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Debalina Ghosh in a laboratory.

Ghosh Develops Greener, Faster-Drying Concrete

Concrete is the most widely used man-made material on the planet, and the second most used material in the world after water.

It’s a composite, with aggregate materials that can be found nearly everywhere. Buildings, roads, and bridge construction projects depend on concrete for its high compressive strength of about 3,000-7,000 psi.

However, concrete accounts for a large percentage of global carbon dioxide emissions due to the way it is made. The 4 billion tons of concrete made each year is responsible for about 8 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, which is more than the entire agricultural industry and the heavily polluting aviation industry.

All of this is on the mind of UT civil engineering doctoral student Debalina Ghosh, studying under Professor John Ma, who teamed up with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and in collaboration with the Precast-Prestressed Concrete Institute.

Precast concrete is a concrete structure like a wall or a slab that is manufactured in a plant and is then transported to the construction site, instead of pouring the concrete in place at the site. She developed a new concrete formula with two main features important to the industry: it quickens the drying time of precast concrete and has a reduced carbon footprint.

Ghosh is still trying to determine the exact carbon footprint of her mix.

“I am working on a life cycle assessment of this concrete,” she said. “This assessment considers the raw material use, energy consumption throughout the manufacturing process and provides a comparative impact on environment.”

The precast system has better quality control and reuses the concrete formwork, making it a more sustainable and cost-effective option than using a form once, as is done on most construction sites.

Precast concrete reuses the formworks and provides cost-effective concrete with better quality control compared to conventional cast-in-place concrete. Ghosh’s concrete has demonstrated qualities that could double production capacity for the precast industry because it gains adequate strength in six hours, compared to several days needed for comparable concrete.

Additionally, Ghosh’s formula uses calcium sulfo-aluminate (CSA) cement, which emits 62 percent less carbon than the industry standard, which is Portland cement. This requires less temperature and grinding during manufacturing.

The drying/hardening of concrete is a chemical reaction that emits carbon dioxide, and in this case, CSA has a faster reaction in an early stage of drying. Additionally, the concrete contains slag, a byproduct material, to replace 60 percent of traditional Portland cement, thus further reducing the overall impact on the environment.

Reducing the drying time also reduces the amount of labor needed so that the condensed placement time is feasible. Additionally, Ghosh evaluated commercially available components including steel, glass, and carbon fibers and came up with a self-compacting mix that maintained its workability for 30 minutes.

Steel fibers sticking out of a broken concrete slab.

She chose steel fibers to increase the flexibility of the concrete, which contributes towards its bending strength, whereas regular concrete will snap if bent. These fibers give it more durability for situations where the concrete could snap.

Leah Buffington

Staff Spotlight: Leah Buffington Makes Sure Every Event is Special

Leah Buffington is the special programs coordinator in the Office of the Dean. In this role, she works to enhance the visibility of the college by creating and implementing inclusive programs for the TCE community. She works closely with the dean to turn the college’s strategic plan into reality, serving as project manager and working closely with partners across campus.

“One of my favorite things to do is partner people with vendors and other campus units,” said Buffington. “I enjoy developing relationships with a variety of vendors and then sharing them with my TCE colleagues. Need a balloon artist? Custom linens? The perfect orange popcorn? Just let me know!”

She is the key campus liaison for members of the TCE Board of Advisors, and organizes biannual TCE Board of Advisors meetings. She also coordinates staff appreciation events, conferences, receptions, dinners, grand openings, ribbon cuttings, town halls, and more.

“I worked as the dean’s assistant to (Dean Emeritus) Wayne Davis for five years before transitioning to my current position,” said Buffington. “I learned so much from being in the dean’s office, and I apply that to my current position. It has helped me have a wider perspective of the college and I am thankful for that.”

Her welcoming demeanor and variety of life experience also help this Waynesboro, Mississippi, native succeed in her TCE role. Before moving to Knoxville in 2012 with her husband Brock, Buffington earned her bachelor’s degree in communication at Mississippi College, Clinton, and her master’s degree in public policy and administration at Mississippi State University, Starkville. She is currently working towards her PhD in higher education administration here at UT, expecting to complete in 2023.

Her accomplishments outside of academia have also found her navigating an array of insightful experiences.

“After college, I lived for one year in Santiago, Chile, as a missionary,” said Buffington. “I taught school and it was a wonderful experience.”

She and Brock and have also dabbled in real estate since moving to Tennessee, but she keeps her time filled more often coordinating her family. The Buffington bunch includes daughters Vanna and Roxie and son Baker. They added Dolly, a Goldendoodle, in December 2020.

