Washington, June 29 : People suffering from flying phobia may be a little less fearful in the future, thanks to engineers at Rowan University, who have created ice clouds in an ice cloud chamber for preventing some airplane crashes.
Led by an engineering professor and College of Engineering students at Rowan University (Glassboro, N.J.), the research team focussed on ice clouds and crystals, which can contribute to plane crashes.
There are crashes which occur because ice crystals collect on a plane's wings as it passes through a cloud, causing the shape of the wing to change, reducing the lift force needed for flying. While these clouds pose a serious threat to airplanes, there is no way to determine which clouds are hazardous to fly through.
But Rowan researchers have re-created ice clouds in an ice cloud chamber on a small scale, successfully forming ice crystals with the same characteristics of those in nature. By using these lab-created crystals, it is possible to project a laser beam through the chamber, measuring its change in polarization, which is dependent on the size, shape and distribution of ice crystals in the cloud. The polarization state of light is invisible to the naked eye, but measurable using sensitive lenses and photodetectors.
Ultimately, this process may allow a pilot to use low-power lasers to detect the crystals in time to allow the plane to avoid the crystal-bearing clouds.
"No one has previously done what we are doing in terms of this lab scale and the ability to vary as many elements," said Todd Nilsen, a 20-year-old (spring semester 2008) junior from Brick studying mechanical engineering and a member of the team that worked on the project.
In their course of two semesters, the researchers constructed an insulated Plexiglas unit-the ice cloud chamber-to house the ice crystals they would create using liquid nitrogen and water, chilling the chamber to a literally freezing -40 degrees Celsius. The entire system is computer-controlled. A microscope attached to the unit allowed the team to magnify the 40-micron crystals, which are roughly as wide as a human hair, and then take pictures.
After producing the ice cloud in the chamber, a laser beam is directed into the unit. The light that bounces back from the ice crystals, called backscattered light, passes into a detector. The data that are collected from this process can be used to determine which clouds contain ice crystals detrimental to airplane flight.
Till date, the researchers have has successfully re-created the ice crystals that have characteristics that are needed for further research. This is a significant step toward providing a method to detect the specific crystals in the path of aircrafts.
The ability to re-create ice crystals that have the same characteristics as those found in nature, on such a small scale, enables further research by other companies with little financial burden.