Engineering flies high

McGill researchers are making major contributions to Montreal’s burgeoning aerospace industry.

by Patrick McDonagh

The mood was tense on the International Space Station last spring. Tracking telescopes had discovered that on March 12 its orbit might intersect with that of a bullet-sized fragment of space debris travelling at 8 km/second. The three-person crew huddled in the Soyuz escape capsule, waiting to see if the fragment would strike the station and pierce its hull, depressurizing it and forcing them on a treacherous journey back to Earth.

Also monitoring the potentially devastating situation was mechanical engineering professor Andrew Higgins. Like the anxious trio of astronauts, he was well aware of an incident only a month earlier where American and Russian satellites had collided at a relative velocity of about 11 km/second, flinging their shattered fragments into orbit.

While the space station and its crew were spared, Higgins fears it may only be a matter of time before a fatal accident occurs. “Each impact generates more space debris, generating more impacts. There is an avalanche effect, and if a fragment were to hit the space station or a satellite, it would be game over,” he says. “So there’s a lot of concern about these impacts but we don’t yet understand the physics involved because we can’t recreate them in the laboratory.”

Recreating high-impact collisions is important not only to learn what the effects would be but also to develop materials that could withstand them. Currently, light gas guns can fire projectiles at almost 8 km/second impressive, given that bullets from a high-powered rifle travel at a relatively sluggish 1 km/second, but the bare minimum for orbiting masses, whose collisions could occur at almost twice that speed.

Enter the hypervelocity launcher. With funding from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Higgins and his team of graduate and post-doctoral students have developed a gun barrel surrounded with explosives that, when detonated, pinch the barrel shut. “Then the projectile is thrust out of the barrel much as toothpaste is squirted out of a tube,” he explains. This approach has achieved speeds of about 6 km/second so far, but the process is new and Higgins anticipates doubling that before long—a breakthrough guaranteed to be a hit with the aerospace industry. Already Montreal-based MPB Communications is taking steps to work with Higgins on testing how well some new composite materials would sustain high-speed impacts.

Higgins is hardly the only McGill engineering professor looking to the skies. At least 30 other faculty members run research programs directly related to aerospace, and many others carry out work that could be useful in this milieu. Consequently, the Faculty of Engineering is a bright presence on the aerospace industry’s radar.

Of course, it would be hard for the aerospace sector to overlook McGill—and vice versa. Quebec has almost 240 aerospace companies with a total of 42,400 employees, primarily in the Montreal-Laval region. And with $12.3 billion in sales in 2008, Montreal is one of the world’s aerospace industry hubs, on a par with Seattle and Toulouse. Thanks to marquee names like Pratt & Whitney Canada, Rolls Royce, Bombardier, Bell Helicopter, CMC Electronics, CAE, a supporting cast of numerous smaller companies and the Canadian Space Agency, the province’s aerospace sector accounts for roughly 60 percent of the Canadian total industrial activity, as well as 70 percent of research and development.

"The next lunar rover could well scoot across the moonscape on wheels that took shape in McGill’s undergraduate labs"

Much of that research (and an increasing amount of the development) involves McGill professors like Higgins, especially since the University reached agreements on such issues as intellectual property and publishing rights about three years ago with Pratt & Whitney Canada and the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Quebec, an industry-government partnership aimed at developing collaborations with universities for projects at a “pre-commercial” stage. Since then over 100 industry collaborations have brought almost $12 million into the faculty, with 60-plus projects with NASA and the CSA garnering another $6.8 million—funds that help maintain and enhance the University’s teaching and research programs and facilities.

Recipe for Success

While the faculty’s aerospace profile has been in the ascendant for the past few years, it recently received a further boost. This past April, Stephen Yue, chair of the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering, was named the first Lorne Trottier Chair in Aerospace Engineering, a position made available by a generous gift from Lorne Trottier, BEng’70, MEng’73, DSc’06.

