WHEN IT COMES TO DEVICES OR SYSTEMS, people rarely pay any thought to why they work the way they do. They are operated by control systems, which can be as simple as a thermostat controlling a room’s temperature or as complex as control and monitoring units in a large industrial manufacturing plant or oil and gas refinery.
Put simply, control systems are the brains behind the operation.
These systems collect data from sensors connected to communication networks and then respond to that data by empowering actuators, like valves and pumps that regulate liquid levels in tanks. They also allow human operators to observe the operation and intervene when necessary.
Developing such control systems is a research focus for Assistant Professor and UBC Okanagan Principal’s Research Chair Ahmad Al-Dabbagh. As lead of the Okanagan Laboratory for Control Systems Research, Al-Dabbagh focuses on leading research and development activities related to control systems, including those that are distributed geographically and use communication networks to exchange data.
Al-Dabbagh is a licensed professional engineer in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. Before returning to academia to pursue his doctoral research, he worked in industry for several years designing, developing and commissioning solutions mainly for control systems in manufacturing and energy applications. After completing his PhD — followed by a few months of postdoctoral research at the University of Alberta in 2018 — Al-Dabbagh continued his academic journey. He held an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto and was a sponsored researcher at Imperial College London before joining UBCO’s School of Engineering in 2020.
In today’s modern world, industrial facilities like manufacturing plants and oil and gas refineries have many interconnected devices and systems that are distributed and use communication networks. And those are only as powerful as their control systems.
“Control systems collect lots of data, and delving into that data is very fascinating,” says Al-Dabbagh. “It provides so much information on how devices and systems function the way they do.”
By analyzing the data, Al-Dabbagh is able to investigate and develop strategic recommendations to improve the operation of devices and systems. He also studies different methodologies to control, monitor and automate the operation.
“Sometimes improvements are quite straightforward, but in other cases, advanced techniques have to be explored and applied to reach the desired outcome,” Al-Dabbagh explains, adding that his team applies and develops solutions using control theory, data mining, machine learning and optimization.
Al-Dabbagh believes the possibilities are truly limitless when considering future applications and developments of control systems. “Research related to control systems is leading to another industrial revolution, and I can’t wait to uncover where we go from here.”
CONNECTING NUMBERS, EQUATIONS AND PACKETS OF INFORMATION is the basis of wireless communications — and it’s an area Dr. Julian Cheng thrives in. As a professor and program chair for electrical engineering at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering, Dr. Cheng ranks among the top two per cent of most-cited networking and telecommunications researchers (according to the 2020 standardized citation indicators report from Stanford University).
“We live in a very exciting time where communication continues to take different forms,” explains Dr. Cheng, who was recognized as UBC Okanagan’s 2021 Researcher of the Year (NSERC category). “At the root of my research is wireless communications which continue to transition from traditional radio signals to optical signals and beyond.”
Dr. Cheng leads the NSERC-/Canada Foundation for Innovation-funded Optical Wireless Communications Laboratory, where he and his team undertake fundamental and experimental research on optical wireless communication and traditional wireless theory.
“We’re always on the lookout for innovations to allow more databytes, or simply more information, to accommodate more users,” says Dr. Cheng. “That’s why we’re now investigating using deep learning techniques for designing massive multiple-input-multiple-output millimeter-wave systems and large-scale intelligent reflecting surface-aided communication systems.”
As he talks, Dr. Cheng’s cellphone buzzes and he turns his attention to the small screen. It’s an email from a prospective student in China. “We often take communications for granted, but as a researcher, we’re looking for new ways to make communication more effective and efficient by asking a simple question: is there another way?”
Dr. Cheng’s other research interests include advanced multiple access techniques for wireless communications, quantum communication, blockchain technology for Internet of things applications, joint sensing and communication, and optical wireless communications.
With collaborators around the world, Dr. Cheng has become a highly sought-after speaker on wireless optical technology and is the area editor for IEEE Transactions on Communications, a prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) telecommunications journal.
“We’re very fortunate at UBC to be considered one of the leading telecommunication research institutions in the world,” he explains. According to the 2020 subject rankings by the Academic Ranking of World Universities, UBC’s telecommunication program is number one in North America and number eight in the world.
Dr. Cheng is also heavily invested in his students; since joining UBCO, he has successfully trained eight doctoral students as principal supervisor and nearly 30 master’s students. The vast majority of his journal and conference publications are first-authored by his students.
“My students are phenomenal, and inspire me to continue to push the limits on what we think is possible,” says Dr. Cheng. Case in point: several years ago, Dr. Cheng and one of his students solved a mathematical challenge that had stumped researchers for more than 70 years.
As for the wireless communication Dr. Cheng is fascinated with, perhaps Guglielmo Marconi — the inventor of the wireless telegraph — said it best: “It is very dangerous to put limits on wireless communications.” Today, those limits continue to be stretched by researchers like Dr. Cheng.
“There is no doubt in my mind that future applications will be beyond our current imagination,” explains Dr. Cheng.
INSIDE THE ADVANCED MATERIALS FOR ENERGY STORAGE (AMES) LAB at UBC’s Okanagan campus, Dr. Jian Liu oversees a research group working towards developing the next generation of batteries.
“Batteries are everywhere in our lives — from our electronics to electric vehicles — but oddly not many people understand how they work,” explains Dr. Liu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the School of Engineering and a Principal’s Research Chair (PRC) in Energy Storage Technology.
In his role as PRC, Dr. Liu is collaborating with some of the leading global manufacturers in the battery sector to design solutions that will play an essential role in the adoption of renewable energy, deployment of electric vehicles, decarbonization of the North American economy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
In order for a battery to work, it needs to store chemical energy and convert it into electrical energy. The process involves an electrochemical reaction that transfers electrons from one electrode to the other through an external circuit, while ions move inside the battery.
Rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are the most popular batteries on the market; around since the late 20th century and first commercially available in 1991, Li-ion batteries have a high energy density, meaning they can hold a substantial level of charge despite high power demands from electronic devices.
Dr. Liu and his team are focusing their research on three core areas: atomic/molecular layer deposition, surface/interface in energy systems, and electrode and electrolyte materials beyond Li-ion batteries.
“In order to innovate energy storage solutions, we need to investigate how different substances interact with one another,” Dr. Liu explains. “The ultimate goal is to create smaller and more powerful batteries.” Dr. Liu believes these innovations will accelerate the deployment of renewable energy technologies in different sectors and contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
At the AMES Lab, Dr. Liu and his team are assembling Li-ion and sodium-ion (Na-ion) batteries for further testing. They’re looking for alternatives to lithium, which has been a go-to option but is a diminishing resource with rising costs. As a result, the researchers are turning their attention to other minerals such as zinc and sodium to serve as alternatives to lithium.
Those results are also leading Dr. Liu to investigate 3D solid-state microbatteries that offer onboard energy storage for wearable devices, medical implants and flexible devices because they provide high energy and power density in a limited space.
Quantum physics is empowering many of the latest innovations in batteries, and Dr. Liu continues to push the envelope. “There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling in terms of where we can take batteries in the future.”