“I am busy chasing little ones these days!” laughed Buffington. “When I do have free time, I am in class, reading, writing, or researching for school. My interest areas are women in leadership, organizational leadership, and exploring critical feminist theory.”

She integrates some self-care into her schedule through reading, listening to true crime podcasts, family time, naps, girls’ trips, and enjoying “really good food.”

Buffington brings attention to detail and TLC to her TCE role, exuding the Volunteer Spirit for every program she oversees.

From left, Ozlem Kilic and Jamie Coble.

Kilic and Coble Aspire to Share Mentoring Plans

The Tickle College of Engineering enjoyed a strong presence at the 2021 Aspire Summer Institute for STEM Faculty and Faculty Developers, held June 7–11 via online sessions. Associate Dean Ozlem Kilic and Associate Professor Jamie Coble presented on a planned mentoring program that would offer support for women in PhD studies who are interested in pursuing faculty positions and more.

“This team is committed to developing and implementing the mentoring chain to increase the readiness of our participants to move into leadership roles,” said Coble of the presentation. “Working together, we’ll leverage these existing efforts and identify gaps in available programming to create the mentoring chain from PhD students through faculty leadership.”

Implementation of these developments works in conjunction with Goal 6 of the college’s Diversity Action Plan. The presentation addressed the Aspire Summer Institute’s concentration on improving inclusive professional framework for faculty.

Mingzhou Jin

Mingzhou Jin Earns John D. Tickle Professorship

Mingzhou Jin is the latest TCE faculty member to achieve the designation of John D. Tickle Professor, bestowed in honor of his exemplary scholarly research and publication record, teaching, and service record. The appointment begins August 1, with a potential renewal at five years and continued designation.

Jin is a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the director of the Institute for a Secure & Sustainable Environment.

The professorship was created as a result of the investments made by John D. Tickle, UT alumnus and industrial engineering graduate. Those investments include, among others, investment in the John D. Tickle Engineering Building and the naming of our college.

Lynne Parker stands in front of White House

UT Engineering Professor Dubbed America’s First AI Czar

Lynne Parker has served in high-profile science roles during three consecutive presidential administrations, most recently being named to the position of founding director of the National Artificial Intelligence Office in mid-January.

Parker, who maintains her professorship in the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, was recently dubbed “America’s first AI czar” by the Associated Press for her leadership through the intelligence office.

In that role, she helps lead initiatives that explore AI’s use, safety, and potential to reshape our world.

One of the tasks Parker is charged with is helping the public overcome fears and misconceptions about AI, while also making sure that everyone in society benefits from its use.

“There’s an increased need for education and training so that people know how to use AI tools, they know sort of what the capabilities are of AI so that they don’t treat it as magic,” Parker told the AP. “Making sure that it’s responsible use of AI so that we’re not disadvantaging certain people, we’re not achieving biased outcomes.”

The full interview can be read for free on the Associated Press.

Student using equipment during ACE Training

ACE Readies for In-Person CNC Machining Training

Innovative IACMI, UT training teaches essential manufacturing skills to address US manufacturing workforce gap

Training the next-generation machine tool workforce is continuing this summer through six in-person boot camps to be hosted jointly by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Pellissippi State Community College.

The boot camps, which started in late May and will run through the summer, are part of America’s Cutting Edge (ACE), a highly successful CNC machining training program developed by the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) and UT Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tony Schmitz.

Designed to teach essential machining skills and address the nation’s growing manufacturing workforce gap, ACE kicked off in December 2020. The six-hour online curriculum walks users through the steps necessary to set up for machining a component, up to the point of engaging with the machine. So far, more than 1,400 students from across the nation—including future manufacturing engineers, machine tool designers, entrepreneurs, machinists, and more—have taken the course.

The in-person course this summer will pick up with the on-machine setup. The sixty total participants will learn one step at a time and build on each previous day, ultimately producing the components necessary to create an oscillating air engine by machining and assembling four parts: base (aluminum), piston block (aluminum), valve block (printed polymer), and wheel (steel).

To prepare, UT PhD students Emma Betters, Aaron Cornelius, and Jake Dvorak, along with Schmitz, who is also a joint faculty member at ORNL, hosted a week-long practice session May 10–14 for other UT students.

Tony Schmitz speaks with other IACMI members during ACE training

The biggest obstacle the group faced was developing an in-person curriculum suitable for the wide range of expected backgrounds of participants, from those who have never seen a machine in person to those who run machines daily.

