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USPCAS-E: The power of collaboration realized

December 3, 2019

The U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) project launched in 2015 with a $60 million investment from USAID. It was conceived as a five-year partnership between Arizona State University and two leading Pakistani universities — the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) and the University of Engineering and Technology Peshawar (UET Peshawar) — together with supporting partner Oregon State University.

Its charge: develop innovative solutions to Pakistan’s energy challenges through a host of initiatives, from modernizing curriculum and infrastructure within NUST and UET Peshawar to facilitating enhanced learning opportunities for faculty and students through academic exchange programs and joint research projects at ASU and OSU.

Additionally, the project sought to foster partnerships between public and private energy stakeholders in Pakistan, thereby ensuring that the initiative would continue to yield results long after its conclusion in 2019.  

A story of connections made

The origins of USPCAS-E stretch back to 2010, when representatives from Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission and USAID first began discussing an energy-related education initiative. Over the next four years, risk assessments were done, RFPs were developed, competitive bids were submitted, winners were chosen, and in 2014, the project launched.

In the intervening five years, partnership members have worked tirelessly to establish two centers of learning capable of making significant, long-term contributions to solving Pakistan’s energy challenges. The results of their efforts are nothing short of astounding. 

“In just five years, we have established two credible institutions for energy education in Pakistan, with healthy intakes of students, competent faculty and state-of-the-art facilities,” said NUST Deputy Director Ahmad Saeed. “I believe this is particularly impressive because when we started, NUST’s Center of Energy Systems had no building, only rudimentary labs, and a single master’s program in energy systems engineering, and UET Peshawar had nothing.” 

Curriculum development was a major component in the undertaking, Saeed said. A needs assessment was done, and courses were created based on the country’s greatest challenges. Faculty from ASU, NUST and UET Peshawar worked jointly to develop the curriculum, with help from OSU Professors Kendra Sharp and Brian Fronk. 

ASU faculty also engaged Pakistani energy stakeholders in the process, and faculty from NUST and UET Peshawar were encouraged to query stakeholders as to how the centers could help in solving real-world problems through applied research projects. “These relationships will help the centers continue to move forward after the project ends,” Saeed said. “By working closely with stakeholders, we can identify research projects, cultivate funding sources, and help our graduates find work.” 

A series of goals surpassed

Initial results show the project is working just as the partners had hoped.

“It rarely happens that projects such as these achieve their stated goals, but with the USPCAS-E program, NUST and ASU not only achieved their goals, they overshot them,” Saeed said. For example, he says, NUST was charged with awarding 250 merit-based scholarships but gave more than 300. Its center was challenged to start three new programs but launched seven, and when asked to identify 100 students to participate in the exchange program, NUST tapped 110. 

ASU’s dedication to the project was equally important, Saeed said. “From the outset, ASU faculty and administration were committed not just to do something, but to do something great.” 

The support provided by USAID throughout the five-year project was crucial as well, Saeed said. “Anytime there was a problem, USAID staff was there to help. Their oversight and support throughout the project were exceptional.”

Sayfe Kiaei, USPCAS-E project director at ASU, is also pleased. “Within five years, we have developed 14 new master's and PhD degree programs and more than 150 new courses; graduated more than 300 master’s students, nearly one-third of whom were females or underrepresented minorities; and enrolled more than 1,000 students in degree programs at NUST and UET Peshawar,” he said. 

These impressive gains were realized in part due to the technical expertise and research capabilities available through ASU’s multidisciplinary energy centers, said Kiaei. ASU faculty also brought their expertise to bear on issues of energy policy and governance.

“Here at ASU, we’re working to transform energy systems by tackling issues from research and regulation to strategy, entrepreneurship, policy and pedagogy, and through the USPCAS-E project, we were able to share that knowledge with our partners in Pakistan.”

An experience of learning shared 

ASU Associate Professor Zachary Holman was among those who traveled to Pakistan to lead technical training workshops for faculty, staff and stakeholders. He also hosted exchange scholars in his ASU laboratory. 

“I was perhaps most surprised by what my Pakistani exchange students found valuable,” Holman said. “It turns out that the hands-on learning component of working in my lab was critical. To be trusted to use extremely expensive equipment on their own, anytime, was incredibly important to the students, and quite different from their experiences in Pakistan." 

Empowering the exchange students with intellectual responsibility was another important step, says Holman. In Pakistan, faculty typically remain more distant from students, dispensing wisdom in a one-way relationship, whereas at ASU, faculty and graduate students interacted with the Pakistani exchange students on a first-name basis and expected them to carry their weight on research projects.

“This level of responsibility was new to them and transformative,” Holman said. “Many left with a new attitude: ‘I can do more than I realized, I just need to be trusted and trust myself.’” 

