Nature and industry may have more in common than we think. Dr. Astrid Layton, assistant professor in the J. Mike Walker '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering, is taking concepts from food webs and applying them to power grids to find ways to help the systems run more efficiently.
Steve Kuhlmann: 0:00
Power grids aren't something we often think about, but they play a major role in our lives. As we seek to improve their efficiency, what if we look to nature for inspiration? Welcome to Engineer This. Howdy. Thanks for joining us. This is SoundBytes. And I'm Steve Kuhlmann. With me, as always is my co-host, Hannah Conrad.
Hannah Conrad: 0:30
Steve Kuhlmann: 0:32
And we're joined this episode by Dr. Astrid Layton, an assistant professor in the J. Mike Walker, '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering, who's bringing her interest in bio-inspired design to the project, seeking to find new ways to improve our large scale energy systems.
Dr. Layton: 0:50
Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Steve Kuhlmann: 0:51
Yeah, We're glad to have you here today, so we just wanted to start off and hear what got you interested in bio-inspired design?
Dr. Layton: 1:01
Bio-inspired design. It was somewhat luck, for sure. Growing up, I've always been really interested in studio arts and more of a creative person. But I was also good at math and science. So that's what kind of led me to engineering. When I got to grad school, I was looking for a project, ideally that would let me be a bit creative. But at the end of the day, I picked the advisor that I thought I would work the best with. He happened to have a project on bio-inspired design. And yeah, it was a perfect fit at the end of the day. So yeah, I definitely think I got lucky.
Steve Kuhlmann: 0:00
Hannah Conrad: 1:30
Luck's always nice.
Dr. Layton: 0:00
Steve Kuhlmann: 1:34
Real quick, before we get to into the research, for those of us who haven't thought about food webs in, you know, a few years, maybe since high school.
Dr. Layton: 1:43
Steve Kuhlmann: 1:43
Can we just kind of define what those are?
Dr. Layton: 1:46
Yeah, for sure. And fair enough. I have not taken a biology class since freshman year of high school. That's totally understandable. So if you'd take an ecosystem. An ecosystem is a complex network of different species in nature. And if you just focus on the predator prey interactions going on in that ecosystem, so essentially the species A eats species B, that's a predator prey interaction. So the consumer is the predator, and the producer is the prey to make a sort of industry versus ecology analogy. A food web is a model of that very complex ecosystem where you're just highlighting those predator prey interactions. Each species in your food web becomes a dot or node, and then the interactions between those dots or notes between those species become arrows essentially. So the arrow starts at the producer, right, or the prey. And it goes towards the predator, the consumer. And then you get this really nice picture of all these dots and arrows going, going everywhere. And, uh, yeah, that's, that's your food web.
Steve Kuhlmann: 2:45
Hannah Conrad: 2:45
So it's like a living network.
Dr. Layton: 2:48
Yeah, yeah, for sure. It's a good way to think about it.
Hannah Conrad: 2:51
When I think about power grids, the first thing that does not come to my mind is food webs.
Dr. Layton: 2:57
Hannah Conrad: 2:57
So how does your research bring them together?
Dr. Layton: 3:00
Power grids are also a giant network that's complex, made up of different components, where you are exchanging materials or energy between the components and sort of transforming it. Right. The analogy seems a good fit. And I and I got lucky meeting Katherine Davis in electrical engineering here who worked on power grids. And we started chatting, and it turns out we're both interested in this idea of resilience for power grids. And, you know, I really wanted to try establishing a way of applying the bio-inspired design. And she had all this expertise in power grids and traditional ways of dealing with power grid. So it was a great fit.
Steve Kuhlmann: 3:38
Yeah, that sounds like a perfect fit.
Dr. Layton: 3:40
Yeah, it's been super fun. So it's nice that we work well together, too.
Hannah Conrad: 3:43
Steve Kuhlmann: 3:44
How did you go about taking those concepts and applying them to the power grid?
Dr. Layton: 3:49
First, we really had to think about how power grids are viewed and what the important functional characteristics of a power grid are. Right. What are the important components? What are they doing? What is the goal of the power grid? Right. So you know, when you define a food web in ecology, you're really thinking about sort of combining together species based on their functional role for that network, right? What, what do they perform for the network? And so there is will be some combining or aggregating of species together. So, you know, we wanted to make sure that we were applying this analogy from a very realistic place. So we really considered You know how ecologists think about creating these food ups and make sure we were asking the same questions when we look to the power grid. So, you know, sitting down and talking a lot of talking, you know, a lot of explaining on both ends. So, you know, getting the power grid stuff explained in detail to me. And then me explaining the food web stuff.