“Trying to create something that works for everyone’s skill levels was a challenge, but we successfully incorporated a mix of instruction including demonstration, lecture, and hands-on tasks that will appeal to a range of learners,” said Betters. “I was happily surprised by how smoothly the training went.”

On-machine training is divided into computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) sessions and machining sessions, with only two participants on a machine at any time, to allow for optimal instructor-participant communication and provide a low-pressure environment for learning and questioning.

Student Removes Sample from CAM Equipment

“A lot of educational material targeted at CNC beginners tends only to provide fixed recommendations on how fast to run tools, or directs users to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations,” said Cornelius. “In the ACE program, Emma and Dr. Schmitz help students understand what’s happening at the actual cutting edge of the tool and how different machining variables affect that. They talk about issues such as how temperature affects tool life and chatter. Then, Jake and I follow with the CAM and machining exercises to provide practical, hands-on application. Even on the first day, we show how changing feed rates and depth for a finish cut gives a better surface finish than a roughing pass.”

Reflecting on her own career path, Betters, who is also research and development associate staff at ORNL, explained that during her undergraduate education she took “Design of Manufacturing,” a required course using manual equipment to go from design to production.

“Design for manufacturability is an under-taught skill, but I found it incredibly gratifying to touch something I made, which is why I learned machining,” said Betters. “I never thought of manufacturing before that, but afterwards it morphed into more for me than I ever imagined.”

Betters says she believes the collaboration between ORNL, IACMI, and UT is responsible for the wide reach of the ACE program, and that this course, which provides both an overview of the science of manufacturing as well as insight into production, has the capacity to be instrumental in the career decisions of participants.

ACE combines the workforce development leadership of IACMI and the research and academic excellence of UT. The program is supported by the US Department of Defense Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program from the Office of Industrial Policy.


David Goddard,, 865-974-0683

Qi’s Evolving Career In Computer Vision Leads Students into the Future of CAVs Technology

The UT EcoCAR team has worked diligently towards re-engineering their 2019 Chevrolet Blazer during Year 3. The main focus for this year has been the integration of Connected and Automated Vehicle (CAVs) technology. The UTK CAVs subteam, overseen by CAVs Faculty Advisor Hairong Qi, has been integrating cameras and radar onto their vehicle.

Hairong Qi

Hairong Qi

Qi has guided the team through these activities by utilizing her experience and research on the evolution of computer vision. She is the director of UT’s Advanced Imaging and Collaborative Information Processing (AICIP) Lab, where her main area of research is computer vision and machine learning.

You may ask, how does Qi’s interest and expertise relate to EcoCAR? Autonomous driving vehicles are an example of a complex cyber-physical system. Perception and fusion of data collected from the onboard sensor suite of a vehicle is one key component that enables autonomous driving. During autonomous driving, systems identify and sort various objects by using cameras and sensors embedded within a vehicle. Computer vision then identifies these images and videos and assigns them a specific size, shape or color. Computer vision can then produce results for a driver in real-time.

Read more about Qi’s work with EcoCAR and autonomous driving.

Solid Showing for College in EURēCA Awards

The University of Tennessee recently wrapped up the 25th edition of its annual Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement (EURēCA) awards, which recognize research, work, and creativity of students from across campus.

The Tickle College of Engineering (TCE) once again had a good showing at the late April event, with three awards from the Office of Undergraduate Research, six from TCE for research, and another two from TCE for design.

Although, like many things, the conference had to once again be presented virtually, the experience and reward for those participating was a bonus for everyone involved.

“The students that presented at EURēCA this year likely did much of their research work amidst Covid-related restrictions and presented their research in an unfamiliar online environment,” said Associate Professor and Director of the college’s Cook Grand Challenge Honors Program Kevin Kit. “They are to be commended for their dedication to communicating the results of their work. In general, the judges were very impressed with the poster presentations.”

Students can enter projects done either through their research, from senior design or clinical projects, or from their own creative selections for judging in the contest. Each undergraduate college selects and awards their top students, ranging from first place to honorable mention.

“The online environment allowed judges to leave comments for the presenters, and many of the comments seemed very constructive,” said Kit. “I hope these students were able to learn something useful from them. I’d like to thank the students and judges that participated this year.”

