The Mother of Invention

Celebrating its 175th anniversary, the Engineering School has established a legacy of research that’s helped change the world for the better. The school has many illustrious faculty and alumni. An 1869 graduate, Samuel Spencer, started his career as a civil engineer, rose through the ranks of the railroad and eventually ran 10 railroads in the South. Three alumni have become astronauts. Another, Eric Anderson (Engr ‘96), founded a private space travel company. Here are a few of the engineers whose projects have touched our daily lives—or are about to.

The First Crash Tests at Virginia

If you drive a car, you’re probably safer because of professor Walter D. Pilkey. He founded the Automobile Safety Laboratory at UVA, now the Center for Applied Biomechanics, in 1989. He studied crash-safety issues for cars, planes and trains, as well as the effectiveness of airbags, helmets and seats to prevent injuries. Not only did Pilkey set up a sled with a simulated occupant compartment to study the effects of rapid deceleration on crash-test dummies but he also created computer programs that allowed car manufacturers at Ford to design safer cars.

Three Times Stronger Than Steel

By mixing metals and non-metals following a specific recipe, heating them up to more than 1,000 degrees and then cooling them, UVA professors created an alloy that is not only 300 percent stronger than steel, but also nonmagnetic and more resistant to corrosion. Professors Gary Shiflet and Joe Poon and postdoctoral researcher Vijayabarathi Ponnambalam produced more than 100 variations of the alloy before debuting DARVA-Glass 101 in 2005. Among its many applications, the material can be used as an integral component for nonmagnetic Navy ship hulls, especially submarines, invisible to magnetism detectors and mines. It is also used for giant drilling machines and the Yucca Mountain storage facility for nuclear waste.

The Father of Biomedical Engineering

Elmer L. Gaden

If you’ve taken an antibiotic, then you’ve benefited from discoveries made by UVA professor Elmer L. Gaden. In the 1940s, he accelerated the growth of yeast by introducing oxygen, providing the method for large-scale antibiotics manufacturing. The widespread availability of penicillin revolutionized medicine around the world. Gaden’s methods are still used to produce many medications, including insulin.

A Window Into the Body

Professor William Walker’s roommate was a medical student who complained that there wasn’t an easy way to see inside the infants that he was treating. It was hard to find their small arteries. So in the early 1990s, Walker began working on a hand-held ultrasound device that would give doctors and nurses a window into the human body. With associate professor Travis Blalock, professor John Hossack and Michael Fuller (Engr ’01, ’07), he eventually succeeded, and the device, Sonic Window, will be submitted for FDA approval later this year.

The Eyes Speak

In the early 1980s, professor Thomas Hutchinson (Grad ’63) visited children with disabilites at the UVA hospital and left feeling that technology had failed. Other than wheelchairs, there was little existing technology that improved the children’s lives. Later, while watching a nature documentary, he realized that he could tell where an elephant’s eye was looking because of the way it reflected light. “If I can tell that an elephant is looking toward the camera in a TV film, then we could surely make a computer recognize where a person is looking,” he told People magazine in 1987. Hutchinson designed the Eye-gaze Response Interface Computer Aid (ERICA) with help from Kelly Cook Reichert (Engr ’86, ’87). ERICA tracked eye movement with a camera while a person looked at a screen and a computer analyzed the movement so that the user could speak or write. ERICA brought the gift of communication to people unable to speak because of conditions such as cerebral palsy, stroke and ALS.

Detecting Security Threats

Infrared sensors that can detect chemical threats in the air may sound like a special effect from a Mission Impossible movie, but professor Gaby Laufer has put them on the market. The ChemSight hazardous gas detection system includes an infrared source that projects a beam toward a detector. Any gas or vapor that intercepts the beam can be recognized by its unique infrared spectrum signature. During the last two years, the sensor has been tested in a major U.S. subway system, U.S. government facilities in the U.S. and overseas, foreign subways systems and by several foreign governments. “Unlike other chemical sensors, the ChemSight does not need to be in direct contact with chemicals it is designed to detect,” says Laufer. “It can tell you in real time when a chemical appears and when it disappears anywhere along the infrared beam. Currently, it can recognize more than 50 chemicals and new ones can be added remotely as the need arises.”