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July 12, 2002

Purdue engineer receives presidential award for young researchers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A Purdue University researcher has been awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor given by the United States government to scientists and engineers beginning their careers. He also received a grant to continue his research.

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Douglas E. Adams, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, became the second Purdue researcher to receive the award since it was established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. Adams does research that predicts when parts will fail, particularly in military equipment.

Adams said, "I'm thrilled and deeply honored to receive these awards, and I can't think of any goals that are more compelling to work towards than safety and readiness for personnel in the armed forces and reductions in service and maintenance costs in the military and the commercial transportation industry."

The annual awards, bestowed on up to 60 scientists and engineers nationwide, were issued to the 2001 recipients during a ceremony at the White House today (Friday, 7/12). The awards ceremony would have been held late last year, but it was delayed when the White House was closed to the public because of terrorism-related concerns.

Adams was awarded a five-year, $500,000 grant to further his studies into "structural diagnostics and prognostics," in which sonar-like signals are used to detect when structures and mechanical parts, such as those in weapon systems and aircraft, are about to fail. Engineers are trying to design "smart structures" that use sensors, actuators and processors to prevent catastrophic failures by detecting damage in parts, including those made out of advanced composite, or heterogeneous, materials that are difficult to inspect with conventional methods.

Such diagnostic and prognostic systems will be designed not only to detect damage in structures but also to estimate automatically how long a part will last before it fails, potentially saving lives and billions of dollars in operating and maintenance costs. Military officials are interested in the technology because of its potential to improve safety while at the same time increasing the performance and lethality of weapon systems.

Composites are made of a combination of materials, including metals, ceramics, plastics, carbon fibers and fabrics. Because composites are lightweight yet strong, engineers are using them to design faster, more maneuverable vehicles, weapons systems, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

But it is difficult to analyze and predict the durability of so-called "hybrid structures" – or parts made out of various materials and composites.

"These are very complicated structures," Adams said. "When they are damaged, they often look fine from the outside, meaning routine manual inspections are ineffective."

New techniques for diagnosing damage will use a network of devices that are attached to, or embedded in, defense-related systems such as laminated composite armor and rocket-motor casings. Some of the devices, called actuators, send out high-frequency sound waves that create vibrations in the surrounding material. The other devices form an array of sensors that detect acoustic signals bouncing off the vibrating material.

While comparing data from the sensors, the system will determine whether a material layer is damaged by "listening" to the structural response. The prognosis part of the system involves using data collected with the structural health monitoring system to predict when a material is about to fail.

Prognosis is an inherently "nonlinear" problem, meaning it can't be solved using simple mathematical models but requires complex modeling techniques, Adams said.

Adams' work had earned him a Young Investigator Award from the U.S. Army Research Office in 2001. The Department of Defense then nominated him and his research for the more prestigious presidential award.

"The Army Young Investigator Award and the presidential award are making it possible for us to explore basic research issues that must be addressed before this kind of technology can be developed by the Army, the Department of Defense and industry at large," Adams said.

Adams came to Purdue in July 2000. He earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering in March 2000 from the University of Cincinnati, where he was a distinguished graduate fellow; a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997; and a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Cincinnati in 1994.

The federal agencies involved in nominating the award winners include: the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Adams is collaborating with Army Research Laboratory engineers at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland; the Tank and Automotive Command, in Warren, Mich.; and the Aviation and Missile Command, in Huntsville, Ala.

The research grant from the Department of the Army, Army Research Office, DAAD19-02-1-0185, is monitored by Gary Anderson, program manager of structures and dynamics activities within the Mechanical and Environmental Sciences Division of the Army Research Office. The presidential awards program is managed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, within the Executive Office of the President, which is directed by John Marburger III And the Army Young Investigator program was formerly managed by Henry Everitt, acting director of the Physics Division of the Army Research Office.

In 2000, Carol Anne Clayson, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, became the first Purdue researcher to receive the presidential award. She received the award to further her studies on deep convection and bottom-water formation in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709,

Sources: Douglas E. Adams, (765) 496-6033,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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Douglas E. Adams, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, is working on a "structural health monitoring" system. Many of the components for his system are contained in the "black box" pictured here. The box uses a technology that relies on a theory known as structural diagnostics using nonlinear analysis, or sDNA. Such monitoring systems could save lives and billions of dollars in maintenance costs by using sonar-like signals to detect when structures and mechanical parts, such as those in aircraft, are about to fail. He is testing his experimental system on the helicopter fuselage in the background. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

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