Holman also benefited. The professor gained a new doctoral student — after spending a semester in Holman’s lab, Warda Mushtaq elected to return to ASU to pursue her PhD — and his graduate students and postdocs learned more about themselves.

Warda Mushtaq

Warda Mushtaq, USPCAS-E exchange scholar and graduate, is now pursuing a PhD at ASU. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

“Several members of my lab mentored our exchange students,” he explained. “Some realized they liked teaching, and others discovered it wasn’t their calling. In both cases, they got a better sense of what they’d like to do in their own careers.”

In short, says Holman, the USPCAS-E project was tremendously valuable to everyone involved. “The research relationships that have been formed will persist long after the project is completed,” he said.

A path forward set

“Research is an ongoing effort that links faculty on both ends of the project,” agreed ASU Professor A.M. Kannan, the research component lead and joint research project principal investigator for the initiative. “Sustainability was a major component of this initiative, so we wanted to ensure that we helped NUST and UET Peshawar faculty master the elements of a successful research program.”

For example, says Kannan, Pakistani faculty wanted training in writing a successful research proposal, so ASU held a proposal writing workshop at NUST. ASU also assessed the universities’ research facilities and made recommendations as to the equipment they should procure. And when exchange students came to work in ASU’s labs, faculty members guided them in proper protocols.

“Our students returned with a sense of confidence and a determination to pursue research more aggressively,” Saeed said.

Pakistani exchange scholar Maria Kanwal puts it more bluntly.

“Spending a semester working in the lab of Professor Zachary Holman was life-changing,” she said. “Working with PhD students and postdocs, I learned how research is conducted in a focused environment, helping me become immersed in my work and improving my ability to approach problems in the lab.” 

Now back in Pakistan, Kanwal has permanently altered her plans for the future. She has applied for a scholarship and hopes to begin working on her PhD in a U.S. or European graduate program in September 2020. After completing her doctorate, she plans to return to Pakistan and implement what she has learned.

“My degree won’t just be hanging on my wall,” she said. 

Graduate student Mushtaq is similarly enthusiastic. She, too, spent a semester in the states as an exchange scholar in Professor Holman’s lab and has now returned to complete her PhD under his tutelage.

“The main challenge I faced during my research work in Pakistan was limited availability of resources — I wasn’t even sure I wanted to participate in the exchange program when the opportunity arose — but my experience with the faculty, equipment and lab facilities at ASU helped me to focus and determine next steps,” Mushtaq said.

After completing her doctorate, she plans to return to Pakistan and pursue a faculty position at NUST.

Faculty members in Pakistan have also benefited from the exchange program. Affaq Qamar, an assistant professor under an electrical energy system engineering program at UET Peshawar, spent four and a half months at ASU, conducting a joint research project with ASU Professor Bertan Bakkaloglu, participating in the Technology Entrepreneurship Lab under the guidance of Start-Up Program Faculty Associate Kenneth Mulligan, and bolstering his teaching skills through completion of the Advancing Instructional Methods (AIM) certification program with Professor Peter Rillero.

“I learned how to organize lectures, introduce concepts and more actively engage my students in the learning process.” 

Back in Pakistan, Qamar says, the change in his classroom was profound.

“Before the AIM training, my interactions with students were pretty basic — I asked questions and they answered. But when I began applying the concepts I learned while at ASU, the whole dynamic changed. My students began to participate actively in the learning process, challenging me and gaining confidence in their knowledge.”

And that confidence has translated into higher postgraduate job placements, Qamar said. “Electrical engineers here are going through tough times in terms of job placement, but my students are getting jobs because they know their field and believe in their abilities.” 

A future of endless possibilities

“Through the USPCAS-E program, we’ve given individual students in Pakistan opportunities that they never would have had,” Kiaei said. “We’ve established two centers that deliver state-of-the-art, 21st-century energy education, and as graduates begin their careers, this knowledge will propagate throughout the country.” 

Initiatives within the program have also helped to lay the groundwork to develop hybrid energy sources in Pakistan’s rural areas and decrease the number of regularly scheduled power outages, work that Kiaei is confident will continue.

Faculty and administrators at ASU have profited from the experience as well, says Kiaei. “The USPCAS-E project gave us the opportunity to execute an international project and we learned a lot. Our success underscores the fact that ASU’s outreach is global.” 

Clark Miller, a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and director of ASU’s Center for Energy and Society, served as the USPCAS-E program’s joint research project principal investigator and witnessed firsthand the positive impact of the project on all parties. Miller hosted three Pakistani faculty and 30 students in his lab over the course of the five years, held video conferences with Pakistani faculty every other week throughout the project, and travelled to Pakistan twice. 