Professor Stephen Yue is McGill’s new Lorne Trottier Chair in Aerospace Engineering (Claudio Calligaris)

As a pioneer in the emerging field of cold spray technology, Yue is a logical choice. Cold spray involves taking a metallic powder at room temperature and then mixing it with heated, concentrated nitrogen or helium in order to blast the powder through a robot-mounted nozzle at supersonic speeds up to 600 m/second (or 2,150 km/hour). At this velocity, the gas-propelled powder fuses upon hitting a surface, creating whatever product the computer has been programmed to construct—from a paperweight to an aircraft turbine. Because the sprayed materials don’t reach high temperatures, their essential properties are unchanged.

Cold spray is catching the attention of both researchers and industry as an alternative to expensive time- and heat-consuming manufacturing technologies like cast moulding, or as a means for repairing mechanisms where precision is critical, like jet engines. Not surprisingly, industry giant Pratt & Whitney Canada has been an enthusiastic and generous supporter of Yue’s research.

But the technology is young, and while the general recipe is sound, much remains to be learned. For example, what qualities characterize the final manufactured product if you start with a specific alloy mix? Or, how consistent are these qualities across a cold-spray surface?

As cold spray could prove to be an alternative manufacturing or repair technique, Yue and materials engineering colleagues Mathieu Brochu, PhD’04, Richard Chromik and Jerry Szpunar, all members of the new McGill Aerospace Materials and Alloys Design Centre (MAMA-DC), are avoiding the problems that occur when a technology tested in small university laboratories is scaled up to the production levels needed by industry by carrying out their research on an industrial scale.

“The facility is actually too big to fit on the McGill campus,” Yue says, with a certain satisfaction. Instead, the lab is maintained at the National Research Council (NRC) Industrial Materials Institute in Boucherville, about 45 minutes from the downtown campus, and the shared effort of McGill’s engineering researchers, NRC staff and aerospace industry professionals is proving a tremendous success. The facility, now two years old, is abuzz with research. “Activity here has really taken off, if you’ll pardon the pun,” Yue says.

Reaching for the Moon

In fact, aerospace activity is taking off across the faculty, which this fall will launch the McGill Institute for Aerospace Engineering (MIAE) to develop and promote the faculty’s aerospace teaching and research efforts, with Yue serving as the institute’s first director. “My responsibilities include being an ambassador,” he says. “After all, if you are doing aerospace engineering research at McGill, reaching out to the local industry is really a no-brainer.” The number one item on the agenda: create new educational and employment opportunities for undergraduate students by having them work on real-life engineering problems imported from the local aerospace industry. Career placements would then follow, especially as the MIAE gives the faculty a formal vehicle for connecting with the Montreal Aerospace Institute, which helps new graduates move into the local workforce.

Mechanical engineering professor Peter Radziszewski (fourth from right) leads a team of engineering students in developing a wheel design for a lunar rover (Claudio Calligaris)

Indeed, the stellar reputation of the faculty’s students has been one of its best advertisements for building external collaborations. When mechanical engineering professor Peter Radziszewski arrived at the CSA for sabbatical research on lunar mining in 2007, staff there recognized him as the driving force behind his department’s fourth-year capstone project, for which undergraduates have developed innovative and unique creations like the electric snowmobile. Impressed by Radziszewski’s track record, the CSA invited him to participate in a collaboration with Ottawa-based Neptec Design Group to develop a lunar rover for future NASA-led moon missions.

Today Radziszewski, along with fellow mechanical engineering professors Vince Thomson and Damiano Pasini and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s David Lowther, are designing, building and testing models for a wheel that will carry a rover for long treks across the cold, dusty and abrasive lunarscape. A flexible metal wheel—or something comparable—is necessary for lunar travel, as the extremes of temperature would destroy anything built of plastic or rubber.

