Student Research

A major part of the science and engineering education here at Penn State Hazleton is the independent study or guided research project. Below, you will see some of the past projects I have worked on with students along with the posters they presented at the Research Fair.


  • 3D Printed Computer-Controlled Rotation Optical Polarizer Mount PDF

    Mari Magabo, David Starling, Joseph Ranalli, Kenneth Dudeck

    Light is composed of electromagnetic waves that travel through space. These electromagnetic waves contain certain properties that dictate their behavior as they travel. Light polarization is one of these properties and is defined by the direction of the electric field components of traveling light. Unpolarized light, like sunlight, travels with its electric field randomly oriented through numerous planes in space, while polarized light oscillates in only one plane. Light polarization is modified via the use of specialized polarizing filters which are crucial in the fields of optics, radio, and optical fiber telecommunications. Many universities, including our campus, perform research involving light polarization. Due to the directionally sensitive properties of light polarization, one often needs to rotate polarizing filters many times in small increments during an experiment. This rotation can be performed manually (which is tedious and time-consuming), or can be performed by a specialized optical mount that can control the rotation automatically. While these mounts are convenient, a laboratory setup can cost about $15,000. Due to this high cost, it is a difficult investment to justify for smaller research laboratories. As a solution, we designed and created a 3D-printed, motorized, light polarizing optical mount that drastically reduces the cost and is comparable to optic mounts available on the market (in terms of resolution). First, we analyzed the design of existing optical mounts and found that they utilized a stepper motor to turn the filter holder. Then, with computer-aided design (CAD) software, we drafted 3D models for a worm gear setup that can perform the necessary rotation for light polarizing experiments. Our gears have a ratio of 20:1, giving us a resolution of 0.0225 degrees with our 200-step (800 micro-step) stepper motor. We printed several versions of the design in order to refine the performance of the device. The latest design features a more stable support for the worm, a better mechanism to attach the worm gear to the stepper motor, and a smaller containing box for easier storage and less material cost. The final design cost came in at a total of $150.51 for both 3D printed parts and assorted mechanical parts, a reduction of 99% relative to commercial products.

  • Accuracy and Uncertainty in Shading Calculations for Solar Power PDF

    Robert Vitagliano, Mauro Notaro, Joseph Ranalli and David J. Starling

    As with many forms of alternative energy, there is a high initial financial investment that serves as a barrier to entry for many potential adopters of solar power. This barrier makes it extremely important to ensure that the power generated produces a sufficient economic return. The power generated by a solar installation in a certain location is based upon several factors, such as: geographic location, topography, meteorological conditions, and obstacles on the horizon. The relative locations of objects that will potentially block the sunlight to the collector are called a horizon profile. These, along with other factors, serve as inputs to a software modeling program called System Adviser Model (SAM). Identifying the horizon profile of a potential solar installation site is part of a site survey procedure, and is an important step in calculating the project’s cost effectiveness. However, these solar site surveys possess uncertainties that depend upon the method of measurement.

    The primary goal of this research is to determine the influence of this measurement uncertainty on the estimation of annual energy production. This may help energy producers develop a higher degree of confidence in their estimates for project planning purposes. We created a software simulation in Java to vary the input parameters given to SAM and store the resulting annual energy production. Simulated obstacles, characterized by a center, width and height, were used as a model for a real horizon profile. We varied the previously mentioned parameters to determine which would have the largest effect on the energy production. After the initial data analysis, we have concluded that the centers are the most sensitive to error and the height is the least sensitive. This means that measurement devices will need to be most accurate in measuring the azimuth of objects (i.e. their central position) in order to minimize the impact on our calculations. A one degree error in the center measurement results in a 0.05568% difference in output. Moving forward, we intend to conduct more simulations using different shaped horizon profiles and different geographic locations to observe what effect they will have on a solar installation’s output.

