continue that work after graduation. This close working relationship with our partners is exactly what we hoped to accomplish and we’re excited to see where our graduates go next.”
In addition to projects and internships for undergraduates, more than 40 master’s and doctoral students in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering are pursuing CREATES-related research, contributing to the rapid growth of the college’s graduate programs, said Dean Giuseppe Palmese.
“Dr. Mehta and his colleagues are demonstrating the power of our hands-on, minds-on engineering education,” Palmese said. “This award will significantly expand research opportunities for many more students. Their work will make an impact.”
Sliding on ice at speeds exceeding 90 mph is terrifying for most people, but the USA Luge team is seeking assistance from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) along with academic and industry leaders to go even faster.
In the sport’s rule book, luge is afforded a great deal of engineering leeway to customize their sleds and runners. They have their own team of technicians to manufacture the sleds, and athletes routinely engage in the design/build process making luge not only a competition of technique but also one of technology.
It’s all about moving fast on ice, and as such, the team reached out to Dr. Emily Asenath-Smith, lead of the Ice Adhesion Facility at ERDC’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL).
“We first started discussions about high-speed ice friction research about six years ago,” said Asenath-Smith. “Ice adhesion and ice friction are both interface phenomena. They are essentially ice interacting with materials, and they are very related research areas.”
“CRREL has worked in this space for a number of years,” she added. “The Army cares a lot about ice friction — whether they are pulling sleds in cold regions or driving vehicles across frozen ground.”
Unfortunately, when USA Luge first contacted Asenath-Smith there wasn’t enough time to develop a productive collaboration.
“They were getting ready for the 2018 Winter Olympics, but because of timelines to make modifications, there just wasn’t adequate time to do the number of studies that we needed to do,” she said.
However, this time when the team reached out in fall 2022, the timelines finally lined up.
“They got back in touch with me, and said, ‘hey we’re ready and pulling together a research team — we have time,’ so we started talking about what our involvement in the luge research team might look like,” said Asenath-Smith. “What research studies could we do at CRREL? How could we support them?”
To explore and ultimately define the partnership, Asenath-Smith and Dr. Austin Lines, a mechanical research engineer and ice friction researcher at CRREL, accepted the invitation to a workshop held in Park City, Utah, in March 2023. This effort solidified the interdisciplinary research and development (R&D) team and established a roadmap to develop approaches that decrease ice friction and increase speed for the luge team.
“USA Luge took a very organized approach to building out an R&D team for their sport,” said Asenath-Smith. “They had some of their industry research experts, me and Austin — we all went to Park City and engaged in extensive discussions, tours and learning for two days. We met athletes, toured the facilities and engaged in deep cross-disciplinary discussions about all the aspects that affect friction and the interaction of ice with materials.”
Consequently, the luge R&D team is now working on an extensive test plan that integrates technologies that are being developed in other CRREL programs, mainly those in the Materials and Manufacturing Program.
“Essentially this effort fits under a portfolio in advanced materials that we have going with the South Dakota Mines,” said Asenath-Smith. “We were able to connect the luge team with them to help engineer new alloys for their runners. Since we already have a relationship with the university, it’s beneficial to us all. We will get to test some of the materials the luge team may be interested in — albeit indirectly.”
Understanding high and variable speed ice friction is of strategic importance not only to the USA Luge team but to U.S. Army operations in the Arctic. While most mobility and traction applications require good adhesion between ice and tire materials, skis and sleds are an important mobilization method where decreased friction can reduce soldier fatigue and reduce fuel consumption. The collaborative efforts between USA Luge and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can have a profound effect in the future.
“They have so much liberty to engineer and innovate with their sleds that they are the perfect team to undertake an R&D venture,” said Asenath-Smith. “Ultimately, our success will be determined by the luge team’s success at future Olympic games. There just might be a gold medal on the horizon.”