Virginia Tech students listen to researchers presenting on research to do with jet engines.
Virginia Tech students Tamara Guimarães Bucalo, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering, and Vy Nguyen, a master's candidate in mechanical engineering, listen to other researchers present their work on different research focuses related to jet engines. Bucalo and Nguyen contribute to the advanced systems diagnostics research focus area.

Rolls-Royce is more than just automobiles.

That’s the message being spread by Joseph Krok, the university research liaison manager at Rolls-Royce. The company has, in recent years, turned its focus to aviation — specifically, aircraft engines.

“As you can imagine, gas turbine engines are incredibly complex and highly technical,” said Krok, who acts as a connector between the London-based company and universities across the globe. “Because of that, we put a great deal of investment into our research and development of our products.”

A large portion of that research and development is based at universities, which are designated as official global Rolls-Royce University Technology Centers once they reach a level of “critical nature” to the company, Krok said.

Following decades of previous collaboration, Virginia Tech was so designated in 2014.

Virginia Tech is one of 31 University Technology Centers across the globe — three of which are based in the U.S., including the University of Virginia and Purdue University. Out of all 31 centers, Virginia Tech is the only one capable of testing measurement capability.

“Our specialty is in making in flight measurements of engine performance to improve fuel efficiency and understand the health of the Rolls-Royce turbo jet engines. We also develop new measurement techniques that allow future engine systems to be more efficient, clean, and quiet,” said Jack Lesko, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, who worked closely with Krok to establish the partnership. “We also engage with Rolls-Royce in other areas of research, including manufacturing, marine, and electrical power systems.”

All three American universities came together to the first-ever U.S.-based Ph.D. Day at Rolls-Royce’s Indianapolis, Indiana, campus.

“We felt like there was a need to develop a deeper engagement with some of our research students that are doing the work for us and could potentially come join us at some point,” Krok said.

After taking a tour of Plant 8, a 700,000-square-foot rotatives manufacturing plant located minutes away from Rolls-Royce’s downtown office building, students returned to campus for presentations and a poster session.

Eight researchers from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering attended, sharing their contributions to the advanced systems diagnostics research focus area.

As Virginia Tech researchers, Andrew Boulanger and Vy Nguyen — a Ph.D. candidate and master’s student in mechanical engineering, respectively — presented their poster, met another student doing tangential work, and shared insights.

Boulanger and Nguyen study the effects of sand on jet engines. The Purdue University student presenting his research alongside them was studying what sand ingestion does to a jet engine from a materials perspective.

“That was a little different: I’m looking at, ‘will the engine survive?’ He’s looking at, ‘well, what is it doing on a very small microscopic level?’” Boulanger said.

Christina DiMarino, a Virginia Tech doctoral student in electrical engineering who also attended Ph.D. Day, knows the importance of these interactions. A frequent traveler, the former Rolls-Royce fellow attends several conferences a year for her work at the Center for Power Electronics Systems. She has also conducted research abroad at the University of Nottingham through the College of Engineering’s International Research Experience for Students.

DiMarino largely credits travel with connecting her to future collaborators and improved final research products.

“It’s opened up a lot of doors for me,” DiMarino said.

The feeling is equally as rewarding for Rolls-Royce, whose contributions to Virginia Tech include establishing an Advanced Power Propulsion Lab in Blacksburg and hanging a Trent 1000 engine in Goodwin Hall.

“To get to see the professor and students and to collaborate — it’s a great feeling,” Krok said. “It’s a good place to be.”

Written by Erica Corder