Mechanical Engineering

220 S. W. Mudd, MC 4703
Phone: 212-854-0661

Mechanical engineering is a diverse subject that derives its breadth from the need to design and manufacture everything from small individual parts/devices (e.g., microscale sensors, inkjet printer nozzles) to large systems (e.g., spacecraft and machine tools). The role of a mechanical engineer is to take a product from an idea to the marketplace. In order to accomplish this, a broad range of skills are needed. The particular skills in which the mechanical engineer acquires deeper knowledge are the ability to understand the forces and the thermal environment that a product, its parts, or its subsystems will encounter; design them for functionality, aesthetics, and the ability to withstand the forces and the thermal environment they will be subjected to; determine the best way to manufacture them and ensure they will operate without failure. Perhaps the one skill that is the mechanical engineer’s exclusive domain is the ability to analyze and design objects and systems with motion.

Since these skills are required for virtually everything that is made, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest and most diverse of engineering disciplines. Hence mechanical engineers play a central role in such industries as automotive (from the car chassis to its every subsystem— engine, transmission, sensors); aerospace (airplanes, aircraft engines, control systems for airplanes and spacecraft); biotechnology (implants, prosthetic devices, fluidic systems for pharmaceutical industries); computers and electronics (disk drives, printers, cooling systems, semiconductor tools); microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS (sensors, actuators, micropower generation); energy conversion (gas turbines, wind turbines, solar energy, fuel cells); environmental control (HVAC, air-conditioning, refrigeration, compressors); automation (robots, data/image acquisition, recognition, and control); manufacturing (machining, machine tools, prototyping, microfabrication).

To put it simply, mechanical engineering deals with anything that moves, including the human body, a very complex machine. Mechanical engineers learn about materials, solid and fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, control, instrumentation, design, and manufacturing to realize/understand mechanical systems. Specialized mechanical engineering subjects include biomechanics, cartilage tissue engineering, energy conversion, laser-assisted materials processing, combustion, MEMS, microfluidic devices, fracture mechanics, nanomechanics, mechanisms, micropower generation, tribology (friction and wear), and vibrations. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) currently lists thirty-six technical divisions, from advanced energy systems and aerospace engineering to safety engineering and tribology.

The breadth of the mechanical engineering discipline allows students a variety of career options beyond some of the industries listed above. Regardless of the particular future path they envision for themselves after they graduate, their education would have provided them with the creative thinking that allows them to design an exciting product or system, the analytical tools to achieve their design goals, the ability to meet several sometimes conflicting constraints, and the teamwork needed to design, market, and produce a system. These skills also prove to be valuable in other endeavors and can launch a career in medicine, law, consulting, management, banking, finance, and so on.

For those interested in applied scientific and mathematical aspects of the discipline, graduate study in mechanical engineering can lead to a career of research and teaching.

Current Research Activities

Current research activities in the Department of Mechanical Engineering are in the areas of controls and robotics, energy and micropower generation, fluid mechanics, heat/mass transfer, mechanics of materials, manufacturing, material processing, MEMS, nanotechnology, and biomechanics.

Biomechanics and Mechanics of Materials. Some of the current research in biomechanics is concerned with the application of continuum theories of mixtures to problems of electromechanical behavior of soft biological tissues, contact mechanics, lubrication of diarthrodial joints, and cartilage tissue engineering. (Ateshian)

The Kysar group studies the mechanics and mechanical properties of small-scale structures and materials. Examples of material systems include two-dimensional materials such as graphene, nanoporous metal thin films, metallic and polymeric composites containing nanoscale strengthening agents, single crystal metals, and the ear's round Window Membrane, among several others. The work is experimental, theoretical, and computational in nature. The ultimate goal is to understand and predict the mechanical behavior based on fundamental physics and chemistry through the development of multiple length scale models.

At the Kasza Living Materials Lab we are interested in how cells self-organize to build tissues and organs with mechanical properties that are required for proper function. A major focus is to uncover fundamental mechanical and biological mechanisms that coordinate the behaviors of cells in developing tissues. To do this, we study morphogenesis in developing embryos of model organisms and combine approaches such as in vivo imaging, optogenetics, and biomechanical measurements. We are leveraging this knowledge to design and build novel cell-based tissue structures and systems. Our goals are to shed light on human health and disease and learn how to better build functional tissues in the lab.

