Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) was founded in 1865 and is the nation’s third-oldest private technological university. Located in Worcester, MA, WPI fosters research in areas from tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, to exploration of the technological and policy issues surrounding cybersecurity, to studies of issues as diverse as firefighter health and security and the fire safety challenges of green buildings.

WPI has developed five cross-cutting research areas:

Health & Biotechnology — WPI’s research in health and biotechnology crosses multiple disciplines and embraces focus areas such as cellular biology, regenerative bioscience, tissue mechanics and mechanobiology, biophysics, disease treatment, and animal behavior.

Robotics & Internet of Things — Robotic technologies include medical robotics, soft robotics, human-robot interaction, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Robotic systems available to researchers include WPI’s Atlas Robot for Nonconventional Emergency Response (WARNER), a 6-foot-tall Atlas humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics that was WPI’s entry in the DARPA Robotics Challenge for robot disaster response.

With more than a quarter of a billion vehicles on American roads, WPI researchers are finding ways to make those travels safer and the vehicles cheaper and more eco-friendly. Cyberphysical systems are making it easier for people to interact with engineered systems thanks to complex and advanced technological applications.

Advanced Materials & Manufacturing — WPI’s multidisciplinary research in materials science and engineering is motivated by the recognition that the future will depend on the development of new materials (including materials inspired by nature), the innovative use of traditional materials, and the recovery and reuse of materials. Broad-based research efforts address sustainability issues in energy generation and alternative energy (fuel cells, grid storage, and power generation using undersea kites), manufacturing (lean manufacturing, sustainable supply chains, and advanced industrial drying), and mobility (the production of liquid transportation fuels from lignocellulosic biomass).

Cyber, Data & Security — Designated as a Center of Excellence in Cybersecurity Research by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, WPI is engaged in cybersecurity research in a wide range of disciplines addressing a host of security threats. WPI researchers focus on improving data mining tools and techniques and developing new methods for leveraging big data to make data-driven predictions and decisions. In fire protection engineering, researchers are applying advanced experimental and computational techniques to address a wide range of fire safety issues.

Learning Sciences — WPI researchers in learning sciences develop educational technologies that combine computational methodology with theoretical frameworks in the learning and social sciences to investigate topics such as instructional technologies, learning with visualizations and simulations, learner characteristics, human-computer interaction, and machine learning.

School of Engineering

Consisting of 14 focused departments, the School of Engineering at WPI addresses a wide variety of technology areas.

Aerospace Engineering embraces the science and technologies that create, develop, and improve aircraft and spacecraft. Using equipment and facilities including wind tunnels, vacuum chambers, and controls instrumentation, technical areas include fluids and plasmas, propulsion and energy, controls and dynamics, and structures and materials.

WPI’s Biomedical Engineering works on advances as diverse as wound-healing sutures, blood vessel engineering, vital sign monitoring for firefighters, and braces for joint stabilization.

Within Chemical Engineering, researchers solve real-world problems in areas like environmental protection, renewable energy, and life sciences through development of new technologies, processes, and materials.

Civil and Environmental Engineering touches on topics such as sustainability, natural resource preservation, design, construction, architecture, and energy. Technical areas include pavement engineering and highway materials, analysis and design of structural systems and smart structures, construction and design-construction integration, physical and chemical treatment, energy and sustainability, water resources, and sustainable building design.

Research in Electrical and Computer Engineering includes machine learning, cryptography and information security, signal processing, autonomous vehicles, smart health, prosthetic control, analog and digital microelectronics, and wireless information networks. WPI innovations include the invention of the negative feedback amplifier and laying the foundations of the first wireless local area networks.

A system that finds landmines uses a rover body with a metal detector attached to a moveable arm. As the rover moves forward, the metal detector slides back and forth. If metal is detected, the rover’s arm paints a square around the suspected mine and sends its GPS coordinates to a drone, which flies in and drops a payload to detonate the mine.

Home to one of only three fire protection engineering programs in the United States, WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering work informs and shapes regulatory policy, building design, manufacturing processes, first responder operations, and product performance standards. Research is conducted in materials, combustion and explosion protection, building and fire systems, firefighter safety and policy, human behavior and egress, design and regulation, and fire impact on buildings, infrastructure, and the environment.

Industrial Engineering serves as a bridge between engineering and management to analyze and adapt processes or create new ones. Whether a manufacturing procedure or a redesign of physical space, industrial engineers identify the people, materials, technology, information, and energy required for a process to be efficient.

Manufacturing Engineering encompasses fields like robotics, manufacturing and materials processing, control systems, machining, grinding, teaching CNC machining, materials engineering, and surface metrology.

The field of Materials Process Engineering focuses on the science of materials, materials processing, and business practices. Manufacturing processes like nanomaterials and biopolymers and topics like lean manufacturing, casting and heat treating, cost analysis fuel cells, and surface metrology are included.

Materials Science & Engineering is focused on the ways in which materials are made, used, and recycled; on developing and processing new materials and products; and on the innovative use of traditional materials. Fundamental understanding of materials at the nano, micro, and macro scales includes structure, processing, properties, performance, kinetics, and thermodynamics.

Strengths within Mechanical Engineering include thermal sciences, nanotechnology and nanomaterials, biomechanics and medical devices, additive manufacturing and printed electronics, photonics and optomechanics, sensors and metrology, metals processing, batteries and electrochemistry, and solar cell materials.

