The Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin has been at the forefront of technology engineering education for more than a century. In the 1880s, the University of Texas began teaching engineering courses and in the 1890s, the College of Engineering was officially established. In 2007, the College of Engineering was renamed the Cockrell School of Engineering, honoring the late Ernest Cockrell Jr., his wife, and their family whose estate developed the equivalent of a $220 million endowment for the school.

Priority research areas are designed for multidisciplinary collaboration that addresses the pressing societal problems of the 21st century and beyond: human health; manufacturing; energy, environment, and sustainability; intelligent systems and man-machine symbiosis; materials; and complex systems and networks.

Departments

These powder samples will be fabricated to become cobalt-free cathodes for lithium-ion batteries.

The Cockrell School of Engineering has seven academic departments.

Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics – This department offers programs in aerospace engineering, computational engineering, and engineering mechanics focusing on aviation, space engineering and science, robotics, energy, solid biomechanics, biomedicine, and earth science.

Affiliated research centers include the Center for Aeromechanics Research, which conducts computational, analytical, and experimental research in supersonic and hypersonic aerodynamics, high-temperature gas dynamics, turbulence, combustion, laser diagnostics, aeroelasticity and structural dynamics, control of flexible structures, and flight structures.

The Center for Mechanics of Solids, Structures and Materials (CMSSM) promotes research addressing fundamental as well as applied issues in the broad field of mechanics of solids, structures, and materials.

The Center for Space Research conducts research in orbit determination, space geodesy, the Earth and its environment, exploration of the solar system, as well as expanding the scientific applications of space systems data.

The Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences is an organized research unit created to foster the development of interdisciplinary programs in computational sciences and engineering (CSE), mathematical modeling, applied mathematics, software engineering, and computational visualization.

Department of Biomedical Engineering – The department develops clinically translatable solutions for human health by training the next generation of biomedical engineers, cultivating leaders, and nurturing the integration of science, engineering, and medicine in a discovery-centered environment. Research centers within this area encompass cardiovascular modeling and simulation, computational oncology, imaging, bio-materials, regenerative medicine, and drug delivery.

McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering – This department leads pioneering research in vital areas such as energy and the environment, human health, materials, and manufacturing. Research areas include materials, polymers, and nano-technology; biotechnology; energy; environmental engineering; modeling and simulation; and process engineering.

Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering – This department focuses on research in construction engineering, water resources, infrastructure materials, simulation in engineering, ocean engineering, sustainable systems, and transportation.

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – The largest department in the Cockrell School of Engineering focuses on architecture, computer systems, and embedded systems; bioECE; decision, information, and communications engineering; electromagnetics and acoustics; energy systems; integrated circuits and systems; plasma/ quantum electronics and optics; software engineering and systems; and solid-state electronics.

Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering – Researchers design and build devices and systems that transform industries and improve lives around the world. A pioneer in areas such as robotics and advanced manufacturing, the department is the birthplace of selective laser sintering, one of the first and most successful 3D printing technologies.

Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering – This department focuses its research on drilling, oil recovery, geologic carbon storage, reservoir engineering, and unconventional resources.

UT Technologies

To produce medicines and chemicals on demand and preserve them, portable biofactories are embedded in water-based gels called hydro-gels. Here, a 3D-printed hydrogel lattice contains yeast cells that can allow for the continuous production of ethanol.

COVID-19 – An antibody test for the virus that causes COVID-19 is more accurate and can handle a much larger number of donor samples at lower overall cost than standard antibody tests currently in use. In the near term, the test can be used to accurately identify the best donors for convalescent plasma therapy and measure how well candidate vaccines and other therapies elicit an immune response. Additional uses are to assess relative immunity in those previously infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and identify asymptomatic individuals with high levels of neutralizing antibodies against the virus.

Researchers also developed a new type of ventilator made of cheap, widely available materials to help fill the demand created by the spread of COVID-19 for these critical devices that help patients breathe. The “bridge ventilator” can be replicated and mass-produced by others. The Assisted Bag Breathing Unit uses a manual resuscitator — a common tool called an AMBU (artificial medical breathing unit) bag. The unit requires a person to compress the bag frequently to help patients breathe. The UT team found a way to automatically compress the bag to get oxygen to patients. A windshield wiper motor pulled from a Toyota Camry powers a small caster wheel that pushes down on the bag to control oxygen flow.

A wearable heart monitor is so lightweight and stretchable that it can be placed over the heart for extended periods with little or no discomfort.

Earthquake data – Mega-earthquake scenarios are among the hundreds of data sets published on DesignSafe, a database for natural disaster information created by UT researchers that has changed how planners, builders, policymakers, and engineers prepare for and respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and more. The data repository gives researchers the ability to formally publish datasets related to natural disaster studies in the same way research papers are published in journals, giving them an accessible digital home. DesignSafe has more than 5,000 users and currently features 293 published datasets, representing more than 34 TB of publicly available information.

