Undergraduates join graduate students on early-stage research


Unless you’re stuck in the garage on a cold morning, most people don’t pay much attention to car batteries. But the traditional lead-acid power source has given way to other types of batteries, especially lithium-ion (li-ion), as people look for alternatives to energize vehicles, boats – and even entire buildings as a backup power supply.

Now a UWM team is exploring ways to use li-ion batteries in the healthcare arena and provide a smaller and more efficient power supply to computed tomography or CT scanners. CT scans are used in hospitals around the world to capture a series of images that create a cross-section picture of the body and are used to diagnose medical conditions.

Adel Nasiri, professor of electrical engineering, is using funds from a 2013-14 GE Healthcare Catalyst Grant Program to test and find the best battery and design and implement the best energy conversion system for the application. Catalyst Grants, administered through the UWM Research Foundation invest in promising early-stage research, fostering commercialization of new technology.

Burst of Power

Just like starting a car, “CT scanners need a burst of energy to power the X-ray tube,” says Nasiri. The initial 400 amps are only used for about two seconds to take the picture, then the power consumption goes down – but the machine’s power supply has to be available at that top level for up to 30 minutes to take repeated pictures in case of grid power outage.

Nasiri’s team is looking at ways to reduce the energy used by providing a strong battery to supply that initial charge, then relying on traditional power sources at lower levels to keep the scanner functioning during the rest of the procedure while the li-ion battery recharges. The model is estimated to save almost three-fourths of the previous cost.

But which li-ion battery is best? They’ve only been on the market a few years.

Using samples from the U.S., France and China, Nasiri’s students developed a rating analysis to look at a variety of factors – including energy density, stability, safety, expense, and life cycle – in order to provide the best recommendation for how GE Healthcare and other companies could proceed in their ongoing efforts to reduce the cost of health care.

Graduate Student Innovation

Nasiri, who was selected as the 2010 Young Engineer of the Year by Engineers and Scientists of Milwaukee, has both a graduate and an undergraduate working on the Catalyst Grant project.

“Ahmad oversees the work, and Mike does the testing and comparison of the various battery samples,” Nasiri says.

It’s a desire for experience that brings the younger students, he notes, and a drive for innovation that attracts graduate students. His graduate students have gone on to jobs at Wisconsin companies including Eaton, Caterpillar and Rockwell Automation, as well as teaching in other countries.

The work is carried out at the UWM University Services & Research Building, located just north of Capitol Drive, where other research is conducted as part of the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC), a group of businesses and academic institutions focused on the growth and economic competitiveness of the energy, power and control industry in the region.

While funded by GE Healthcare, the Catalyst Grant program is aimed at developing technologies for multiple industries and building a talent pipeline for companies in Southeastern Wisconsin.