Published: Nov. 18, 2019 By ,

On this edition of On CUE, we're looking at two research projects at the college that could be transformational at both the individual and global levels. Their work touches on personalized medicine, quantum engineering, clean energy, national security and so, so much more to put the impact of their work in context. First up, Jacob Segil - an instructor for the Engineering Plus and Mechanical Engineering degree programs whose work focuses on creating advanced prosthetics capable of "feeling." Our second guest is Lucy Pao, a professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering, her research focuses on control systems, multisensor fusion, and haptic and multimodal visual/haptic/audio interfaces. In this interview, Lucy speaks to us about one of her projects focused on bringing down the cost of wind energy via innovating the traditional designs of wind turbines. 

Announcer: And now from the University of Colorado, in Boulder the College of Engineering and Applied Science presents on CUE.

Josh Rhoten: Welcome to this edition of On Cue. I'm Josh Rhoten. Research funding at the college has gone up each year for the last four years, topping one hundred eight million this last cycle. That funding from the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, NASA and others enables our students and faculty to tackle the biggest problems in the world today. Their work touches on personalized medicine, quantum engineering, clean energy, national security and so, so much more to put the impact of their work in context. Today, we're looking at two research projects that are college that could be transformational at both the individual and global levels.

Rhoten: Imagine you wake up in the middle of the night and your hand is asleep. You can still feel it sort of, but your brain and your hand aren't talking to each other properly. Fine motor skills like picking up your phone to see what time it is are nonfunctioning to the point of being nonexistent. But your brain is also having a hard time judging where your hand and the attached fingers are in space or even relationship to each other. Doctors and scientists describe the second aspect as proprioception. That's a fancy word for your sense of your body's position in space. It's how we can tell if our hand is over our head or your eyes are shut, for example. It's also how you can tell how fast your fingers and thumb are moving towards each other as they try and close around the light switch next to your bed to figure out what's ever happening in the dark. You can probably think of a few other examples, and it's an important aspect of how we function every single day. But....

Jacob Segil: "that feeling is is is what amputees experience every day. Their limbs are numb. And what we know is that it's about half of the utility of the limb is from the sensory feedback. I'm Jacob Segil from the Engineering Plus program here in CU Boulder. And my work is on prosthetic limb development."

Jacob SegilJacob Segil with his prosthesic hand.

Rhoten: Segil's latest project is a partnership with Case Western University and the Cleveland V.A. Medical Center, along with other researchers at CU Boulder. The team's trying to perfect prosthetic fingertip sensors for amputees that would allow patients to actually feel tactile and sensory sensations again through nerve interfaces. The tips they're developing are starting to be tested and can eventually be used and take on clinical trials. If successful, the work can significantly improve the quality of life for many people in the U.S. and around the world.

Segil: This work has been in collaboration with several groups here on campus, at CU Boulder. I'm working with Nikolaus Correll and his robotics lab and the computer science department. They develop the initial sensing technology. We then basically reformulated that for the needs of Dr Dustin Tyler at the Cleveland V.A. Medical Center so that we could partner this technology with his neural interface.

Rhoten: The goal is to have the technology in the fingertips, 'talk' to the nerves. The way Segil describes this sounds simple, but it's a deceptively complicated feat to accomplish. Electrodes are placed inside the amputee next to nerves and muscles that used to serve the hand that lost. Electrical currents, then stimulate the different nerve fibers to produce realistic sensations that feel as though they're coming from the missing hand or arm.

Segil: So what we do is we measure a few things here at the fingertip. Proximity is distance away. So these fingertips can see it's like we have eyes on our fingers and then we also measure force. That's tactile information. We send it along as a digital signal to the hand. The hand has a brain in it, a motherboard, which decodes and translate those signals and sends them to the neural interface. The neural interface stimulates, literally electrocutes, the nervous system. It does so in a perfect way so that the sensation is recreated. They feel the touch again.

Rhoten: Having that sense of touch allows for better control and more embodiment of the prosthetic device that is these fingertips closed the loop between the brain nervous system and the prosthesis, blending man and machine together fully. That helps with the healing process because they no longer feel like they have a prosthetic. They feel like they have a hand.

Rhoten: Segil said the hardest part going for will be making the prosthetics rugged enough for everyday use, the body's incredibly durable and can heal things like a broken finger itself. Plastic fingers, well, plastic can't do any of that.