Research is performed within Robotics Engineering in areas such as human-robot interaction and interfaces, robot motion planning and control, medical and assistive robots, sensors/ actuators and robot design, robotics and AI, human augmentation, robotic manipulation, soft robots, autonomous vehicles, embedded systems for robots, and multi-robot systems.

Systems Engineering is a holistic approach to the design, construction, and maintenance of systems. Topics address both engineering and management aspects and include artificial intelligence, model-based systems engineering, requirements engineering, system architecture and design, and validation and verification.

Technologies

Wave motion research at WPI could one day create a bulletproof vest that not only will sense the speed, angle of approach, and size of an incoming bullet but the material inside the vest will instantly change properties to provide greater shock protection at the exact point of impact. The granular materials could be used in personal protective equipment, such as vests and helmets, that can be worn by the military, police, and other professionals like athletes and construction workers. They also could be used as a protective covering for buildings or even to protect the International Space Station, satellites, and spacecraft from being damaged by space junk and meteorites.

A team at WPI found that extracts from the leaves of the Artemisia annua plant, a medicinal herb also known as sweet wormwood, inhibit the replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic) and two of its recent variants. One or more compounds in the plant may point to a safe, low-cost therapeutic treatment for SARS-CoV-2.

A partial hand prosthesis replaces some of the functionality of a person’s fingers. Sensors can be pressed with the tiny remaining piece of the thumb, making the prosthetic thumb move forward and backward.

Engineers developed a smartphone app that can help conduct contact tracing needed to contain the spread of COVID-19 without risking users’ privacy or personal security. Two means of collecting tracking data were developed. With the first, the app would track the location of the user and encrypt any stored information. It would then send the encrypted data, minus any personally identifiable information, to a server used by a public health department. Another approach would upload information only from anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. That information would be made public, without identifying the infected individuals, so anyone would be able to go online and check for themselves if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive.

A critical diagnostic tool being developed at WPI is a robotic ultrasound machine to detect disease symptoms in the lungs — a significant development that will allow healthcare providers to minimize their exposure to the virus when conducting assessments of COVID-19 patients. The platform virtually eliminates physical contact between patients and healthcare workers during scans, minimizing the risk of spread while still allowing for collection of vital data.

WPI created renewable fuel from sewage sludge, a byproduct of wastewater treatment that creates greenhouse gases and water pollution when dumped into landfills. It uses hydrothermal processes, high temperatures and pressure, and inexpensive catalysts to turn sewage sludge — and the energy and carbon contained in it — into natural gas. In addition, nitrates and phosphates extracted during the new process can be used in agriculture.

A thumbnail-sized chemical sensor can be worn on outer garments to detect dangerous chemicals more quickly and dramatically drop the rate of false alarms. (Courtesy of CCDC-SC)

A partial hand prosthesis was created that enables fingers to be attached to a person’s partial hand to replace some of the functionality of the fingers. A wrist band houses the actuator for thumb movement and a small solenoid that locks it in place. Built-in sensors enable the person to press with the tiny remaining piece of a finger, which will make the prosthetic thumb move forward and backward.

A WPI mathematician is helping the U.S. Army create a thumbnail-sized chemical sensor that can be worn on outer garments to detect dangerous chemicals more quickly and drop the rate of false alarms. The wearable sensor is built to mimic the human nose. Each sensor detects combinations of multiple molecules — one might detect diesel fumes and a specific chemical agent while another might detect diesel fumes and humidity. The results are combined to give a more complete and accurate assessment of the chemicals in the environment.

Designed to protect athletes from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, a new shoe sole works by limiting loads to the ankle and knee. The key design element is a set of tiny flexible polymer springs that wrap around posts that restrain, or localize, their deformation. The shoe recovers its initial configuration between steps.

A sensor the size of a BAND-AID® was developed to measure a baby’s blood oxygen levels, a vital indication of the lungs’ effectiveness and whether the baby’s tissue is receiving adequate oxygen supply. Unlike current systems used in hospitals, this miniaturized wearable device will be flexible and stretchable, wireless, inexpensive, and mobile, possibly allowing the child to leave the hospital and be monitored remotely.

An autonomous rover and payload-deploying drone were developed to work together to search for and detonate landmines. The rover detects and marks the mines using an inexpensive metal detector, which can sense as little as a gram of metal two to three inches below the ground. The drone then drops payloads of small sandbags onto the mines to safely detonate them.

WPI engineers created a 3D printing technique that could be used to repair vehicles and other critical technology in the field, avoiding the sometimes extensive wait for new parts and increasing the readiness of military units. It uses a technique called cold spray, which can be used to repair metal parts or even make new parts from scratch by building up metal layer by layer in a 3D printing process. The process can be reduced to a portable handheld applicator for use in the field.

To make NASA spacecraft lighter and more damage tolerant, WPI developed methods to detect imperfections in carbon nanomaterials used to make composite rocket fuel tanks and other spacecraft structures. An algorithm significantly enhances the resolution of density scanning systems used to detect flaws in Miralon® — a strong, lightweight, flexible nanomaterial. Miralon has been used to wrap structural supports in NASA’s Juno probe orbiting Jupiter to help dampen vibration and static discharge.

Technology Transfer

The Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) identifies, evaluates, values, protects, classifies, markets, and licenses the intellectual property assets developed at WPI. To learn about available technologies, visit here .

To license a WPI invention, contact Todd S. Keiller, Director of Intellectual Property and Innovation, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 508-831-4907.


Tech Briefs Magazine

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

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