The program has allowed structures to be put in place in Pakistan that can drive long-term change in the country’s energy systems, Miller observes. “NUST and UET Peshawar are institutions with durability. Now they have an integrated perspective on energy, together with the knowledge and tools, that will allow them to advance the energy goals of the nation.”

Written by Lori Ferguson

Top photo: Professor Zachary Holman works in the lab with Maria Kanwal as part of the USPCAS-E program. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter

The sounds of science: A quiet home for a powerful laser


December 3, 2019

Descending into the basement of Biodesign Institute Building C, a stillness settles around you. The sounds of skateboards clacking across sidewalks, students hurrying to class, even the chime of the nearby light rail and rush of traffic fade the deeper you go into the copper-plated, five-story building. 

“You can feel it. You can just feel how quiet your feet are,” said Mark Holl. “Theoretically, this is one of the quietest, most vibration-free rooms in the entire Valley.” Biodesign Institute Building C nears completion in February 2018. Its distinctive copper skin shields the building, helping to conserve energy. The structure’s metallic wrap is one sustainable component that helped it attain a LEED platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the fifth ASU building to earn the designation. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

Holl is a key figure behind the engineered stillness of Biodesign C. He’s supervising the assembly of a prototype femtosecond X-ray source, the first phase of Arizona State University’s compact X-ray free electron laser. The CXFEL is a specialized instrument that will enable researchers to peer into molecular processes with incredible clarity. Upon completion, it’s expected to be the first of its kind in the world.

The five existing X-ray free electron lasers boast miles-long footprints and price tags in the billions. ASU’s CXFEL is designed to be compact in both size and cost, while delivering most of the same functions as its larger peers.

The CXFEL will use a linear particle accelerator to propel electron bunches to nearly the speed of light through a series of powerful magnets. These magnets will focus and direct the electrons into a beam that collides with concentrated infrared laser pulses to produce brilliant X-rays. 

These super fast, super bright X-ray pulses will allow researchers to string together snapshots of molecular processes, effectively creating movies of molecules in action. This is expected to accelerate research in fields from medical imaging and molecular biology to materials science and even art history. 

Encased in concrete and sheathed in lead

The specialized capabilities of the CXFEL require a specialized environment. To ensure accuracy and performance, the instrument’s home — the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser Laboratory — allows for precise control of many factors, including vibration, temperature and humidity, dust and electromagnetic interference. 

The Beus CXFEL Laboratory is an oasis of quiet, despite being located within spitting distance of a Valley Metro Light Rail station and the busy intersection of Rural Road and University Drive.

To mitigate the vibrations from passing trains and cars, the most sensitive components of the CXFEL rest on an enormous concrete slab, ranging from four to six feet deep. They are also isolated from other CXFEL equipment support rooms. Within this purpose-built facility, the instrument is being assembled under the direction of Holl, deputy director of the CXFEL project.

Approximately 1,200 cubic yards of concrete make up the slab alone — enough to fill about 5,500 standard bathtubs. It took about 120 trucks around six hours to pour the slab, according to Bryan Kuster, vice president of operations for McCarthy Building Companies Southwest Region, the company that constructed Biodesign C. 

“For safety purposes, we wanted to do it at night when traffic was low,” said Kuster, who served as project director on the building. “We had a truck coming in every five to six minutes on this really tight job site. We actually had someone sitting on our tower crane looking out down Rural Road to alert the team on the ground when another truck was coming in. It was quite a coordinated effort.”

The accelerator vault is also surrounded by 4-foot-thick concrete walls. The front wall, in the direction of the accelerated electrons, also includes four inches of lead and eight inches of steel to fully contain accelerator-generated radiation. The vault is capped by a 4-foot concrete lid and sealed by a 2-foot-thick, 36,000-pound lead-shielded door.

Minimizing magnetism

In addition to containing the energy from the laser, the construction team had to take special care to avoid interference from the magnetic fields in the surrounding building materials. 

“Usually when you build concrete walls, you use structural steel rebar to increase the strength of those walls,” Kuster said. “The challenge here was that rebar gives off magnetism that would have affected the electron beam of CXFEL and therefore its overall operation.”

Options to solve this challenge ranged from using stainless steel rebar to fiberglass to epoxy-coated rebar, all of which proved prohibitively expensive. Ultimately, Kuster bought a gauss meter to test individual pieces of rebar for magnetism, selecting pieces that were suitable for the vault. 

The accelerator vault and supporting laser laboratory, microwave radio frequency transmitter room and experimental hutch also have dedicated mechanical systems to deliver the required tolerances for temperature and humidity. Even the basement’s water, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems and air handlers are separate from the building’s upper floors.

A unifying force

While McCarthy handled the actual construction of the building, BWS Architects and ZGF Architects designed Biodesign C.

