Washington’s next-gen engineers gear up to steer innovation toward implementation.

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Advanced manufacturing is an important economic force in Washington, accounting for nine percent of the state’s total employment. The aerospace manufacturing industry alone employs more than 93,000 people through approximately 1350 related companies located in 35 of Washington’s 39 counties. The state is also home to a growing space exploration sector that is interested in joint university-industry research on space technologies and bolstering space-oriented education in the state’s universities.

Washington leads the nation in the creation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs. Filling those jobs requires a workforce ready to hit the ground running – and keep up the pace. Preparing the next generation of engineers requires special skills.

Giving graduates the tools they’ll need involves more than teaching facts and figures. In these rapidly evolving economic tech sectors, it also means nurturing a passion for lifelong learning, to keep up with the latest advances – and a capacity for dreaming big.

WSU student Ian Richardson’s big dreams have taken him all the way to NASA – and he’s looking far beyond.

Space fantasies and rocket launches

Richardson wants to find ways to replace fossil fuels with clean hydrogen power. He wants to design and build bigger rockets to take people farther than we’ve ever gone before. And he wants to travel in space.

In grade school, he loved to camp out on the deck of his Port Orchard home to watch meteor showers and falling stars. He would fall asleep imagining what it would be like to walk on the moon or travel to other galaxies. “There wasn’t a time when I didn’t think about space,” he says.

Richardson’s dad, Mark, is a mechanical engineer who works on aircraft carriers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. His grandfather, Vic Buchanan, is a retired Boeing mechanic. When he was in junior high school, Richardson learned that his grandfather had done design work for the wing of the first stealth bomber. That knowledge moved him to study aeronautics as a hobby.

A high school physics experiment ignited his passion for design. Teams of students were challenged to build catapults to propel water balloons toward their teacher, who stood some distance away in an open field.

“We were failing miserably. Nobody could get close,” says Richardson. “We hit on the idea of a trebuchet; a kind of compound catapult. We ended up overshooting the teacher and had to back down on the counter-weights. That was a great moment for me. This thing went from an idea in my head, to a design on paper, to a finished product. I knew then I could actually engineer something that worked.”

Hands-on learning opens doors

Richardson arrived at WSU in Pullman in 2007 as a freshman. By sophomore year, he had settled on mechanical engineering as his major. “I knew that I wanted to work with machines,” he says. “I had a need to find out how things work, but I also wanted to actually build things – not just sit at a desk.”

Before his senior year, casting around for post-graduate ideas, Richardson reached out to a brand-new WSU professor, Jacob Leachman, head of WSU’s Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research Lab. It was a relationship that would relaunch Richardson’s dreams about space.

Leachman hired Richardson to help set up his cryogenics lab, which studies the behavior of materials at very low temperatures. They have been working together ever since.

Liquid hydrogen is the fuel of choice for NASA, is used for energy storage, and is key to a number of industrial applications. Leachman and his team of researchers are devising new ways to work with hydrogen in all its forms.

As WSU’s cryogenics lab was coming together, space industry scientists were seeking associates to help test assumptions about how liquid hydrogen interacts with helium. Rocket fuel tanks are pressurized with helium. Scientists assumed some helium is absorbed back into hydrogen fuel during flight, but needed more data in order to predict fuel and engine performance.

As a senior, Richardson undertook an in-depth study of one of hydrogen’s isotopes: deuterium, or heavy hydrogen.

In early 2012, HYPER Lab received funds from the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation to measure the densities of hydrogen-based, cryogenic fuels. Leachman tapped his student for the work.

Richardson, now on track to receive a Ph.D. in material science and engineering, was in heaven. He was able to employ his expertise in thermodynamic property measurement while finally pursuing his passion for building and design. Richardson’s new doctoral research design scheme included high-pressure plumbing, cryogenic refrigeration, and vacuum systems, all in the service of the space industry.

Rebuilding a balance and boosting a field

Jacob Leachman, head of WSU’s Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research Lab, and Ian Richardson (Washington State University)
Jacob Leachman, head of WSU’s Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research Lab, and Ian Richardson (Washington State University)

The core device for Richardson’s density measurements was an older magnetic suspension balance. The instrument, designed to measure the density of liquids, wasn’t built for cryogenics, so it had to be repaired and then retrofitted.

It took six months and hundreds of hours of labor to get the finicky machine to register anything.

The magnetic suspension balance, or densimeter, includes a mechanism reminiscent of claw arcade games – the ones where players attempt to grasp and retrieve prizes. Within an internal case is a quartz crystal with a small hook at the top, connected to a permanent magnet. Above that case is an electronic magnet that picks up the permanent magnet and quartz, and allows the machine operator to lower the quartz into the liquid being measured.

Richardson realized that the permanent magnet had lost some of its charge over the years and could no longer lift the quartz. To have one custom made would be costly and time-consuming.

“I was sitting around one day and thought, ‘Hey! I don’t need to get a whole new magnet, I just need to boost the net magnetic field,’ ” he says. “So I bought a bunch of generic, 50-cent magnets online and just stuck them on. That’s when I finally got something to register.”

WSU’s HYPER Lab magnetic suspension balance is the only densimeter in the world that can operate at the low, low, temperatures required for cryogenic liquid density measurements.

“A lot of people say we’re setting a new standard,” says Leachman. “Anybody who does helium-hydrogen mixture properties now uses Ian’s work.”

Ian Richardson (WSU)
Ian Richardson (WSU)

Simulating the oceans of Titan

In the 2030s, NASA plans to deploy a mammoth rocket to fly a submarine to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. The Titan submarine will explore a large sea called Krakan Mare to discover its properties and phenomena. NASA scientists believe that the mission will further our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth and potential life elsewhere in the galaxy.

Kraken Mare, like all the seas of Titan, is made of liquid methane and ethane. Richardson is simulating the seas and atmosphere of Titan in order to provide NASA scientists with data to use in their predictive models and designs.

Richardson already has achieved many of his goals, and he continues to dream big. “There’s all kinds of things I want to do, places I want to go. I’d like to go to Saturn, but I’ll start with the moon,” he says with a grin.

Learn more about how Washington State University researchers untangle complex problems to enrich quality of life for us all.