2015-2020 Voiland College Strategic Plan

Research and scholarly programs

National Academy of Engineering’s Global Grand Challenges for Engineering

  • Making solar energy economical
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personalized learning
  • Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

We note that the National Academy of Engineering, in 2008, identified 14 Global Grand Challenges for Engineering (see side bar). Engineering colleges across the country are tasked with addressing these and other societal grand challenges while preparing the next generation of engineers to be able to contribute effectively to these efforts. See engineeringchallenges.org for more information.

Most of the Global Grand Challenges are aligned around larger themes in energy, environment, health, security, and technology innovation—the very themes that the VCEA has previously identified as key areas. These themes characterize much of the scholarly work ongoing in the VCEA, and it is clear that VCEA faculty is engaged in scholarly activity that is of significant societal benefit. These themes are highly interdisciplinary, frequently interconnected, and highly collaborative. In addressing these themes, faculty researchers in the VCEA collaborate with colleagues from across the college, the university, and the country—even around the world. Below is a sampling of the impactful research in the VCEA related to these broad themes.


Meeting future energy needs will require a set of solutions that includes making the most effective use of our existing resources while also developing renewable, environmentally friendly energy systems, designing innovative processes that reduce both energy and water usage, and minimize adverse impacts on the atmosphere and global climate. This also requires developing new building materials and structural systems for “green architecture” and addressing our nation’s aging infrastructure with novel and innovative technologies designed to reduce resource usage. Specific topics related to energy and energy efficiency for which VCEA faculty members provide leadership at the university, regional, and national levels include:

  • Advanced materials—utilizing new energy sources like hydrogen and solar power, and improving energy storage (improving batteries, positron energy storage, and hydrogen storage).
  • Composite materials—developing sustainable infrastructure materials for the construction industry and lightweight composite materials to reduce fuel consumption by aircraft.
  • Chemical catalysis for fuel processing—chemical catalysis of raw materials to higher value products and fuels, fundamental understanding of catalysis, and reaction engineering for conversion of fossil fuels and biomass feedstocks.
  • Bioproducts and biofuels development—development of all aspects of biofuels/bioproducts economy, pyrolysis of biomass and other raw materials, and conversion of biomass to biomaterials and biofuels, including the use of waste materials such as forest residues, construction wastes, and feedstocks.
  • Renewable energy sources and the power grid—ensuring the reliability of the power grid as diverse, intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind are integrated.
  • Fuel cell systems—development of new fuel cell systems that directly convert bio-based jet fuels to electricity for on-board power systems in aircraft and automobiles.
  • Sustainable infrastructure and design—production of cost-efficient solutions to energy challenges through renderings, models, ideas, and management strategies (digital and physical) that encourage high-performance, high-quality buildings that meet developer and client demands for aesthetics, time, and money.


Population growth and global development will challenge air and water resources for the foreseeable future. We already see many changes, from the historic drought in California, increasing severity and incidence of forest fires, competing demands for water resources, and the specter of global climate change. Our air, water, and land systems are inextricably linked, and our understanding of these systems will require interdisciplinary, collaborative research, the results of which will inform resource management and policy, as well as mitigation approaches. VCEA faculty play leadership roles in addressing these grand challenges around air and water resources, specifically in the following areas:

  • Water resources—understanding global systems and interactions between land and atmosphere, earth systems modeling, hydrologic impacts of global change, and regional and national scale water resource modeling and management.
  • Aquatic sciences—water quality studies, nutrient and pollutant cycling, and statistical analyses in water bodies.
  • Air quality studies—regional air quality modeling and measurements, agriculture and air quality, nitrogen cycling, biogenic emissions, carbon cycling, nutrient and pollutant deposition, urban air quality, global change, and remote sensing.
  • Energy and clean technology systems design and implementation—developing new or improved sources of clean energy, improving energy efficiency, and developing sustainability of infrastructure and design through interdisciplinary collaborations.
  • Interactions between water resources, water quality, climate change, and human behavior in both agricultural and urban environments—watershed modeling for informing public policy that is economically and scientifically sound.
  • Catalysis—development of new catalytic conversion systems that mitigate adverse impacts of transportation systems, and new systems to capture carbon dioxide and convert it to drop-in fuels and chemicals, thus mitigating global climate change.


