Xue receives NSF Early CAREER award for hydrodynamic sensing research

Qian Xue, University of Maine assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for her research on the hydrodynamic sensing model of seal whiskers.

NSF CAREER awards are one of the organization’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty and include a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years. 

Xue researches the sensing ability of seal whiskers, which have attracted increasing research interest because of their exceptional sensitivity and accuracy. Previous studies have shown that blindfolded seals can use their whiskers to track the disturbances left behind by moving objects in the water, known as hydrodynamic trails, that were generated several minutes before, as well as discriminate the size and shape of upstream objects through their wakes. 

However, relatively little is known about the mechanisms of seal whisker sensing. Xue’s research looks at how the unique geometry of seal whiskers responds to different vibrations in the water, including self-induced vibrations in calm water and wake-induced vibrations from other objects at both the single-whisker and whisker-array levels. 

Xue will use a tool known as an immersed-boundary-method based fluid-structure interaction computer model to simulate the vibrations of a single whisker and multiple whiskers in a wide range of parameters. The simulation results will be validated by comparing them to the previously obtained experimental measurements in order to better understand how the whiskers respond to fluid vibrations.

“The acquired knowledge will be transformative by inspiring innovative passive hydrodynamic sensing mechanisms associated with seal whisker geometry. These sensors can be particularly useful for marine robotics to support tools for orientation, navigation, detection and tracking. The immersed boundary method is an advanced numerical method especially designed for simulating complex geometries and moving, deformable boundaries, which is ideal for simulating flow-induced vibrations of complex whisker geomeries,” says Xue.

The research aims to inspire sensing mechanisms based on seal whiskers and contribute to the fundamental understanding of flow-induced vibration properties of bluff and slender bodies like whiskers, which can have applications across engineering fields. 

The research will also be part of an engineering education plan for undergraduate and graduate engineering students, as well as students in grades 3–12, and the general public.

“An exciting aspect of this research is that it provides an excellent opportunity to develop activities that support engineering education at different education levels, in the classroom and in the lab. I plan to create seal whisker sensing related hands-on activities to inspire students in grades 3 through 12 to participate in STEM education, and also develop multidisciplinary educational and research projects for undergraduate and graduate students interested in bio-inspired engineering,” says Xue.

Xue’s $500,000 award will start on March 1, 2022, and is estimated to continue through February 2027. The project is jointly funded by the Fluids Dynamics Program and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). 

This year, UMaine’s Babak Hejrati, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, was also awarded a 2022 NSF CAREER award for his work using robots to aid mobility. 

“The award is an important step for me to establish and advance leadership in the area of bio-inspired engineering, especially for flow-related problems. It’s also very exciting to see multiple NSF CAREER awards in mechanical engineering this year, which will allow us to establish strong multidisciplinary research programs in the department,” says Xue.

Contact: Sam Schipani, samantha.schipani@maine.edu