Steve Kuhlmann: 4:45
Dr. Layton: 4:45
Yeah, and, you know, we narrowed it down to a type of model that was physically realistic, right. So it still kept the important physics and the equations. And make sure, you know, everything was balanced in the power grid and those equations were all satisfied and the constraints and assumptions were all correct on the power grid side. But it still was able to fit the food web model that we needed in order to calculate the metrics that ecologists used to study these food webs.
Hannah Conrad: 5:13
We've talked a little bit about overlaying food webs to power grids. How's that different from how power grids are right now.
Dr. Layton: 5:21
So power grids right now are extremely linear, and this happens a lot with engineer networks or human engineer networks, very linear. So essentially, you look at the start of your material or energy that's flowing through the system, and you follow it through and you're, you're essentially going through a straight line, right? You passed the series of nodes along the way or series of actors along the way. Each one does something to what's flowing, and then it sort of ends at the end with the consumer or the landfill or whatever it is ready at that end point. But you never see the material energy that's flowing cycle back to an earlier point,
Steve Kuhlmann: 5:57
Dr. Layton: 5:58
Or cycle back to an earlier, a different point, that then sends something to an earlier point. Right. And this is that idea of, like, a cycle that I was talking about earlier. So you have material or energy cycling through the system. And this is such a key component of so many aspects of food webs, of these ecosystems that we see and, you know, a lot of them are still being discovered by ecologists. Right. So this is an area that ecologists are working on as well, the importance of this cyclic structure and you know. One of the terms you can you can find if you want to look up more about it, Is the Brown food web. Yeah, the Brown food web.
Steve Kuhlmann: 6:34
Dr. Layton: 6:35
Um, and this is the essentially recyclers of the biosphere is one way you can think about it. So these are like earthworms or fungi? These decomposers. So they take dead organic material and break it down in such a way that the rest of the actors in the ecosystem can use it again. So it's really dealing with energy, right and the idea is you increase the efficiency or how well this system works by doing things to the system, adding components so that the amount of work you get out starts getting larger and larger compared to the amount of energy that put in which kind of makes sense, right? You want to get something out for what you put in, so you're really using what you have already to the best of your ability.
Hannah Conrad: 7:14
You mentioned previously the resiliency of electrical power grids. How does your work help boost the resiliency?
Dr. Layton: 7:22
So that is the big question, right? That's, that's what's driving our research is resilience for power grids is kind of a hot topic. We are seeing more and more of these natural disasters and really resilience for all types of systems, right? If you think about, you know, we're pretty close to Houston here. We just had a Hurricane Harvey in the not too distant past. So you know, I think resilience of systems is something that people can identify very strongly with and can understand why it's important. And resilience is, really, you know, considering the initial drop in performance that happens when you have a disturbance occurr to the system. And this is for any system, not just power grids, and then it also considers how long it takes to recover right. And what's interesting is for the ecology side of things. For food webs, food, webs or ecosystems don't necessarily have to recover to their initial state. They can recover to alternate, also stable states. For power grids, it's really come, resilience is thinking about who are your consumers, and are they getting the power they need to meet their needs, to to meet their basic functions. And you know there's some thoughts about different types of actors or different types of consumers in a power grid. Some might be more important than others, more, more critical. That's like a hospital or a first responder center.
Steve Kuhlmann: 8:41
Dr. Layton: 8:41
So these might be more critical to getting power back to them faster. So, you know, we're looking into how do we consider this different type of importance for different consumers in the grid? We're looking to see if we redesign these power grids to better mimic how food webs are structured, right? So what type of interactions you see, the balance between prey and predator. Food webs have a lot of these cyclical patterns that happen, right, So essentially you can start at one species, and you follow the arrows and you wind back up at that same species if you just follow the arrows around. So this represents the energy sort of remaining in the system or the materials remaining in the system for as long as possible. So really being able to maximize the use of what you already have inside the system. So, you know, we're looking for different types of interactions and structures and patterns like this, trying to incorporate it into a power grid, making sure we still meet the consumer needs. And we still consider like the generators creating the power, what they're capable of doing, and we make sure we're not exceeding limits put on the power lines, things like that. And then we run scenarios. They're pretty basic at this stage. But we run scenarios where you know, ah, a power line goes out or a transformer goes out, one of the nodes in the food web slash power grid. And, uh, yes, see are we still able to meet the needs of the consumers? And if we're not, how long does it take to recover? All our initial work has shown so far that you know there's something to this. That there's something to the way these natural systems are structured and the way they function, that, that seems to lend itself really well to having a higher resilience.
Hannah Conrad: 10:21
A lot to do with infrastructure.
Dr. Layton: 10:22
Yeah, a lot of infrastructure problems Communication networks has been on my radar. It's starting to get exciting, So we're trying to branch out and see what else we can think about.
Hannah Conrad: 10:33
What's been the most exciting thing for you.
Dr. Layton: 10:36
Success so far. I mean, every research project you start out with an idea or like an inkling, and you're not quite sure if it's gonna work. So especially if it's been something you've been thinking about for a while, it's always really exciting when the initial results come back showing that there's something there. And maybe you were on the right track. That and, you know, really establishing this collaboration with Kate Davis in electrical engineering. That's been a lot of fun as well.
Jennifer Reiley: 11:05
Howdy. It's your producer, Jenn Reiley here, and I'm just stepping in to share a fun fact about Dr. Layton. So, as she mentioned earlier, she had not taken a biology course since freshman year of high school, and during her undergraduate, she actually avoided taking biology classes as much as possible. However, during graduate school, she started working on bio-inspired design and found that she had to pick up an ecology textbook and actually learn the terminology. And she told us that she found the experience to be actually really fun. After hearing that I thought that that would just be a fun reminder to not be afraid to step outside of your research comfort zone because you never know what you might find. Don't let me keep you. Let's get back to Dr. Layton.
Steve Kuhlmann: 11:46
Well it's not often that you have two female faculty members who get to lead a project like this either.
Dr. Layton: 11:52
You know, I did not even consider that until pretty recently. I was working on a National Science Foundation proposal. And, you know, they always ask questions about, you know, addressing underrepresented minority students, things like this. And I was like, "Huh, You know, like, we're actually both females in departments that have, you know, not that many female professors." So that's pretty cool.
Steve Kuhlmann: 12:12
Could you have ever imagined when you were just starting out working on a project like this that, you know, really could have very real impacts on the average person one day?
Dr. Layton: 12:25
So it's funny, and I wish I could tell, go back and tell myself this when I first started is when you leave grad school and you start an academic position as an assistant professor, there's a lot of pressure, not even pressure. But you're given a lot of advice from a lot of different people, and it's all coming from good places and based on their own experiences. But there's a lot of reminder that you need to branch out and kind of establish yourself a little bit different. Right doesn't have to be a giant step, but it needs to be a little different than what you were doing in grad school. And that's really scary in the beginning, because all you know is what you did in grad school. That's your skill set. That's your baby, right? Your Ph.D. thesis is your baby. I wish I could go back and tell myself that it'll work out. You just keep trying like incremental little new things, and it slowly builds up and you meet the right people and stuff kind of comes together on its own.
Steve Kuhlmann: 13:15
What's it been like getting to include students in projects like this?
Dr. Layton: 13:20
It's been really fun. It's, you know, the moment that they're finally able to start putting things together, and they come to my office with an idea of their own, is so exciting, you know, because in the beginning, I think especially being mechanical engineers, we give them a problem that deals with ecology. And I give them a, you know, a list of ecology papers to read from the literature, and some of these are extremely technical, right, Like again, you know, I am to spend a lot of time in grad school looking up basic terminology. I actually had like a list next to my computer of terms and their definitions for easy look up.
Steve Kuhlmann: 13:57
Dr. Layton: 13:57
So you know, it can be pretty overwhelming in the beginning. Pretty daunting because you're doing this at the same time that you're learning everything else is a new student introduced to research. But yeah, the first time that they're starting to, you can see their brain is starting to put things together and has, you know, they read enough stuff where they can start combining ideas and combining the new stuff with what they already know. It's, it's really fun to see. I really enjoy it.
Steve Kuhlmann: 14:21
With more and more people getting like solar panels on their home and different kind of energy generators. How would that tie into this kind of system that you're talking about?
Dr. Layton: 14:33
So that's really cool that you ask that because we went to a conference recently, we presented some work that was looking at exactly that and what we found was putting solar panels on your home. You're, you're now a consumer that's also a producer.