  • Tensile Testing of 3D Printed Parts with Varying Infill Percentages and Patterns PDF

    Stephen Baksa, David Starling

    3D-printing is a versatile manufacturing technique used in many areas of science and engineering. However, the strength properties of thermoplastic 3D-printed parts have not been studied extensively. Here, we analyze Young’s modulus and maximum strength of 3D-printed parts made of poly-lactic acid (PLA) with varying infill densities. The weight and strength of the part are important characteristics for product design, and they depend upon infill percentage. Our results show that Young’s modulus for a 100% infill test part with a rectilinear infill pattern is 3.73×10^3 lb/in^2, while Young’s modulus for a 90% infill test part with a rectilinear infill pattern is 2.33×10^3 lb/in^2. Therefore, a 10% decrease in infill percentage results in a dramatic 45% reduction in Young’s modulus. Similarly, a test strip with 100% infill and a honeycomb infill pattern has a Young’s modulus of 4.37×10^3 lb/in^2, while a honeycomb test strip with 90% infill has a Young’s modulus of 4.20×10^3 lb/in^2. Therefore, a 10% decrease in infill percentage results in a reasonable 4% difference in Young’s modulus when a honeycomb infill is used. Additionally, a honeycomb infill pattern exhibits a 12% increase in Young’s modulus compared to that of the rectilinear infill pattern. Also, a honeycomb infill test part is not compromised as strongly as a rectilinear infill part when the infill is reduced. Applications for this research include cost-effective analysis and material design for tools and machinery. Further research could include examining Young’s modulus with other types of infill patterns (concentric, Archimedean chords, etc.) and testing compression or bending of 3D printed materials.


3D Printed Rotation Mount

Rotation mounts are used in optics experiments to change the polarization of light. These mounts can be purchased from companies that specialize in opto-mechanics; however, it is much more cost-effective to print your own!


  • Visible Spectroscopy using Compressive Sensing PDF

    Ian Storer, David Starling

    Spectroscopy is a useful technique in the sciences because it allows one to reliably identify unknown substances. Due to the precision required, modern spectrophotometers can exceed the $5,000 mark for standard commercial products. Additionally, typical spectrophotometers have large footprints and slow acquisition rates. To that end, we have implemented a modern and unique imaging technique known as compressive sensing that can both decrease acquisition time and cut cost.

    The standard method for data acquisition is a process called "raster scanning" that results in a low signal to noise ratio. In contrast, a straightforward optical setup along with a modern technique called compressive sensing allows us to get viable data at low comparative cost. The setup consists of an LED light source, a diffraction grating, a lens, some mirrors, a digital micro-mirror device (DMD), and a custom photodiode sensor. The DMD is the key to compressive sensing and takes the place of a moving slit in the case of standard raster scanning. Random portions of the light are reflected by the DMD and measured by the sensor. This data is recorded and then used to reconstruct the image, resulting in the spectrum of the light that passes through the setup. To use this system for spectroscopy, a sample would be placed in the path of the beam and the new data set would be compared to the original white data set to determine what light is absorbed. This data can then be used to determine the properties of a substance. The results from this configuration are preliminary; however, we can create a 230 nm spectrum with 0.38 nm resolution in 10 s.

  • 3-D Printed Astrophotography Mount PDF

    Mari Magabo, Dorothy Carter, Joseph Ranalli, David Starling

    With rapid advances in technology, smart phones have become more accessible to average individuals, replacing and sometimes even exceeding the performance of other single-purpose tech gadgets. One such example is the camera. In today’s day and age, people are more inclined to take pictures with their smart phone due to their portability and convenience. As such, amateur stargazers may benefit from an apparatus that allows them to take photographs of the night sky with their smart phones. While products exist on the market today designed to mount cellphones to telescopes, their high prices make them undesirable to most amateur astro-photographers.

    To address this problem, our group has designed a simple, adjustable phone mount intended to work with most smart phones. The mount can be easily printed by a 3-D printer for a fraction of the cost compared to the commercial mounts sold today. After several iterations, the final design comprises two parts made from thermoplastic that not only ensure safe attachment of the user’s phone but sturdy mounting to a 1.25 inch telescope eyepiece. Additional supplies needed to secure the two parts together are available in any retailer that offers home improvement or hardware supplies. In total, the phone mount costs approximately $2 to print and assemble. Tests are currently underway to evaluate stability and durability.

  • Processing and Analyzing Astrophysical Data from an Android Smartphone PDF

    Tyler Fuehrer, David Starling

    Computer programs, much like the one developed here, are constantly being created by astrophysicist in order to process data. The specialized nature of their research requires such custom programs. In particular, astrophysical data requires many hidden layers of processing before it is possible to analyze. Here, we developed code in the Python programing language [1] that will process images from a custom Android smartphone app (developed by Dr. Joseph Ranalli) that was used to take photographs of celestial bodies. The android app takes a quick burst of photographs, waits a set amount of time, and then repeats this process. The Python program takes this raw data and compiles it into a single file as discussed below.

    Our program first enumerates the number of files it will need to process using the file type of our photos. Using a specific naming standard for the images the program is able to search through the file names to find the amount of images in a single burst. We use this information to stack each burst of images into a single composite image. This process repeats on each set of bursts. Due to the time between each burst of images, the rotation of the Earth has caused a rotation between the images. Therefore, we rotate the composite images into the same orientation [2]. We take these rotated images and store them in a data cube or stack them together, as needed. The program has been tested successfully on simulated images and is ready for testing with field data. We will present portions of the code along with the resulting data.


LED Spectroscopy

LEDs emit light in a range of wavelengths known as a spectrum. It is possible to separate the different wavelengths with a prism or grating. Here, we measure the amount of light at each wavelength emitted from an LED and passing through different filters. This measurement is made using a grating and a digital micro-mirror device (DMD). The data is reconstructed from a small number of measurements. This method is known as compressive sensing and has applications in many areas of information and physical sciences.


  • LED Based Active Quenching Single Photon Detection PDF

    Richard Michael, Thomas Klein, Edward Miller, Blake Burger, Janak Jethva, Joe Zolnowski, Joseph Ranalli, David Starling

    An interesting property of a light emitting diode (LED) is that it can actually act as a light absorber for use as a detector of single photons. When a photon hits a negatively biased LED, the one-way current flow characteristic of the LED is disrupted and a short current pulse will flow through the LED. The team set out with the initial goal of counting single photons at a high rate, requiring the construction of an active quenching circuit (i.e., a circuit that rapidly resets the LED after each photon detection event).

    Throughout the course of the research, the team experimented with various circuits to compare the effectiveness of each. The first goal was to research active quenching circuits in the literature in order to find a suitable choice for the detector. After narrowing down potential circuits, each one was tested with a variety of common LEDs in order to determine which circuit was the most effective.

    Once the most effective circuit had been determined, the team optimized the capacitance to decrease the reset time of the diode; this allows for an increased rate of single photon detection events. After attempting various capacitor combinations, it was determined that a 150 microfarad capacitor was able to reduce the reset time of the LED by 22.5%. Therefore, the goal of decreasing the reset time of the LED with a quenching circuit was fulfilled; however, there are still several avenues for improvement worth exploring. Several components of our existing circuit could be limiting our detection event frequency. For instance, a different range of capacitors and possibly higher quality LED’s can be investigated in order to further optimize our quenching circuit.

  • Compressive Sensing for Spatial and Spectral Flame Diagnostics PDF

    Scott Gauer, Joseph Ranalli, David Starling

    Flame imaging is a method of recording spatial information on the combustion of a given material. This kind of imaging is very useful for gathering information on a flame's intensity, combustion efficiency, emission spectra, and more. Data compiled from flame research has applications in optics, petroleum research and alternative energy. Most of the visible light from a flame is emitted from hot soot, whereas the light from the chemical process of combustion is much dimmer. As a result, many researchers encounter an obstacle when working in this field. Currently, intensified charge-coupled devices (ICCDs) are the primary instrument used to capture and study dim flame images. However, these ICCDs are prohibitively expensive, and many smaller research institutions simply can not afford one. In our experiment, we test the viability of a less expensive alternative to ICCDs, known as compressive sensing. Our experiment uses a pair of lenses to focus the image of a flame onto an array of switchable micromirrors, called a digital micromirror device. These mirrors are laid out in much the same way that pixels are laid out in a camera sensor or ICCD. The photons from the image reflects off these mirrors into another pair of lenses that focuses the light down into an optical fiber connected to a single photon detector. Using a customized Python program, we command a random pattern of mirrors to switch “on” and reflect the flame light into the fiber. On average, half of the mirrors on the array are “on”, while the other half are “off” and dump the photons that hit them. We record the number of collected photons with a single photon detector from a predetermined number of patterns. We then reconstruct the original image using an algorithm developed at Rice University known as TVAL3. This algorithm converts the photon counts and patterns into what is essentially a large under-determined matrix equation, which it then solves subject to a specific constraint. Since most objects in nature do not have sharp contrasts, the matrix equation is solved for a minimized contrast gradient. The main benefits of compressive sensing over ICCD imaging are its lower cost, for which resolution is sacrificed. Our experiment was successful and performed much better than another common type of imaging, a raster scan. While the raster scan was not able to discern the image signal from shot noise, our compressive sensing scan had a high enough signal to noise ratio to provide a discernible image of the light produced by the excitation of the C-H bond in propane gas.

  • Differential Equations in Nuclear Fusion PDF

    Mark Wychock, Tyler Gregory, Meagan Pandolfelli, Chris Moran

    Nuclear fusion is a thermonuclear reaction in which two or more light nuclei collide together to form a larger nucleus, releasing a great amount of binding energy the in the process. Fusion and fission are natural processes that occur in stars. Fission is the process in which an unstable nucleus splits into two nuclei over a period of time or by induced fission of a neutron bombarding a radioactive atomic nucleus. In stars, it is understood that the fusion-fission process provides a near constant source of energy from proton-proton chain reactions. Although a fusion reaction generates more energy than a fission reaction, modern nuclear power plants utilize fission processes due to the stability of the fission reaction, convenience, and cost of production. If nuclear fusion could be produced in a commercial setting, it could provide 3-4 times the energy a fission reaction generates. Fusion material such as deuterium, a key component in thermonuclear reactions, can be distilled from seawater providing a virtually infinite and promising source of energy in the future. The understanding and development of thermonuclear reactions and reactors is accomplished by the aid of differential equations. Engineers and scientists are able to observe behaviors, such as mass conservation, hydrostatic equilibrium states, and energy generation, of induced nuclear reactions from differential equations when developing fusion reactors. Nuclear fusion reactors are undergoing development to replace obsolete nuclear fission reactors. Two potential types of fusion reactors in development are laser ignition and magnetic confinement. In the research project, the scientific and mathematical applications behind magnetic confinement will be explored since it is more economical and efficient than laser confinement. Specifically, we will examine how the Grad-Shafranov equation plays a pivotal role in the operation of tokamak and stellarator reactors.


Flame Imaging

The chemical reactions that take part in a hydrocarbon flame emit light at 423 nm. However, this light is fairly dim compared to the glowing hot soot that gives most flames their characteristic yellow/orange color. To image the flame at this wavelength, special equipment is required. We are studying a new method for low-light-level imaging known as compressive sensing for use in applied physics such as with flame diagnostics.


  • Designing and Implementing a Single Photon Detector PDF

    Blake Burger, Edward Miller, Joseph Ranalli, David Starling

    A single photon detector is an electrical circuit that reacts to a photon and produces a measureable voltage spike and can be used to sense and count photons. The ability to sense photons allows researchers to study fundamental physical concepts, such as entanglement and flame thermodynamics. Commercial versions of these circuits, however, are thousands of dollars. The possibility of fabricating one from components at a reduced cost was investigated. The main component of the system is an avalanche photodiode. If a voltage is applied to the photodiode, then current cannot pass through the diode unless it in the breakdown region. The current will begin to flow when light is subjected to the photodiode. Therefore, the photodiode can act as a switch, which is activated by one or more photons. There are two ways to improve the function of the Single Photon Detector. First, one can improve the reset time because it takes a while for the applied voltage to rise to its initial value after being hit by a photon. Also, the temperature of the circuit rises due to current flow. A temperature control system is needed so an optimal sensitivity is maintained. By applying all of the concepts above, it is possible to build a cheap but reliable Single Photon Detector.

  • The Aerodynamics of Plane Wings and Car Spoilers PDF

    Ranee Perricone, Tariq Alnuaimi, Daniel Cho, David Starling

    Aerodynamics is the study of the movement of air and other gases around an object. Areas where aerodynamics is typically applied is in the designing of aircrafts and other vehicles. Air drag is also a related study in aerodynamics. Air drag, or air resistance, is a force that opposes an object moving in a certain direction through an air medium. Spoilers, or rear wings attached to race cars, are designed to maintain a down force on the car at a high speed. The spoiler’s down force is created by the difference of pressure above and under the spoiler as a result of the angle at which the spoiler is set. Bernoulli’s principle states there is an inverse relationship between the pressure and the speed of the fluid--in this case, air--that the object is moving in. Therefore, as fluid gains speed, the internal pressure of the fluid decreases.


Avalanche Photodiode

When a photodiode is placed in reverse bias, its behavior depends upon the magnitude of the bias voltage. Below some threshold, the diode does not conduct current. Well above this threshold, current flows freely. There is, however, a nice sweet spot in the middle where the diode is unstable. The diode is so unstable, in fact, that the absorption of a single photon triggers an avalanche of current to flow through the circuit. This current can be detected, thereby signalling the arrival of a single photon.