My name is Simon Rees, and I am a senior undergraduate physics major at WPI. I am also in WPI’s Teacher Preparation Program, which makes me a pre-service teacher in the RET program. I completed my practicum at Leominster High School, teaching 11/12 grade physics, in the fall of 2021; I loved the experience! I applied to the RET program because even though I want to go into education, it would be good to have some research experience under my belt. It will help me connect better to peers in industry, higher education, and would give me a foothold should my plans ever change.
So why physics? My own high school physics teacher helped me see the beauty of understanding the mechanics of how the world as we know it works. It’s simply fascinating that we can uncover and give meaning to the inner workings of the universe. At the heart of this is physics. But why teaching? I aspire to help others in the most direct way I can, as I learned after debarking on two mission trips to Haiti. Take those two passions and add them together, and that’s why I’m in the teacher prep program — simple math!
About the Lab:
Along with my in-service teacher partner, Anna Valdez, we are working in Professor Doug Petkie’s lab at WPI’s Gateway Park. In this lab, there is a lot of very expensive equipment used for all manner of research. Throughout the lab you can find ultrasensitive sensors, powerful lasers, electron microscopes, and more. The section of the lab we are working in, however, houses some super accurate wave generators and power sources/meters. In the lab we are working with two other undergraduate students and a PhD student.
The Department of Energy has funded one of Dr. Petkie’s graduate student’s research into more efficient drying techniques for the paper industry, where the goal is to reduce the amount of energy used to manufacture a piece of paper. The funding of research on this topic directly connects with Goal 9 for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (U.N. SDGs), “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.” The method employed is terahertz (0.076 to 0.081 THz) wave sensors since the frequency of radiation is absorbed by water but passes through paper. However, these sensors can be expensive, so the specific research that our six-week project is concerned with is with Texas Instrument’s IWR1642 Single Chip 76- to 81-GHz mmWave Sensor. We are interested in using this relatively inexpensive radar unit for moisture sensing. During our research, we will investigate how the unit transmits, collects, and displays data, what sort of information it returns, and how much of that information is useful. We can then use the unit to experiment with sensing moisture levels in the paper. The findings will be shared with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Center for Advanced Drying DOE funded project research team, whose results will impact moisture sensing for industrial drying (paper, cardboard, and food).
In addition to our primary goal of improving the efficiency of industrial drying, our research also has the potential to touch upon many other U.N. SDGs. If we apply our research to other industries, we could see many companies being more responsible with their energy consumption as they shift to intelligent drying technologies. This is precisely one of the targets of SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) to see improvement in energy efficiency. If moisture sensors are implemented quickly, this could also lead to lower carbon emissions as companies become more conservative with their energy budget, which is part of SDG 13 (climate action). Moisture sensing also has implications for agriculture. If soil moisture data can be collected quickly and efficiently, farmers can irrigate crops more efficiently, thus leading to better yield while conserving fresh water. Therefore, this research could impact SDG 2 (zero hunger) as agricultural productivity is improved and 6 (clean water and sanitation) as food producers substantially increase water-use efficiency.
- Week 1: Getting our feet wet
- Week one was all about learning about the project, the goals of the research, and how we can help. We did a lot of reading of literature on the subject and refamiliarizing ourselves on the physics of wave reflection and absorption. We also were introduced to the radar unit we would be utilizing, and thus spent time reading the Texas Instruments documentation for this sensor.
- Week 2: Challenge and side projects
- During week two, we came across our first challenge, which was trying to read the data coming from the sensor. The sensor outputs data in general binary form, and without post-processing code, our best option was using Igor Pro to try to read it. For most of the week we struggled to figure out how to read the binary. In the meantime, we did some preliminary testing with the sensor to make sure it worked, experimented with some code we found online, and completed a small side project using an ultrasonic sensor connected to an Arduino to make distance readings. At the end of the week, we set up an experiment in the lab.
- Week 3: Solution with new challenges
- We went into week three feeling stuck. We had all the equipment, but were just unable to collect readable data. We tried to make sense of the Igor Pro figures, collected data by hand from the real-time demo visualizer, and were on the brink of buying a new TI board that was compatible with the board we had. However, on Tuesday, we found a different demo with the ability to export data in CSV format! Finally, we were able to collect data. During the remainder of the week, we ran several experiments, and the data was looking promising. Towards the end of the week, though, our data began looking strange.
- Week 4: Another challenge, but another solution
- In week four, we found that the demo visualizer did not let us collect data for more than five minutes at a time before crashing. We began to take data in short intervals, but we knew this was not a long-term solution. We ended up talking with a computer science grad student, who showed us how to reset the board and explained a lot more about the way it functioned. His advice worked, and we switched our lab setup. Before, we were concerned with transmission of waves through the paper; now, we wanted to study just reflections coming off the paper.
- Week 5: Finishing the data collection
- Week five was the last week we collected more data. Having gotten enough evidence to show that top-surface reflections were enough to show the paper drying over time, we repositioned the sensor so it was pointing vertically downwards towards a piece of paper with a metal reflector underneath it. With this setup we collected more data, similarly to the first setup. Since we had more experience with data collection, we were more efficient and when the sensor gave us problems we knew how to pivot and keep going. We installed a heat sink onto the sensor as well to mitigate overloads. Besides for data collection, we mostly worked on the poster presentation for our research, as well as our lesson plans.
- Week 6: Preparing for the finale
- Being the last week before our presentation, week six was all about putting the finishing touches on our poster. We had a feedback session during which we received some good suggestions for how to improve the flow of the poster. We also continued to work on our lesson plans, which will continue to be worked on throughout the fall.
Poster and Lesson Plan: