Engineering students design chamber to conduct experiments in all environments
Posted: 05/08/2011
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As the mercury in thermometers across the Rio Grande Valley continues to rise, there is a place within The University of Texas-Pan American that can reach temperatures so low they can rival the coldest of winters up north.

Students enrolled in the University's mechanical engineering program who have been working with Dr. Constantine Tarawneh, associate professor of mechanical engineering, on testing railroad bearings created an environmental chamber to determine how the bearings function in extreme temperatures.

Temperatures in the chamber can dip to as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit and climb to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows the UTPA students to simulate just about any weather condition in which a locomotive would travel.

"The amazing thing about it is, we wanted to start an experiment, but the experimental setup was so frozen that the belts were actually slipping on the pulleys," Tarawneh said.

The chamber, which undergraduate students created under Tarawneh's supervision as part of their senior design course work, is the latest in ongoing research and development projects the University is conducting for Amsted Rail. A team of faculty members and students, led by Tarawneh, have been performing research and development on testing bearings and other products from the company's various industries for the past five years. To read more about their research, visit the Fall 2009 edition of Los Arcos.

Tarawneh said his research team has been working on finding correlations between temperatures on different areas of the bearings for Amsted Rail for the past two years or so. The team was able to find correlations in high temperatures, but the company also needed them to find correlations in cold, ambient conditions.

To simulate different weather conditions, Tarawneh's students built the 8-foot-long-by-12-foot-wide-by-8-foot-tall chamber. The chamber, made with wood composite, fiberglass, Styrofoam and insulation, takes up about a quarter of one of the lab rooms in the Engineering Building. Its walls are about 6 inches thick.

"These bearings are going to go into all kinds of conditions. They're going to go into cold weather, they're going to go into temperatures where the ambient is below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, Tarawneh said. "Now we can give them a reliable calibration curve at any weather, for any bearing class."

Students said it took them the better part of a year to design and build the structure, which has allowed the team to conduct more than 50 experiments so far. They also received help in setting up the chamber from the University's Physical Plant staff who handle all the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

"I think it's really cool to see everything we learn in class, how theoretical it is, and then to go back and apply it to something in real life," said Andoni Zagouris, a master's student in mechanical engineering. "Being able to do that has solidified my education and made me understand more than I could ever understand in a classroom."

Zagouris, who began working on the Amsted Rail project as an undergraduate at UTPA and whose graduate research is focused on finding correlations between temperatures on bearings and their cups, said he would not have been able to complete his research without the creation of the chamber.

"We've spent quite a few late Fridays trying to build that stuff," Zagouris said. "If I had to do it myself it would have been more than a year just to build the (chamber) itself."

The undergraduate students who designed and created the chamber said they are grateful to have had the opportunity to engage in such an advanced level of research because it gives them a competitive edge and enhances their learning experience.

David Hasler, who is graduating in May with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, credits being a part of the design and construction of the chamber with landing him a job with Tesco Corporation, a global leader in the design, production and service of technology-based solutions for the upstream energy industry.

"I feel really fortunate. You talk to some engineering students from a lot of these schools, like Texas A&M, UT, Ivy League schools, and a bunch of these schools, they (students) don't get as much hands-on activity. A lot of them (schools) don't allow undergraduates in research," Hasler said. "Being here at this school and having all this hands-on, actual job experience, in a way, is really unique and I think it has advanced me as a student that I have had the opportunity to do undergraduate research."