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MU researcher bridges gaps with multiscale engineering

Chanwoo Park discusses his research.

Associate Professor Chanwoo Park said his students often have the same fears he does regarding research — fears of constraints and limitations and everything that could go wrong. “I tell them that research requires risk, so if you don’t have a risky component in your research, then it’s not research. We have to overcome these fears of failure, of the unknown, of wasting money,” Park said. “An engineer has to have a very strong, very brave mind to be able to solve a difficult problem. That’s what I like to see from my students.” Photos by Hannah Sturtecky.

For MU College of Engineering’s Chanwoo Park, successful research hinges on crossing boundaries.

Park, an associate professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and director of the Two-Phase Heat Transfer/Sustainable Energy Laboratory, takes a multiscale approach with his research.

Many engineering problems exist across scales. The problem, Park says, is that engineers are typically trained in only one scale, which can be anywhere from large, tangible systems, down to the microbes or even the atomic scale. And he says there are just a handful of engineers in research who can work in more than one.

“The typical approach is to start from one side — a small scale or big scale, but merging those two different scales is so difficult because it requires a new set of skills, knowledge, and all kinds of things,” Park said. But to him, the gap between scales is as much an opportunity as it is a problem.

A handheld device provides a rudimentary example of controlling heat transfer.

A handheld device provides a rudimentary example of controlling heat transfer. Chanwoo Park said he uses this device teaching basic heat transfer to new students.

Park, who has been at MU for a year, received a National Science Foundation CAREER award while he was at the University of Nevada-Reno for his work on multiscale engineering. One subject of his research is two-phase heat transfer such as boiling and condensation, especially in multiscale hierarchical porous media.

As electronic components — for example, computer chips — become smaller, a more integrated circuit is required, and the constantly shrinking component generates a lot of heat from a small area. This creates demanding cooling conditions, where a very efficient design must be implemented to cool the component properly.

This is where multiscale engineering comes in.

Park says the current, most promising heat transfer mechanism is two-phase heat transfer, which involves changing the phase of fluid from liquid to vapor, then during that change uses the latent heat to absorb the heat from the electric components. But to do that, the system must be designed from the nanoscale all the way up to the large system-level scale.

“This research was funded because of that unique issue of finding the problem in the middle of these two different walls,” Park said. “Mechanical engineers always do like a big system — something you can see, something you can touch. So usually this kind of small scale was handled by a different discipline.” But with the increasing presence of nanoscale technology, that mindset is changing.

“Soon the whole world will be based on this nanotechnology, so adapting this small scale into the bigger scale is a stream nobody can swim against, so you simply have to follow it, and you have adapt it and be good at it. That’s the new kind of engineer expected from the world,” Park said.

There are almost infinite applications for integrating nanoscale engineering with larger systems. Apart from electronic cooling, two additional areas of focus for Park are energy and wastewater treatment applications.

“I found a very good research area for dealing with multi-scale problems, and even I’m learning the small-scale science,” Park said. That means studying after work and at home to gain knowledge in new areas, and working with other researchers who have more experience in those areas and learning from them.

“The one thing I have to overcome as a researcher is that I have to change myself in terms of educating myself and doing different research every year so that my research basically progresses,” Park said.

A box of thermoelectric materials.

Inside this box are batteries attached to thermoelectric materials that aim to heat and cool the batteries. The switch at the top reverses the polarity of the heat transfer materials.

Park is constantly studying new areas of research in preparation for work he may do in the future. “Periodically, research needs to be updated. So I’m thinking, the next 10 years, 20 years, I’m going to do totally different research,” Park said, adding that he still wants to maintain some consistency by continuing in the direction of water and energy research.

Also part of Park’s reason for constant studying is to benefit his students.

“The industry changes very fast. Every year they make a new product. An old company dies; a new company starts. So there are a lot of changes in the industry outside of the university.”

To keep students up-to-date with rapid industry changes, Park believes professors must keep up-to-date as well.

Optimally, Park likes to spend one to two hours daily in the lab with students, working with them on their research, helping them to define problems and giving guidance and hands-on training.

Park pushes himself and his students to put themselves in uncomfortable situations by trying new things and attempting to cross boundaries. That means small scale versus large scale, but it also includes boundaries of mindset.

Park said his students often have the same fears he does regarding research — fears of constraints and limitations and everything that could go wrong.

“I tell them that research requires risk, so if you don’t have a risky component in your research, then it’s not research. We have to overcome these fears of failure, of the unknown, of wasting money,” Park said. “An engineer has to have a very strong, very brave mind to be able to solve a difficult problem. That’s what I like to see from my students.”

Park said he tells students to forget the constraints and resource limitations for a moment and focus on their idea. Then discussion about problems such as time and money can begin.

“Sometimes we need to be more realistic so that we can deliver results. But I believe good research has to do both — very visionary thinking plus realistic thinking all together. Without one of the two, you are like a daydreamer or the typical, very boring engineer, either way. But we can do both,” Park said.

Park also thinks it’s important for engineers to think like scientists.

“The engineer can be just a pure engineer, but sometimes they need to be a scientist, so I emphasize that to my students,” Park said. “An engineer solves a problem, but a scientist understands the problem. You can make something without understanding it, just using the theory or the equations you learned, but real understanding sometimes is the key barrier to understanding the system.”

“It sounds cheesy, but this is what I enjoy during conversation with a student —‘I’m an engineer, but I like to be a scientist sometimes, because with a different mindset you can see different things.’”

Whether it is a scientist versus an engineer mindset, the balance of visionary and realistic thinking, or small scale versus large scale engineering, Park believes today’s engineer thrives between boundaries.

“There is a lot of conflict between these two sides, but I think the opportunity is always there in the conflict,” Park said.