Self-watering soil – A new type of soil can pull water from the air and distribute it to plants, potentially expanding the map of farmable land around the globe to previously inhospitable places and reducing water use in agriculture at a time of growing droughts. The atmospheric water irrigation system uses super-moisture-absorbent gels to capture water from the air. When the soil is heated to a certain temperature, the gels release the water, making it available to plants. When the soil distributes water, some of it goes back into the air, increasing humidity and making it easier to continue the harvesting cycle.

Made from layered, black paper sheets shaped into petals and attached to a stem-like tube, a new device collects untreated water from any water source. The 3D rose shape makes it easier for the structure to collect and retain more liquid. (Read our 2019 Tech Briefs Q&A with the inventor.)

Polymer-based data storage – A new type of security system encodes information into a small piece of plastic that can be unlocked only via a chemical reaction using a specific type of substance. The devices that can read this information think like human brains and have the ability to communicate seamlessly with today’s electronics. A thin layer of polyurethane sits atop an integrated circuit. The material is a polymer, meaning it is made up of long strings of similar molecules called monomers that are like beads strung on a necklace. Small changes in electrical charges cause individual monomers to respond chemically, taking on one of eight different electrochemical states, like letters in an eight-letter alphabet. These letters can be written and read with the same electrical pulses upon which integrated circuits operate.

Luis Sentis, associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, is shown with the DRACO robot that incorporates a newly developed viscoelastic liquid-cooled actuator.

Battery technology – A cobalt-free, high-energy lithium-ion battery opens the door to reducing the costs of producing batteries while boosting performance in some ways. The battery uses a new class of cathodes — the electrode in a battery where all the cobalt typically resides — anchored by high nickel content. More nickel in a battery means it can store more energy. That increased energy density can lead to longer battery life for a phone or greater range for an electric vehicle with each charge.

Another new battery combines the benefits of existing options while eliminating their key shortcomings and saving energy. Most batteries are composed of either solid-state electrodes such as lithium-ion batteries for portable electronics, or liquid-state electrodes; a new room-temperature, all-liquid-metal battery includes the best of both. The metallic electrodes can remain liquefied at a temperature of 20 °C (68 °F), the lowest operating temperature ever recorded for a liquid-metal battery. This represents a major change, because current liquid-metal batteries must be kept at temperatures above 240 °C.

Biofactories – UT chemical engineers developed a way to produce medicines and chemicals on demand and preserve them using portable “biofactories” embedded in water-based gels called hydrogels. The approach could help people in remote villages or on military missions where the absence of pharmacies, doctor’s offices, or even basic refrigeration makes it hard to access critical medicines, daily-use chemicals, and other small-molecule compounds. Products can be produced within a couple of hours to a couple of days.

A new paradigm in sensing for hypersonic vehicles could also be applied to lower-speed craft. The sensing paradigm can tell where on a vehicle most of the pressure is going during flight testing.

Wearable heart monitor – A wearable technology made from stretchy, lightweight material could make heart health monitoring easier and more accurate than existing electrocardiograph machines. The device is so lightweight and stretchable that it can be placed over the heart for extended periods with little or no discomfort. It also measures cardiac health in two ways, taking electrocardiograph (ECG) and seismocardiograph (SCG) readings simultaneously. Powered remotely by a smartphone, the “e-tattoo” is the first ultrathin and stretchable technology to measure both ECG and SCG.

Water purification – A device for collecting and purifying water was inspired by a rose and is a dramatic improvement on current methods. Each flower-like structure costs less than 2 cents and can produce more than half a gallon of water per hour per square meter. An origami rose provided the inspiration for developing a new kind of solar-steaming system made from layered, black paper sheets shaped into petals. Attached to a stem-like tube that collects untreated water from any water source, the 3D rose shape makes it easier for the structure to collect and retain more liquid.

Robotic actuator – A novel type of actuator known as a viscoelastic liquid-cooled actuator (VLCA) was implemented into a newly designed legged robot called DRACO, which was built for this project. The team’s goal was to show that the VLCA excels in five critical axes that enhance a legged robot’s movement and performance: energy efficiency, torque density, impact resistance, joint position, and force controllability. The VLCA design consists of elastomers with a piston-like ball screw drive that can be used in multi-DOF (multiple degrees of freedom) robots.

Hypersonic vehicle sensing – UT teamed with NASA and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to re-define sensing and analysis of hypersonic vehicles, which can travel at least five times the speed of sound and potentially revolutionize space and air travel. The team’s goal is to create a new paradigm in sensing for hypersonic vehicles that could also be applied to lower-speed craft. The project — Full Airframe Sensing Technology (FAST) — will treat the vehicles themselves as sensors, analyzing aerodynamic changes during flight tests, and use that information to infer where force is being applied so they can better protect and control the vehicles.

Technology Transfer

The Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) is responsible for the efficient transfer of university discoveries to the marketplace. The OTC evaluates, protects, markets, and licenses the university’s inventions and software as well as assisting in the formation of startups.

For more information on available UT inventions, contact the OTC at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone 512-471-2995.


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from this issue here.

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