Mechanical engineering may bring to mind gears and engines but some of its leading researchers are inspired by nature — and they're using their expertise to help solve some of the issues facing the world today, including those related to the environment. Case in point: Nadine Aubry, head of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Mechanical Engineering.
"I always liked the ocean. I was fascinated with the swirls and eddies formed by the water hitting against rocks along the shore and what would happen when you tossed a pebble into the swirls," said Aubry, a native of France, who says her interest in fluid dynamics research evolved from her desire to understand how nature works and use this understanding to help society.
She added, "I don't recall any particular moment that may have inspired me to become a mechanical engineer; it was more of an evolution — an ongoing fascination with nature and a drive to make a difference."
Aubry is quick to note that mechanical engineering is fundamental to many technologies and has applications in nearly all sectors of industry.
"Mechanical engineering is based on principles of physics, that is the understanding of how the universe functions," she explained. "Then you apply that knowledge to the design, analysis, manufacturing and operation of machines, products and processes."
For instance, those interested in helping the environment can apply the fundamentals of fluid dynamics to study the spreading of particles in the atmosphere or in the ocean. Environmental control — that is the reduction of current pollution or the design of machines and processes which have a lesser negative effect on the environment — is an important growing field for mechanical engineers.
She also lists energy, aerospace, combustion, robotics, design, and manufacturing and process control (as used, for instance, in the cosmetics and food industries) as just a few of the areas in which mechanical engineers are using their knowledge and skills to make an impact.
"We are now also seeing more and more graduates going into biotechnology and nanotechnology," added Aubry, who pioneered the development of reduced models of open-flow turbulence and other complex flows, now used to design airplanes, submarines and turbomachines.
Her group has moved on to study small scale fluid flows with applications ranging from for lab-on-a-chip devices for fast, cheap and portable clinical diagnostics to the use of tiny air jets to control the flow around airplanes in order to reduce fuel consumption.
"At some point, I got interested in the challenges posed by microfluidics, and eventually I started working on applying the science to microscale flows to solve another realm of problems," she said.
Recently, her research team has shown how electric fields and fluid interfaces can be used to manipulate tiny particles and develop new nanomaterials with special properties. These materials could be used to increase the efficiency of solar cells, an issue on which many companies are focusing as they pursue energy alternatives.
"Our team's new findings could also improve drug-delivery patches and solve important issues for the development of the next generation of high-performance computers," she said.
Aubry was recently named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for her outstanding contributions to the field of fluid dynamics.