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BYU Professor Receives Award and Funding for an Unexplored Area of Research

After a decade of researching an area untouched by engineering, Mechanical Engineering Professor Douglas Cook applied for and received funding from the NSF CAREER award in 2021.

The world’s leading grain crop: Zea mays. Many know it as maize or corn. As the grain travels from fields to family homes each year, it brings in billions of dollars to farmers, distributors, and others involved in the industry. However, not all corn gets carried away from its farm. According to BYU Mechanical Engineering Professor Douglas Cook, farmers lose around 5 percent of the corn to stalk collapse, resulting in a value decrease. If this failure rate was positively adjusted by 10 percent alone, it could increase the annual value by 400 million dollars. So, for the past decade, Cook has focused on making improvements to the grain’s stalk.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree for Mechanical Engineering at Utah State, Cook pursued his Masters and a PhD at Purdue University. While living in Indiana, Cook met a plant breeder who focused on making popcorn pop. The two examined the process of popping and the lack of experts investigating that element of the kernel. Eventually, they set their discussion aside and went their separate ways as Cook graduated and became a professor at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

Later, the plant breeder contacted Cook again. He no longer worked in the popcorn industry. Instead, he had taken a new job and inherited a project regarding collapsing corn stalks. It wasn’t going well. “Can you help?” Cook recalled him saying.

The above illustration shows a diagram of a corn stalk.

Cook thought that surely someone had already studied that problem. However, he offered to search for the information the breeder could not find. A couple months later, he still had not found anything, and it dawned on him: no one had researched this.

Immediately, Cook discarded his human biomechanics research and began plant biomechanics research. “There was so much opportunity for engineers to help, and they didn’t have that expertise,” Cook said.

For many years, Cook grew his knowledge about corn and its stalks, involving NYUAD students in the research and testing. They built a device that allowed researchers to grow corn in the fields and collect data more quickly and directly. As they acquired stalk strength measurements, along with other architectural information, Cook learned valuable information. Failures in the stalks almost always happen at the “knuckles,” the joining part between stalk sections–also known as nodes. Because the area between nodes is slim and the stalk before the knuckles is thicker, structural stresses can rise rapidly, resulting in the stalks buckling.

Eventually, in 2018, Cook transitioned his work to BYU. He continued to investigate the stalks with students and search for a breeding solution. His team tries to solve these two questions. First: What can they change to improve the stalk without it costing more to grow? Second: What tool can keep up with this rapid change in stalk and help others analyze its progress?

To find the answers, the team had used around a thousand CAT scans of corn stalk segments that they entered into their software. The team would then run the stalks under different loading cases, to see what weight they can hold. While doing this, the team identified an issue with this research method. They could not change the stem model's shape in any way, and this limited the amount of data and insights they could receive.

The team addressed this problem by creating their own synthetic corn stalk models, ones that allowed them to mold and adjust the shape of the stalks. Because the synthetic corn stalks can be manipulated, but still mimic real corn stalks, the team can use them for optimization studies or parameter sensitivity analysis, which informs them of the most important features in the stalk. Mechanical Engineering graduate student Michael Ottesen has helped develop that model. “It’s been a long process…” Ottesen said, “but we’re finally moving and now we can get some useful information from it.”

Periodically, Cook and his team travel to cornfields and gather direct information for their research.

For the next step in their research, the team needs to conduct breeding experiments, which can be lengthy and expensive. Cook recently applied to receive a grant from the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. Last year, he received the award and over $600k in funding, encouraging him and his team to continue their progress.
Cook recognizes that the BYU mentorship program has impacted his research and opened up opportunities for funding, as professors support and help each other progress. Over 30 percent of all CAREER awards that have come to BYU have gone to the Mechanical Engineering department because of this. Cook plans on using this funding to move the research from the lab and into the real world, where the agriculture industry can use it to make a difference.