“We had some lofty goals, but I think the architecture team found a way to have a very appealing building while remaining very sustainable,” said Monica Perrin, a senior project manager with ASU’s Capital Programs Management Group.

The building recently received a LEED platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the fifth ASU building to earn the designation.

Perrin was involved with Biodesign C from the initial conversations all the way to the official opening of the building. A facet of ASU Facilities Development and Management, CPMG oversees design, renovation and construction of facilities and infrastructure as well as managing contractors and consultants. As soon as Perrin and her team learned about the CXFEL in the design phase of the building, they began to make adjustments to accommodate the instrument.

“We build science labs — as different as they all are — and this one is something completely out of the ordinary,” she said. “Obviously, it was exciting for the entire team to be part of the design and construction of this special lab for these scientists.”

Her team brought in Associate Professor Bill Graves — the physicist who conceived of the CXFEL — and Holl as early as possible to understand the requirements of the laboratory.

“Fortunately for us, Dr. Holl has a background in engineering and I would venture to say he was part of the design team,” Perrin added. “Building this lab without his support and knowledge would have been a real challenge, if not impossible.”

A significant challenge was balancing the three major components of the building: program, aesthetics and maintenance. Program dictates the purpose the building will serve — in Biodesign C’s case, primarily a laboratory. Aesthetics pertains to the actual appearance of the building, and maintenance refers to the cost and considerations of a structure’s upkeep over time. Juggling program with the building’s appearance and maintenance proved difficult, as such a large amount of resources were dedicated to the basement and the Beus CXFEL Laboratory. 

“The instrument in the basement was a unifying force because everybody understood how unique it was,” said Tamara Deuser, associate vice president and chief operating officer of ASU Knowledge Enterprise. Deuser represented Knowledge Enterprise throughout the project.

Both McCarthy and ZGF brought in specialists to work with ASU on the requirements of a building housing a miniaturized high-fidelity X-ray source in its basement. Perrin brought in ASU Environmental Health and Safety to determine the type of testing and certification the Beus CXFEL Laboratory will require.

“That was incredibly challenging because the only model we have are these two-mile-long lasers that are not the same,” Deuser said. “This has never been done before.”

Due to the complexity of the project and the special construction considerations of the CXFEL, McCarthy established an entire quality program dedicated to the lab. The team worked with Holl and Graves, as well as ASU Regents Professor Petra Fromme, to construct a suitable environment for the CXFEL.

“Everything we're doing here is specialized,” Holl said. This includes a massive Faraday cage to house the laser’s microwave radio-frequency equipment.

“In most cases, people build Faraday cages to keep the world and its electromagnetic interference out. Here we do it to keep ours in,” Holl said. 

The equipment, which is powerful enough for use in radar systems, is incredibly “noisy,” electromagnetically speaking. It could disrupt the sensitive signals and equipment in nearby rooms, as well corrupt data lines in Biodesign C’s laboratories. McCarthy brought in a subcontractor to aid in the Faraday cage’s construction and ran through an extensive commissioning process to ensure no energy from the equipment leaked out.

New territory on familiar ground

Though Biodesign C opened more than a year ago, the jewel of the building — the CXFEL — is still taking shape. Currently, Holl’s team of engineers and scientists is assembling the first phase of the project, the compact X-ray light source.

Despite his 12 years at ASU constructing a range of different instruments, Holl says the CXFEL is unlike anything he’s done before. 

“Overall, this is certainly the most complex, most involved project that I've taken on in my career, because it extends in breadth from building architectural conceptual design to detailed design of precision mirror micromanipulators,” said Holl, who’s poured well over 10,000 hours into the design and assembly of the building, instrument and its supporting infrastructure. 

“We didn't get from IKEA a set of instructions and a kit to say how to do this,” he added. “We're inventing the instructions as we translate the concepts, the physics and the modeling into engineering specifications, designs, and then through fabrication, procurement and assembly.”

The very novelty of the instrument was a source of excitement for all involved, however.

“How often do you get to build something of this caliber and design, right? I just remember an overall feeling of, ‘Wow, we're doing something special here,’” Perrin said.

Kuster noted that McCarthy drew from experience building other laboratories, hospitals and health care facilities, but they don’t often find themselves constructing a building to house a never-before-seen instrument. 

“It's never been done before!” he said. “Not only have the researchers never built a laser like this before, but we were figuring out how to deliver the facility that's going to house that laser.”

An ASU alumnus, Kuster never thought he’d find himself in the position of contributing to such a novel project, but relished the opportunity.

“One of the things that I had always wanted to do was build something spectacular on the ASU campus and I was ecstatic when we were selected for the job,” he said. “A lot of folks have a dream of going back to their alma mater and building something special there, but there are not many times you get to build a facility that is going to make a difference in the world, and is also the first of its kind.”

Written by Pete Zrioka