“We’re developing prototypes with our graduate students; then we bring in the undergraduate students to build them,” says Radziszewski. Last spring, Sean Davis, BEng’09, was part of the student team designing and building the testing apparatus; three other teams worked on different wheel designs. “We had to construct a frame and a motor that could handle the load requirements for different sizes of wheels,” he explains. “I especially enjoyed learning about the issues involved with manufacturing parts—we had to think not only about how it was going to work, but how we were going to put it together.” The next lunar rover could well scoot across the moonscape on wheels that took shape in McGill’s undergraduate labs.

Collaborative Innovations

Such collaborations with industry and the Canadian Space Agency can be expected to grow thanks to the new MIAE, stresses Dean of Engineering Christophe Pierre. “Industry needs the talent that our students provide, and students benefit from the experience of working on real aerospace engineering problems,” he says. “Competition is ferocious for the best technology, and the university-industry partnership can be very productive.”

Dean of Engineering Christophe Pierre (Claudio Calligaris)

Pierre’s own Structural Dynamics and Vibration lab is a good example: as a leading researcher into the effect of vibration on the structural integrity of mechanisms—including jet turbines— Pierre and his team of graduate and post-doctoral students have extended knowledge while also winning research contracts from Pratt & Whitney Canada as well as the French companies SNECMA and Turbomeca. The support has benefited his lab in all its research, whether on industry contracts or more purely academic, “curiosity-driven” ones.

The MIAE will not only spark greater interaction with professors and students on research projects. Pierre anticipates a host of different exchange opportunities, from industry professionals teaching specialized courses to professors working on sabbatical with industrial researchers and perhaps even aerospace engineers on campus as “engineers in residence.”

“The MIAE will act as a hub, integrating our activities and giving them a higher visibility,” he says. “Currently, our activities are somewhat fragmented and disconnected, so when companies are interested in a project they don’t know how to approach us. With the MIAE, we’re staking our flag in the ground.”

The effort is receiving plaudits from industry. “We’re very happy to see McGill taking this step,” says Hany Moustapha, senior fellow and manager of Pratt & Whitney Canada’s Technology and Collaboration Program (and formerly an adjunct professor in mechanical engineering for over 20 years). “Our collaborations with universities mean we have students doing course projects based on the real engineering problems industry faces, and when they graduate we want to hire them. We also get access to top researchers—and McGill certainly has the expertise to help us in important areas. University researchers bring totally different approaches to problems, and they are focused and dedicated to their projects.”

Piloting New Processes

While collaboration is the name of the game in industry, it can create turbulence. “Companies want to improve their product life cycle management (PLM) techniques in order to increase productivity and reduce costs,” explains mechanical engineering professor Vince Thomson. “It’s hard enough to develop a design for aerospace products if you are managing hundreds of people internally, within one company. But today the industry is moving towards global partnerships for design, with thousands of people distributed across dozens of companies.”

A company like Bombardier requires many thousands of parts to make one plane, and the challenge of tracking and managing product life cycles for all these is staggering. “We are trying to create a new production environment, from the early designs to the final products that are delivered to the customer,” says Patrice Bélanger, manager of PLM processing with Bombardier. “Our university collaborations allow for more creativity in approaching this problem because they do not have the same constraints in terms of timelines, infrastructure and processes as our internal R&D.”

“Industry needs the talent that our students provide,and students benefit from the experience of working on real aerospace engineering problems.”

Bombardier, along with CAE, CMC Electronics, Pratt & Whitney Canada and Rolls Royce, is participating in a multi-university project led by Thomson to develop new concepts that will help companies with the complexities of PLM. Says Thomson, “If we can demonstrate that these ideas work well, we can help software vendors to integrate them into commercial PLM products.”

Thomson is also working with Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney Canada on a “lean engineering” project. “Creating an airplane is a large, complex and expensive task, costing millions of dollars in terms of engineering hours,” he explains. His research will identify how the many stages in the process could be streamlined more efficiently, so that the engineering design stage flies along as smoothly as the final product is meant to do.