Segil: The hard part about our field is that we're trying to recreate the body, which is very durable. Plastics are not, right? They won't break tod ay, but over six months of use it will. And so that's part of the hardest mechanical design challenges are to create a product that can withstand everyday use. People go outside in the cold. People go play on the beach. You're designing for all those circumstances to make sure that the technology works in all of them and that it can withstand that abuse.

Rhoten: Segil gets excited talking about the technical aspects of the project, but he said the human impact is just as important to him.

Segil: I enjoy the engineering challenges was what was my first interest. But then throughout my career I've seen that feedback as well. This summer I saw an amputee feel the hand that he lost. It's amazing. I understand all the technological challenges, but then you see the social impact and it means a lot.

Rhoten: Our next story takes us to the National Wind Technology Center just outside of Boulder. Here the National Renewable Energy Laboratory tests water, power and grid integration. It's a 305 acre plot of land that's visible from Highway 128 south of the university and city. It's also been used for the past 40 years to design research and validate wind power control systems. From the road, you can see several white turbines scattered across an open field, spinning from wind off the canyon. But one is utterly unique to the rest. For one thing, it has two blades instead of three. It also looks like it’s up backwards because it's pointing in the opposite direction while the others. It's all part of a new federal research project here at CU Boulder.

Lucy Pao: My name is Lucy Pao and I'm a professor at an electrical computer and energy engineering here at CU Boulder.

Rhoten: Pao is leading the work here, which is a partnership with her former P.H.D student Kathryn Johnson, who's now an associate professor at Colorado School of Mines and colleagues from several other universities and agencies. The team is working to solve several issues that have limited the potential of turbines to this point, including the need for ever larger stiff blades to increase power output.

Pao: We have an Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy open project that's a relatively large interdisciplinary team project on designing and controlling extreme scale wind turbines and by extreme scale we're talking 50, five zero megawatt wind turbines and most commercial wind turbines now are about five megawatts to eight megawatts. And so we're really looking very far down the line and looking at what could be possible at the 50 five, zero megawatt level.

Rhoten: To give you some perspective, current turbines, the ones you're probably picturing and see from the side of the road. Those are about the size of the Statue of Liberty. The ones this research could lead to would be much, much larger about the size of the Eiffel Tower, in fact, with blades about 200 meters or 650 feet long. To get that big, however, there are a lot of things that need to be tested.

Pao: Working with aerodynamicists is structural dynamicists and then our part is in the control systems, we've been working together to design a very, very large scale rotor. It's a two bladed downwind rotor and we've designed an extreme scale turbine and then we gravo aero elastically scaled down to 20 meter plates so that they could be manufactured and then we can test them in a scaled version so that it's less expensive to test.

Rhoten: Pao has been working with the wind energy industry for 15 years now.

Lucy Pao and turbine bladeLucy Pao

Pao: When I first got into this area, I was very surprised that most wind turbine control systems, even now, ldo not use measurements of the wind in the control system. And so one of the things first things that we worked on was how do we incorporate measurements of the wind? And this was actually a collaborative effort with atmospheric scientists in remote sensing scientists. How can you measure wind speeds that are coming into the wind turbine, make use of that in developing a controller? So then the controller is not just reacting on feedback information, but also being able to have preview in information in improving the performance.

Rhoten: Understanding how the wind in the turbine interact is an important part of building these larger turbines. The teams testing turbine at NREL is only about twelve stories tall, smaller than those in circulation now and a tiny version of the massive ones they hope to one day produce, but ready for testing for a variety of factors. It's two blades are designed to be morphing, for example, meaning they're much lighter and more flexible than traditional versions. An aspect is inspired by nature and powers of the idea that the blades can bend like palm trees in the wind, making them ideal for offshore use where turbines would have to withstand hurricane force winds. The downwind configuration plays into this as well. The idea being that strong winds would push the larger and more flexible blades away from the base of the structure instead of into it, causing damage or reducing operations if not destroying it altogether. You can actually see videos of this happening online in Europe. It's spectacular and hypnotizing at the same time. Terrifying too even. The two blade design would also mean less material needed for production. Lowering the upfront costs. Pao said the team is also exploring how to make the blades in segments rather than one long piece. That would reduce the cost of shipping and installation as well. With the Department of Energy calling for 20 percent penetration of wind energy into the national grid by 2030, the team is excited for the project's potential. From Pao's description, it's easy to picture a farm with these massive wind turbines maybe off the Eastern Seaboard, somewhere inspired by natural designed to survive harsh conditions.

Pao: Ultimately, if successful, this could really drive down the cost of wind energy.

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