WEIRD SCIENCE: ENGINEERS GET RIDICULOUSLY NERDY

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By Danielle Wong

Peter Krimbalis is a self-proclaimed nerd.

The aerospace engineering PhD student’s face lights up just talking about his 12-hour day in the FRAMES laboratory, an engineering lair tucked away in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre basement.

“It’s ridiculously nerdy,” Krimbalis, who rocks a belt with the word “Dork” embellished on it, said. “I’m comfortable with that.”

FRAMES (Facility of Research of Aerospace Materials for Engineered Structures) is the largest lab of its kind that exists at a Canadian university, but most students don’t even know it’s there.

Here, Krimbalis, 28, is working with another student and professors Cheung Poon, Zouheir Fawaz and Kamran Behdinan on several experiments — most notably the possibility of installing an internal nervous system in an aircraft.

The technology is called structural health monitoring. If Krimbalis’s team is successful, the technology would enable the surface of a plane to behave much like the human body, able to sense and react to danger.

For example, if there is too much weight on one wing, the plane’s real-time monitoring would indicate the strain.

“[With this technology], an inanimate object has the ability to tell you it’s sick,” he said. The team has already constructed this aircraft system out of fibre optics. The next stage is designing an actuator, which is like the muscle of the wing, that adapts to the sensory signals. It’s like a reflex that pulls your hand off a burning stove, Krimbalis said.

Ryerson is also collaborating with Japan’s Kyoto Institute of Technology on this project.

Many of the other experiments conducted at FRAMES measure strain limits on aircraft components by bolting plane parts to a self-reacting frame and applying force through a hydraulic actuator.

“We break shit,” Krimbalis said. “That’s the coolest thing.”

And he gets to break stuff thanks to the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which donated $1.2 million to the lab in 2006.

This isn’t the first time Ryerson has flirted with the cutting edge of aeronautics.

Roberta Bondar, the first female Canadian astronaut, worked as a lead investigator at Ryerson’s Centre for Advanced Technology Education (CATE) on an experiment involving blood flow to the brain during weightlessness.

She later conducted that experiment on the Space Shuttle Discovery in January 1992. Bondar brought a Ryerson patch with her on the flight, which she later presented to then-Ryerson president Terry Grier.

The patch still hangs in the school’s library archive. “As Ryerson is becoming a university — not simply a teaching institution — it has to do research,” aerospace engineer Hekmat Alighanbari said.

The school should support its professors and students as they put out their research because it puts Ryerson on the map, he said.

“A professor’s job is not just the transfer of knowledge. “We have to enhance knowledge in a larger sense [through research],” Alighanbari said.

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