Ice Sage

Mechanical engineering professor Wagdi Habashi, BEng’67, MEng’70, confronts a different kind of complexity when he works with his team in the Computational Flow Dynamics (CFD) lab. There, Habashi has developed models of in-flight icing that have transformed how we understand what happens along the skin of a plane in flight. “Airport crews can de-ice the plane all they want on the ground, but when it’s flying through clouds, ice will form on it—and ice is extremely treacherous,” he says. “Sometimes even small traces in the wrong places will make an airplane lose aerodynamic efficiency.”

Professor Wagdi Habashi was recently awarded the prestigious Killam Prize (Claudio Calligaris)

While statistics are elusive, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority directly attributed almost 400 air crashes in the nineties to icing problems. Habashi’s approach stands out because, while most CFD models focus on localized icing, his group has developed computer code to model ice along the entire aircraft, as well as within the aircraft engine or on helicopters. It can also be used to produce flight simulator data for pilot training.

“We consider ice as a system,” he explains. “For example, what happens to an airplane when it flies into a cloud? Where is water going to freeze? What shape will it take? And how much heat do you need in the wing to de-ice in flight?”

His research continues to win recognition: last spring Habashi, a Pratt and Whitney Fellow as well as the NSERC-Bombardier Industrial Chair in CFD, won a Killam Prize, Canada’s most prestigious academic award for career contributions. It’s not surprising, then, that his de-icing technology is setting the industry standard. Buyers include Lockheed-Martin, Bombardier, Boeing, Bell Helicopters, Airbus, Northrop Grumman and many other aircraft manufacturers; ultimately, Habashi anticipates a cockpit interface that could inform pilots of icing conditions during flight.

“Taking something that on paper looks feasible and bringing it to the point where an industry adopts it can be a very painful process,” he says. “But everything we develop ends up being used.”

Such is the goal of almost all researchers: to generate knowledge and develop technologies that will one day prove useful. Thanks to closer links with the vibrant local aerospace industry and the new MIAE focusing research and teaching efforts, more and more McGill researchers will be realizing this ambition. “The sky is our limit now,” says Dean of Engineering Pierre. “We have deep resources of experience and expertise, and are creating more. The potential is huge.”

Patrick McDonagh’s book Idiocy: A Cultural History, was a finalist for the 2009 Mavis Gallant Prize for non-fiction.

Legal Eagles in Flight

There are over 600,000 pieces of space debris larger than 1 cm orbiting the Earth, the legacy of 50 years of space activity. And eventually someone will have to deal with the flying junk, composed of bits of old rockets, chunks of satellites, and assorted flotsam and jetsam. This past May, legal experts gathered in Montreal for the International Interdisciplinary Congress on Space Debris, hosted by the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law (IASL) in collaboration with the Cologne University Institute of Space Law and the Netherlands-based International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, to parse the problem and discuss how to define responsibility for and guide responses to space trash.

It is a challenging issue, but the IASL, based in the Faculty of Law, became a global leader in aviation and space law by grappling with the most difficult questions connected to human activities in the skies above. Created by a visionary group of academics and aviation lawyers in 1951—six years before Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite, ever left the ground—the IASL has established fruitful interactions with governments, industry and other air and space law stakeholders, and led research through its Centre for Research of Air and Space Law (est. 1976) and its international journal, Annals of Air and Space Law. Today, the IASL has five full-time professors, including director Paul Dempsey, and another nine adjunct members. The 900-plus alumni of its graduate programs can be found in leading positions in 120 countries.

Air and space law is an active field. Immediately before the space debris congress, the IASL had hosted the International and Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Space Governance; this October, it was the McGill Conference on International Aviation Liability and Insurance. The IASL has also analyzed activities both peaceful and military in outer space and has proposed a framework to develop safety standards for space missions.

Soon, as Dempsey has pointed out, the air and space division itself will become problematic, as the rules governing one are opposite to those for the other. While nations exercise sovereignty over “airspace,” meaning that foreign aircraft must receive permission to enter it, the realm of “space” is defined as being free of national jurisdictions. So where does “air” end and “space” begin? That question will keep the legal experts busy for a long time.

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