Back to basics
Mechanical engineering professor draws inspiration and excitement from fundamental process of discovery
Matteo Aureli lives for that moment when an encounter with another academic discipline sparks an idea he can apply to his own work.
"That process where you connect the dots between what you see on the outside and what you can do in your field, that's really exciting," he said. "When that happens, you get an adrenaline rush and then you put everything aside. That's really the best part of the job, when you get excited about an idea and want to immediately study where it leads. Having the freedom to do that is absolutely priceless."
Aureli, who is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has an interest in smart materials and how they might be used to harvest energy that can power autonomous systems.
"Think about deploying a sensor at a remote location, like the bottom of a lake. So, you would like a system that is able to do its job autonomously," he said. "One of the problems of this distributed sensing framework is that we need to deliver power to each node of the network."
Aureli is working on a novel kind of smart materials called ionic polymer metal composites, which are materials with a very distinct electromechanical behavior. Aureli's research investigates whether these materials could harvest mechanical energy in the environment - the motion of the waves for example - and convert it into electrical energy that might be able to power a sensor.
This problem combines a few of Aureli's main research interests — vibrations, fluid dynamics, distributed sensing and smart materials — with what he sees as incredible untapped potential for autonomous systems.
"We are at the point that the Internet is with us everywhere," he said. "Imagine we can have autonomous systems this pervasively distributed, just as common as phones and tablets. Imagine we can have that kind of structure for autonomous environmental assessment, or structural health monitoring, or in distributed energy generation."
Yet, getting these systems to the point where they could be widely deployed is a challenging problem, Aureli admits.
"We can't do this today. We still need to understand how to do this," he said. "And here is precisely where there is so much room for discovery and for improvement of the current technology."
For Aureli, one of the main challenges - and also main sources of inspiration - for engineers facing technical problems lies in understanding the underlying physics.
"I think a lot of potential still lies in that aspect," he said. "There are processes, methods, even theories that look very well established. Yet, the history of science and technology shows that, as soon as you start questioning them, you might find new inspiring perspectives and even a workaround to a problem not yet solved. By understanding the governing physics of a phenomenon, you can highlight some of its hidden features and this can potentially bring more feasible solutions to our engineering problems."
Understanding the fundamental physics might sound like a tedious task, but for Aureli, it's more like an adventure.
"Trying to explore these hidden, different venues that maybe are not so traditional, it's really fun, it's really exciting," he said. "I think it's a very interesting time to be around doing these things."
In the classroom, Aureli aims to transfer his enthusiasm for not only the applications of engineering but the fundamental process of discovery that excites him so much.
"If you can get the students excited about your work, your research and being an engineer or being a scientist, I think that's really fulfilling the mission that we have," he said. "It's not only about teaching them gear design. It's about getting them into this mindset of lifelong learning and improvement and self-betterment that comes from studying and being curious about what's around us. And that never ends."