In Oumar Barry's academic world, there's no such thing as a good vibe.
The Central Michigan University engineering and technology faculty member has devoted much of his professional life trying to eliminate vibrations entirely — from overhead power lines.
Barry and his teams of international students are improving power line dampers to suppress wind-induced vibrations, which damage the electricity conductors and the lines themselves.
It's the kind of work that often goes unnoticed by the public until there is a power failure. But for power companies, it's a budget concern. For students, it's research that can plug them into a job or propel them to higher education.
"The same vibration research I did here I now do on cars." — Natish Vaja
Dampers, basically, are metal weights linked by a piece of cable and suspended from a power line. When the wind blows, the damper does the vibrating instead of the line. It's similar to the way an automobile shock absorber keeps its occupants from bouncing around.
Barry and his then-graduate student Natish Vaja, a mechanical engineering major originally from India, improved the widely used static damper style by increasing the range of vibrations it can suppress.
That iteration caught the attention of a power company in Ohio, which plans to commercialize it, Barry said. That version also has been issued a U.S. patent.
For Vaja, he now does vibration analysis for a startup automobile company in Plymouth, Michigan.
"The same vibration research I did here I now do on cars," he said.
It was Barry's work on mechanical vibrations that helped lure Vaja away from another Michigan university.
"I couldn't find a course that would help me focus on mechanical vibrations," he said. "Here, I started testing commercial dampers and discovered how poorly they performed and that we could significantly improve them."
Even though Vaja now has a full-time job, he often comes back to CMU to work with Barry on his next goal: a computerized moveable damper that also can be used as a power line inspector that looks for flaws that develop over time.
Using this damper, Barry explained, power companies could perform inspections faster, remotely and involve fewer employees. Former graduate student Mohammad Bukhari, from Jordan, had been Barry's student helper on that evolution. He has since taken that experience with him to pursue a doctorate at another university.
Nonetheless, Barry expects that, with the possible help of power company backing or research grants, the mobile inspection damper would be available for commercial use within five years.
Barry's ideas don't stop there, though. He envisions adding sensors to make that robot damper fully autonomous, using the energy from the line vibrations itself for power.
His current student research assistants are doctoral student Eshagh Farzaneh, from Iran; Mary Freund, from Illinois; Run Zhu, from China; and Kennedy Stone and Stephen James McLean, from Michigan.