Steve Kuhlmann: 14:46
Dr. Layton: 14:47
Right. So you are producing energy and you're using it when you can, right? And when you can't use it, you're selling it back to the grid and if you for some reason, it's a cloudy day or it's raining, something like that, and you don't produce enough, you can still buy stuff from the grid. So it does exactly what we want, right? It creates a cycle, right just by the consumer producing something, you're now allowing the consumer to send back to the system and produce more of a cyclic structure like what we see in nature.
Steve Kuhlmann: 15:16
That's really cool.
Dr. Layton: 15:17
So, yes, we studied this again from the perspective of if this if we pretend like this power grid is a food web, we analyze it as if we were ecologists studying food webs. When you have these consumers with some sort of capability of generating their own energy, whether it's, you know, a wind turbine or solar panel, right? I think solar panels are probably a little more well known and common for homes. You start to see this cyclic structure increasing in the system, and it helps overall.
Hannah Conrad: 15:46
Where where do you go from here?
Dr. Layton: 15:48
That's top secret information. No. The power grid stuff has been really interesting so far, so we're pushing forward with that. We want to start asking harder questions, right? So initially with this project, we asked pretty basic questions of ourselves and then did some pretty basic analyses to see if it works. Right. So you start simple. You try to start on a level where you can kind of fact check yourself or double check your numbers by hand, where if something goes wrong, you can pick it up visually. Even as that starts working better and better and you start seeing success there, you start asking more difficult questions, which require a more difficult model or a more difficult method. And, you know, the networks start getting bigger and bigger, so the problem starts getting harder. So, you know, we're pushing in that direction, right? Looking at more complex networks, looking at more complex disturbance scenarios. What's fun about being a professor, I'm realizing, is you have great students and they come to you with ideas. So, you know, I'm always kind of listening to what my students have to say. Ideas that they have as well
Steve Kuhlmann: 16:48
Dr. Layton: 16:48
to help guide our research because for them this is new. They haven't been thinking about it forever, so they've got some cool ideas just from approaching it with a different perspective. They've got different background than I have, so all that is, is a lot of fun.
Steve Kuhlmann: 17:01
Fresh sets of eyes.
Dr. Layton: 17:01
Yeah, it's it's totally true. It helps a lot.
Hannah Conrad: 17:05
It's like they're the prosumers as well.
Steve Kuhlmann: 17:07
Dr. Layton: 17:07
Steve Kuhlmann: 17:08
I imagine that y'all aren't the only ones who are doing some work looking at this kind of distributed power grid. What sets y'all's research apart from some of the others who might be looking at kind of similar research?
Dr. Layton: 17:24
From what I've noticed, a lot of the people working on power grids specifically for resilience. It requires very complex models. It requires a very detailed representation of the disturbance that you're interested in. So it's a very complex problem. And what this food web model allows us to do is we can take a couple steps back and look at it from a more basic perspective, which gives us some flexibility in, you know, not having to deal with the little bits and pieces that kind of clog up what you're looking at and slow things down. I'm considered one of the design faculty in our mechanical engineering department, and as a design person, you're, part of your interest is always how do we design things better. So, you know, really part of what I'm learning about from applying the stuff to power grids is just how do we design human systems better? And, you know, potentially producing a tool that designers could use at an earlier stage in the design process is, is really exciting to maybe have some impact there.
Hannah Conrad: 18:28
If you could pull just one key takeaway from everything you've done, what would it be?
Dr. Layton: 18:35
One key takeaway from everything I've done? Uh, I don't know. I guess talk to people and keep an open mind and listen to what they have to say and be willing to work with other people and share your ideas. I think I hear a lot of rumors that sometimes people are nervous to share ideas because they don't want something stolen or, you know, someone else to scoop them. I guess you got to trust people at some level and share those ideas and see if they can contribute in some way. And if they're excited about it like you, then you guys can work together and cool stuff happens when you work with other people.
Hannah Conrad: 19:13
We communicate Steve.
Dr. Layton: 19:16
Your job is communicating so I'm sure I don't have to tell you.
Steve Kuhlmann: 19:21
Well, Dr. Layton, thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Layton: 19:24
Yeah. No problem. It was a blast. Thanks for having me.
Hannah Conrad: 19:27
Okay, guys, Thanks for tuning in. Bye.
Steve Kuhlmann: 19:34
Thanks for tuning in. Reach out to us at any time at email@example.com. That's bytes with a Y. Please note. The views and opinions expressed are those of the guests and hosts and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or position of the Texas A&M University System.