HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - 08 February 12
Kurt Kienast: Rice Intern's Research Improves Welding Technology
Heather L. Ogletree
Friction stir welding is a great example of technology that has been successfully transferred back and forth between NASA and the private sector in order to make the best possible design. In fact, friction stir welding was created by the British in 1991; it came to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MFSC) in 1995 to begin developing space applications. Other applications for friction stir welding include aircraft, aerospace, marine shipbuilding, trucking, and assembling large tank structures such as fuel tanks and radioactive waste containers.
However, in order to stay viable, technologies must be in a constant state of change; it must always be “new and improved.” The most recent upgrade in the works for friction stir technology at MFSC is the development of a device that will rate the relative heat absorption of different fixtures. Last summer, Kurt Kienast traveled to Marshall from Rice University to take part in the initial phases of creating such a device.
As part of the Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP), the senior mechanical engineering student spent 10 weeks in Huntsville, Ala., working under his NASA mentor, Arthur Nunes. Under the supervision of Nunes, he was not only exposed to NASA culture and project management skills, but he was also given the opportunity to apply the knowledge he learned in school to real world problems.
For more information on Kienast’s experiences through USRP — his challenges, what he learned, and his advice to aspiring NASA interns — check out his interview below.
1. What challenges do you feel you have had to overcome to accomplish this internship award?
To accomplish this internship award, I had to work hard at trying to stand out. Luckily my average grades were not the only factor that was looked at for me to get into the internship. My passion for engineering and volunteering both in and out of school with engineering themed projects helped to show my enthusiasm and hard work effort. Some people might say that I had to overcome being a Hispanic and trying to get a position with a great a name as NASA, but I like to think that being a Hispanic always helps my case. It allows me to be multi-lingual and pushes me to work towards positions like a NASA internship, where many underprivileged Hispanics may not have a chance to make their dream come true. I am among those who would like to be an inspiration for others, that way, when they see that I was able to do it, they might get the spark within them to go off and they will strive to achieve what they want.
2. Did you always desire an opportunity to work for NASA?
Ever since I was a small child, I have always wanted to work with NASA. Space has always fascinated me, and as I grew older, my respect for NASA and what they do (not just space exploration, but technologically) has grown with severe fascination. Like almost all other kids, I too wanted to be an astronaut. As I became more educated ...and realized what it took to become an astronaut and what exactly the role was, I pushed myself to try and work for NASA — that way if I couldn’t be an astronaut, I could help astronauts and work with new and interesting technology or help push science forward. It was a dream that I secretly had for myself, that I was not sure if it was ever going to happen: to work for an aerospace leader and giant such as NASA.
3. What have you liked best about your NASA USRP internship?
The best part about my NASA USRP internship has definitely been the people and the experience. Everyone from my mentors, to my co-workers, to the other interns have been excited since the moment I arrived. Their attitude was very welcoming and supportive. The experience of working for NASA and running my own project has also been extremely exciting. The work is great and is interesting and keeps me continuously busy, but the atmosphere and the people help make the experience ten times better.
4. What challenges have you faced thus far in regard to your assigned project?
The biggest challenge with my assigned project was trying to find out if the project was even going to be successful. The project required me to try and find out the heat loss in a welded piece of metal, and make a device that could rate the heat loss as a value of how much power needed to be input to make up for the lost heat.
The problem was trying to get a device to measure the heat transfer in a sheet of metal since the heat flow doesn’t cooperate the way you would like it to. The device was meant to be handheld, but in doing so, you lose the chance of getting a holistic picture of the heat flow in the metal, and then it becomes difficult to say where the heat is being transferred to. My goal was to try and see how much heat was being transferred into the clamps and supports that were holding down the work piece, but without knowing where the heat was traveling (i.e. it could have been going into the clamps, or just further down the sheet of metal), the device began to look like a difficult task for 10 weeks. I ran into other hurdles, including trying to find out whether thermal contact resistance would be a factor for a handheld device, and that too made the device look like a difficult project. In the end, the project still moved forward, but it became more of an analysis to see if a device would be feasible.
5. What are you most passionate about in regard to your project? What did you learn?
In my project, I am most passionate about the thermal contact resistance aspect. There was not too much information on that topic, and it became a sort of trial and error system, but I was able to explore an area that I did not have too much previous knowledge about. It allowed me to experiment and kind of have an open approach to it. I learned that the roughness of the surfaces plays a significant role in transferring heat, and that on a small scale (like for a handheld device) the heat transfer due to thermal contact resistance is more substantial than one might think. It does affect the system and becomes a factor in trying to measure heat loss.
6. What was the most interesting thing about your project? What is the impact of your project?
The most interesting thing about my project would have to be taking the theory behind the heat transfer and matching it up with the experimental data. It took several tries to understand what exactly was happening with the heat transfer (many discussions between my mentor and myself lead to a close approximation). It showed the process of theoretical thinking and the application of the equations that you learn in school. It also taught me that when working theoretically, you should always double check that you understand where everything comes from. Having to restart the theoretical process a couple times to get a better picture of the heat transfer let me see that there are always things that you can miss, and just because you think you understand something the first time, you should not be surprised if it doesn’t turn out the way you would like it to. Sometimes going back to the drawing board and getting a fresh perspective can clear things up.
My project will help to advance technology in the world of friction stir welding, a fairly young and up-and-coming style of welding. With my work, hopefully a device will be able to become feasible at some point in the future. And, from this device, the process of welding could become more efficient and make welds safer and easier. But in the short run, my project will help to understand the basic theory behind friction stir welding.
7. What are your career goals after graduation?
After I graduate, I would like to find a mechanical engineering job. As to what type of job, I’m not 100% sure, but aerospace seems like an interesting and exciting field. I would like the job to be challenging and push me to become a better engineer and person. I would also eventually like to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I want to further my knowledge in the discipline that has captivated my mind and given me so much joy and excitement.
8. What words of advice do you have for future interns?
Make the most of every moment. It is important to focus on your work and learn from the internship, but it is also important to talk to people that you work with and see what they have to tell you. You can learn just as much from the people that you encounter as you can learn from your research topic. You can also meet people that you may never have had the chance of meeting or experiencing something that you may not have experienced at any other time. Like someone told me, if you sit at your desk the whole day, you will get your work done, but that is only one part of the internship experience. Take a little time every now and then to explore and go somewhere you have not been. You never know what it might lead to in terms or friends, networking, or even help on your project.