New challenges to human health, including addressing the needs of an aging population, managing emerging diseases in a world in which our global mobility can spread outbreaks at a frightening pace, new technology developments in medical device technologies, and utilizing the vast amounts of data in a way that produces information for timely decision making, are all areas of opportunity for engineering, computer science, and design disciplines. VCEA faculty provide leadership in health-related research in the following areas:

  • Biofilms—understanding all aspects of biofilm growth and interactions, including interactions with wounds, sensor development, bioremediation, wastewater treatment, safe foods, and biochemical production.
  • Bioengineering—new understanding of how cardiac muscles work and cells move will have dramatic impact on the quality of life of our aging populations, and new systems that allow the advanced separation and detection of marker proteins, thus enabling proactive treatment of chronic and infectious diseases.
  • Materials—new bone and cartilage replacement materials, leading to reduced incidence of post-surgery infection, improved durability for longer joint replacement lifespans, and lowered risk of the body’s rejection of the device.
  • Bioinformatics—designing algorithmic solutions for data-intensive life sciences applications, including genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics; drug and vaccine development; epidemiology; and tracking food- and water-borne diseases.
  • Devices and sensors—sensor networks and machine learning for monitoring systems that are not based on video, automating resident activities, and allowing disabled or elderly people to remain independent and improve their quality of life.


Security and safety are important in all aspects of our personal lives as well as for businesses, large- scale manufacturing, transportation, communications, computation, and virtually every aspect of modern society. Within VCEA, our research efforts in security and safety include a focus on the power grid, the development of smart sensors and sensor networks for making homes safer, synthesis of crystals for harmful substance detection, environmental protection (as described above), and large scale data analysis to better understand threats to individuals, populations, and society as a whole. Some specific aspects of our research in this area include:

  • Smart power grid—developing a software platform to test the smart grid to prevent blackouts and more efficiently and reliably manage shared energy systems. Researchers in our well- known power engineering program are key contributors to national efforts to develop a smart and more efficient electric power grid. Our researchers helped produce a smart grid demonstration project that led to Pullman becoming the region’s first smart grid community. Using smart grid technologies, the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project is testing new devices, software, and advanced analytical tools to enhance the power grid’s reliability and performance.
  • Smart sensors—sensor networks find a wide array of applications, from smart homes to smart grids and many other sensor networks and multi-modal information systems such as “smart plugs” that monitor power consumption of individual devices to permit internet-based monitoring and real-time control for energy efficiency. In addition, we are involved in research on pervasive sensing systems for a variety of applications including volcanic activity monitoring and machine learning, among other applications.
  • Detector technology—advances in crystal growth technology to improve the quality of single crystals used as detectors for radiation and other harmful substances is a key component of the work done by the Center for Materials Research. This technology will improve detectors and reduce reliance on countries with low-cost labor where such crystals are typically fabricated.
  • Computational and data sciences—faculty and students at VCEA, in collaboration with faculty from other colleges and institutions, are engaged in computational and data science research that is transforming our global future. This life-changing research addresses a broad range of issues and needs, including:
    • Data-driven control systems for smart home projects that enable the elderly and people with cognitive disabilities to stay at their homes for as long as possible;
    • Projects involving data collection, data analytics, and data visualization for highly efficient electric power management in well connected, smart cities; and
    • Using massive data to better understand how diet, hygiene, and cultural practices around the world relate to human milk composition and infant health.

Technology Innovation

In June 2011, President Obama declared a national priority in manufacturing within the United States and in advanced materials, particularly computational materials science. Two high-profile programs were announced at that time—the National Network for Manufacturing Initiative (NNMI) and the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI). These are aimed at the development of a network of public-private partnerships in manufacturing in the form of large research centers for manufacturing, and at speeding the time it takes to develop a new material, respectively. Some of our research efforts in this area include:

  • Advanced manufacturing—advanced manufacturing at WSU includes computational, experimental, and developmental efforts.
    • Three-dimensional printing has been a staple of research at WSU for well over a decade, including research and development in metals, ceramics, and polymers. Current efforts in 3D printing include bio-materials, aerospace, and a variety of electronics applications.
    • Capabilities for research in manufacturing composite materials at our Composite Materials Engineering Center (CMEC) include true pilot scale capability for layup and processing of composites.
    • Aerospace manufacturing research is addressed in areas of adhesives and multi-materials, and the development of models for optimizing metals processing.
    • Design and manufacturing of electronics spans the range of applications from processing circuits and nanostructures in a clean room to exploitation of multi- materials and multi-physics processes from nano-machining to micro-lens fabrication, functionalization of nanomaterials for polymer nano-composites, and drug delivery and biological feature detection.
    • Virtual reality for optimizing manufacturing processes has had strong industrial support at WSU over the past couple of decades.
  • Advanced materials—research in advanced materials includes all materials classes with specialists in the areas of polymer-based composite materials, metals and solid mechanics, and electronic materials. We have strong interdisciplinary interactions in this area with physics and chemistry faculty members, who, along with VCEA researchers, make up the interdisciplinary materials science and engineering doctoral program.
  • Computational materials—multi-scale computational expertise in materials and process development exists within VCEA for all materials classes. Modeling at the atomistic and first-principles level exists for applications in fundamental materials and catalyst development, at the meso-scale for materials defects and interactions, and at the macroscale for complex materials systems and performance of engineering components during processing and in service.