Other areas of biomechanics include characterizing the structure-function behavior of the cervix during the remodeling events of pregnancy and characterizing the mechanical properties of the eye-wall in relation to glaucoma. Research in our lab includes the mechanical testing of biological soft tissues, the biochemical analysis of tissue microstructure, and material modeling based on structure-mechanical property relationships. In collaboration with clinicians, our goal is to understand the etiologies of tissue pathology and disease. (Myers)

Control, Robotics, Design, and Manufacturing. Control research emphasizes iterative learning control (ILC) and repetitive control (RC). ILC creates controllers that learn from previous experience performing a specific command, such as robots on an assembly line, aiming for high-precision mechanical motions. RC learns to cancel repetitive disturbances, such as precision motion through gearing, machining, satellite precision pointing, particle accelerators, etc. Time optimal control of robots is being studied for increased productivity on assembly lines through dynamic motion planning. Research is also being conducted on improved system identification, making mathematical models from input-output data. The results can be the starting point for designing controllers, but they are also studied as a means of assessing damage in civil engineering structures from earthquake data. (Longman)

Robotics research focuses on design of novel rehabilitation machines and training algorithms for functional rehabilitation of neural impaired adults and children. The research also aims to design intelligent machines using nonlinear system theoretic principles, computational algorithms for planning, and optimization.

Robotic Systems Engineering (ROSE) Lab develops technology capable of solving difficult design problems, such as cable-actuated systems, under-actuated systems, and others. Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Lab focuses on developing new and innovative technologies to improve the quality of care and patient outcomes. The lab designs novel exoskeletons for upper and lower limbs training of stroke patients, and mobile platforms to improve socialization in physically impaired infants. (Agrawal)

The Robotic Manipulation and Mobility (ROAM) Lab focuses on versatile manipulation and mobility in robotics, aiming for robotic applications pervasive in everyday life. Research areas include manipulation and grasping, interactive or Human-in-the-Loop robotics, dynamic simulators and virtual environments, machine perception and modeling, and many more. We are interested in application domains such as versatile automation in manufacturing and logistics, assistive and rehabilitation robotics in health care, space robotics, and mobile manipulation in unstructured environments. (Ciocarlie)

At the Creative Machines Lab ( we are interested in robots that create and robots that are themselves creative. We develop novel autonomous systems that can design and make other machines - automatically. We are working on a self-replicating robots, self-aware robots, robots that improve themselves over time, and robots that compete and cooperate with other robots. We build robots that paint art, cook food, build bridges and fabricate other robots. Our work is inspired from biology, as we seek new biological concepts for engineering and new engineering insights into biology. (Lipson)

In the area of advanced manufacturing processes and systems, current research concentrates on laser materials processing. Investigations are being carried out in laser micromachining; laser forming of sheet metal; microscale laser shock-peening, material processing using improved laser-beam quality. Both numerical and experimental work is conducted using state-of-the-art equipment, instruments, and computing facilities. Close ties with industry have been established for collaborative efforts. (Yao)

Energy, Fluid Mechanics, and Heat/Mass Transfer. In the area of energy, one effort is in energy systems with an eye towards cost-effective decarbonization using technologies that are at hand or near-ready. The interaction of the electric grid, with buildings, transportation, gas networks, storage and electrofuels is of being studied. Another effort addresses the integration of thermal storage into HVAC systems for efficient use of variable renewable energy. The development of measurement, monitoring and control systems using IoT devices for use in micrositing and operation of microgrids and enabling flexibility or demand response of load. (Modi)

In the area of energy, demand estimation and prediction if of interest using utility data, satellite imagery and lean, robust field data capture. (Modi)

In the area of nanoscale thermal transport, our research efforts center on the enhancement of thermal radiation transport across interfaces separated by a nanoscale gap. The scaling behavior of nanoscale radiation transport is measured using a novel heat transfer measurement technique based on the deflection of a bimaterial atomic force microscope cantilever. Numerical simulations are also performed to confirm these measurements. The measurements are also used to infer extremely small variations of van der Waals forces with temperature. This enhancement of radiative transfer will ultimately be used to improve the power density of thermophotovoltaic energy conversion devices. (Narayanaswamy)

Also in the area of energy, research is being performed to improve the thermochemical models used in accelerating development of cleaner, more fuel-efficient engines through computational design. In particular, data-driven approaches to creating high-accuracy, uncertainty-quantified thermochemicals models are being developed that utilize both theoretical and experimental data. Special emphasis is placed on the generation and analysis of data across the full range of relevant scales—from the small-scale electronic behavior that governs molecular reactivity to the largescale turbulent, reactive phenomena that govern engine performance. (Burke)

The Vedula group aims to advance clinical management of cardiovascular disease using computational modeling. We are developing novel computational techniques for performing patient-specific modeling of the cardiovascular system aimed at understanding the role of biomechanical factors in disease and development, device design, and 'virtual' surgery planning. Computational modeling combined with machine learning and data-mining strategies provides unprecedented opportunities to not only examine acute response to treatment, but also predict and risk stratify patients susceptible to long-term remodeling and dysfunction. (Vedula)

The Vedula group is involved in developing multiscale-multiphysics models of the heart coupling cardiac electrophysiology, tissue mechanics, blood flow and valvular interactions, thereby creating an integrated heart model, that could be used to study a variety of cardiac and valvular pediatric and adult cardiovascular disease. A few applications that we are particularly interested in include cardiomyopathies, valvular calcifications and device design, remodeling and dysfunction in congenital heart disease. (Vedula)

In the area of energy, the Building Physics and Energy Systems Laboratory aims to develop new modeling techniques to understand the dynamics of energy demand necessary to facilitate decarbonization in buildings. Research focuses on developing new modeling ad simulation methods to provide more accurate estimates of time-vary demand model-based control systems to enable demand flexibility, and hybrid physics and statistical modeling approaches to provide accurate estimates of the timing of demand at the urban scale. (Howard)

MEMS and Nanotechnology. In these areas, research activities focus on power generation systems, nanostructures for photonics, fuel cells and photovoltaics, and microfabricated adaptive cooling skin and sensors for flow, shear, and wind speed. Basic research in fluid dynamics and heat/mass transfer phenomena at small scales also support these activities. (Hone, Kysar, Lin, Modi, Narayanaswamy)

We study the dynamics of microcantilevers and atomic force microscope cantilevers to use them as microscale thermal sensors based on the resonance frequency shifts of vibration modes of the cantilever. Bimaterial microcantilever-based sensors are used to determine the thermophysical properties of thin films. (Narayanaswamy)

Research in the area of nanotechnology focuses on nanomaterials such as nanotubes and nanowires and their applications, especially in nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS). A laboratory is available for the synthesis of graphene and other two-dimensional materials using chemical vapor deposition (CVD) techniques and to build devices using electron-beam lithography and various etching techniques. This effort will seek to optimize the fabrication, readout, and sensitivity of these devices for numerous applications, such as sensitive detection of mass, charge, and magnetic resonance. (Hone, Kysar, Modi)

Research in BioMEMS aims to design and create MEMS and micro/nanofluidic systems to control the motion and measure the dynamic behavior of biomolecules in solution. Current efforts involve modeling and understanding the physics of micro/ nanofluidic devices and systems, exploiting polymer structures to enable micro/nanofluidic manipulation, and integrating MEMS sensors with microfluidics for measuring physical properties of biomolecules. (Lin)

The Schuck group aims to characterize, understand and control nanoscale light-matter interactions, with a primary focus on sensing, engineering and exploiting novel optoelectronic phenomena emerging from nanostructures and interfaces. This offers unprecedented opportunities for developing innovative devices that rely on the dynamic manipulation of single photons and charge carriers. We are continuously developing new multimodal and multidimensional spectronscopic methods that provide unique access to optical, electrical, and structural properties at relevant length scales in real environments encountered in energy and biological applications. (Schuck)

Biological Engineering and Biotechnology. Active areas of research in the musculoskeletal biomechanics laboratory include theoretical and experimental analysis of articular cartilage mechanics; theoretical and experimental analysis of cartilage lubrication, cartilage tissue engineering, and bioreactor design; growth and remodeling of biological tissues; cell mechanics; and mixture theory for biological tissues with experiments and computational analysis. (Ateshian)

The Hone laboratory studies two-dimensional (2D) materials such as graphene, with efforts spanning synthesis of single crystals and thin films; device nanofabrication; and testing of electronic, optical, mechanical, and other properties. The group develops methods to combine 2D materials into layered heterostructures, which are used to explore fundamental properties, achieve new functionality, and enable applications in electronics, photonics, sensing, and other areas. The Hone group uses nanofabrication techniques to create tools for studying the role of mechanical forces and geometry in cellular biology. These investigations seek to understand how cells sense the mechanical properties or physical shape of their surroundings, a process that plays a major role in maintaining healthy cellular and tissue function.

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are being exploited to enable and facilitate the characterization and manipulation of biomolecules. MEMS technology allows biomolecules to be studied in well-controlled micro/nanoenvironments of miniaturized, integrated devices, and may enable novel biomedical investigations not attainable by conventional techniques. The research interests center on the development of MEMS devices and systems for label-free manipulation and interrogation of biomolecules. Current research efforts primarily involve microfluidic devices that exploit specific and reversible, stimulus-dependent binding between biomolecules and receptor molecules to enable selective purification, concentration, and label-free detection of nucleic acid, protein, and small molecule analytes; miniaturized instruments for label-free characterization of thermodynamic and other physical properties of biomolecules; and subcutaneously implantable MEMS affinity biosensors for continuous monitoring of glucose and other metabolites. (Kysar, Lin)