Judges from the college were: David Donovan, Jamie Coble, Toby Boulet, David Keffer, Sankar Raghavan, Daniel Yoder, Brett Compton, Sara Hanrahan, Dustin Crouch, Betsy Chesnutt, Terry Hazen, Bryan Good, Devina Sanjaya, Ahmedullah Aziz, Doug Aaron, and Anahita Khojandi.

TCE Design Awards

Award Name Student(s) Project Title
First Place Kate Eikel
Faculty Mentor: Bin Hu
Investigating Methods for Obtaining Large 2-Dimensional Perovskite Single Crystals
Second Place Kelsey Uselton
Faculty Mentor: Gabriel Goenaga
Parameter Optimization for the Performance of a Reversible Fuel Cell
Third Place Tyler Morris
Faculty Mentor: Jeff Reinbolt
Development and Optimization of a Digital Hearing Aid to Increase Music Perception
Award of Merit Samantha Maness, Madeline Wimmer, Bowen Wagner, Nadim Hmeidat
Faculty Mentor: Brett Compton
Multifunctional Ultralightweight Syntactic Foam for Custom Architecting of Aircraft Radomes
Award of Merit Naydia Peoples, Kassidy Boone, Jenny Patel
Faculty Mentor: Elizabeth Barker
Structural and Rheological Analysis of Hydrogel for Local Pediatric Brain Tumor Drug Delivery
Award of Merit Nicholas Legaux
Faculty Mentor: Rigoberto Advincula
Stereolithography 3D Printing of Copper/Polymer Nanocomposites

TCE Design Awards

Award Name Student(s) Project Title
First Place Logan White, Ryan Heldt, James Lee, Winston Wright
Faculty Mentor: Phillip Rack
Using Combinatorial Sputtering to Investigate the Magnetic Properties of Ni-Fe-Cr Thin Films
Second Place Samantha Maness, Kennedy Waring, Jace Pittman, Alexander Richter
Faculty Mentor: David Keffer
Characterization of Lignin-Based Reactive Membranes Suitable for Sustainable Energy Applications
Student using computer during study break

UT Launching Online Computer Science Master’s Degree

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has announced the addition of an online Master of Science degree program in computer science. The new program represents the latest chapter in the university’s collaboration with Noodle, the country’s fastest-growing online learning network.

“The program targets the technological knowledge and skills driving our economy and will help us meet our land-grant mission of educating the workforce for our state and the nation,” said Greg Peterson, head of the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, where the new program will be housed. “Our excellent faculty and targeted coursework will set our students up for high-paying jobs and impactful careers. Our graduates will be prepared to design, build, and operate the computing systems and programs that have transformed every aspect of our lives.”

The addition of the new online program reflects the university’s commitment to adapting to a changing world. Computer and information sciences is the fastest-growing discipline in United States higher education—currently the eighth largest, accounting for 5 percent of all conferred graduate degrees.

Other online programs announced this year include the Bachelor of Arts in interdisciplinary programs, with concentrations in cultures and societies and in public policy and administration, and the Master of Public Health. Since launching its online Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program in 2019, the university has committed to creating a total of 10 new online programs through its partnership with Noodle.

For UT, this latest program reflects a university-wide commitment to providing the best possible education to learners wherever they are located. Through these new online offerings, the university is aiming to find a wide audience of adult learners both in and beyond Tennessee.

“The collaboration between UT and Noodle has enabled the university to launch three new online degree programs for the 2021–22 academic year,” said John Zomchick, provost and senior vice chancellor. “These programs will increase students’ access to the state’s flagship land-grant and research university and help prepare UT students to become leaders in high-demand employment sectors such as computer science and public health. Over the next several years, we will continue to expand our infrastructure and our collaboration with Noodle to develop additional online programs that enhance educational and career opportunities for all Tennesseans.”

According to Noodle CEO John Katzman, this newest program showcases UT’s commitment to increasing its offerings and expanding its audience of potential learners. “The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has strived to create degree programs that meet the needs and wants of today’s students,” he said. “Over the past two years, the university has worked with Noodle to launch programs in some of the world’s fastest-growing sectors.”

Hala Sura.

Sura Shares Family’s Journey in Metro Atlanta CEO

Metro Atlanta CEO recently profiled alumna Hala Sura (ISE ’17), who talked to the business news publication about her family’s journey from Kurdistan to the United States. They fled the Central Asian country due to a civil war conflict when Sura was two years old and eventually settled in Memphis. Sura, a former co-op ambassador, is now a key account manager in the entertainment and attraction sector for Georgia Power.

Read the Metro Atlanta CEO profile on Sura.

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