The Kysar group has an NIH-funded project to design and develop a method to deliver therapeutics into the inner ear through the Round Window Membrane (RWM) that serves as a portal for acoustic energy between the middle ear and inner ear. This involves the design and fabrication of arrays of microneedles, the measurements of diffusive flux of chemical species across a perforated RWM, and the design, delivery, and testing of surgical tools, all in close collaboration with Anil K. Lalwani, M.D., at Columbia University Medical Center. (Kysar)

The Schuck group is involved in engineering novel near-infrared (NIR) upconverting nanoparticles (UCNPs) and UCNP-based micro-devices for largescale sensing applications, including deployment in projects aimed at deep-tissue imaging and the control of neural function deep within brain tissue. UCNPs have the potential to overcome nearly all limitations of current optical probes and sensors, which have run into fundamental chemical and photophysical incompatibilities with living systems. (Schuck)

Mass radiological triage is critical after a large-scale radiological event because of the need to identify those individuals who will benefit from medical intervention as soon as possible. The goal of the ongoing NIH-funded research project is to design a prototype of a fully automated, ultra high throughput biodosimetry. This prototype is supposed to accommodate multiple assay preparation protocols that allow the determination of the levels of radiation exposure that a patient received. The input to this fully autonomous system is a large number of capillaries filled with blood of patients collected using finger sticks. These capillaries are processed by the system to distill the micronucleus assay in lymphocytes, with all the assays being carried out in situ in multi-well plates. The research effort on this project involves the automation system design and integration including hierarchical control algorithms, design and control of custom built robotic devices, and automated image acquisition and processing for sample preparation and analysis. (Yao)

A technology that couples the power of multidimensional microscopy (three spatial dimensions, time, and multiple wavelengths) with that of DNA array technology is investigated in an NIH-funded project. Specifically, a system is developed in which individual cells selected on the basis of optically detectable multiple features at critical time points in dynamic processes can be rapidly and robotically micromanipulated into reaction chambers to permit amplified DNA synthesis and subsequent array analysis. Customized image processing and pattern recognition techniques are developed, including Fisher’s linear discriminant preprocessing with neural net, a support vector machine with improved training, multiclass cell detection with error correcting output coding, and kernel principal component analysis. (Yao)

Facilities for Teaching and Research

The undergraduate laboratories, occupying an area of approximately 6,000 square feet of floor space, are the site of experiments ranging in complexity from basic instrumentation and fundamental exercises to advanced experiments in such diverse areas as automatic controls, heat transfer, fluid mechanics, stress analysis, vibrations, microcomputer-based data acquisition, and control of mechanical systems.

Equipment includes microcontrollers and microprocessors, analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, a tensile testing system equipped with digital image correlation (DIC) capabilities, a subsonic wind tunnel, and 3D printers as well as laser cutters. The undergraduate laboratory also houses experimental setups for the understanding and performance evaluation of a small steam power generation system, a heat exchanger, a compressor, a car suspension simulator, a torsion tester, and a hydrogen fuel cell. Part of the undergraduate laboratory is a staffed machine shop with machining tools such as CNC vertical milling machines, a CNC lathe, standard vertical milling machines, engine and bench lathes, surface grinder, band saw, drill press, tool grinders, a horizontal bandsaw, several other mills used for light machining and circuit board fabrication.

A mechatronics laboratory affords the opportunity for hands-on experience with microcomputer-embedded control of electromechanical systems. Facilities for the construction and testing of  analog and digital electronic circuits aid the students in learning the basic components of the microcomputer architecture. The laboratory is divided into work centers for two-person student laboratory teams. Each work center is equipped with a mixed signal oscilloscope, several power supplies (for low-power electronics and higher power control), a function generator, a multimeter, a protoboard for building circuits, a microcomputer circuit board (which includes the microcomputer and peripheral components), a microcomputer programmer, and a personal computer that contains a data acquisition board. The data acquisition system serves as an oscilloscope, additional function generator, and spectrum analyzer for the student team. The computer also contains a complete microcomputer software development system, including editor, assembler, simulator, debugger, and C compiler. The laboratory is also equipped with a portable oscilloscope, an EPROM eraser (to erase microcomputer programs from the erasable chips), a logic probe, and an analog filter bank that the student teams share, as well as a stock of analog and digital electronic components.

The CAD Lab is a modern computer-aided design laboratory equipped with 30 Dell Precision 5820 workstations. Machines have software for design, CAD, FEM, and CFD, including Altair Analysis Suite, AutoCAD, COMSOL Multiphysics, Matlab, RStudio, Solidworks, Wolfram Mathematica. The research facilities are located within within individual or group research laboratories in the department, and these facilities are being continually upgraded. To view the current research capabilities please visit the various laboratories within the research section of the department website. The students and staff of the department can, by prior arrangement, use much of the equipment in these research facilities.

Through their participation in the NSF-MRSEC center, the faculty also have access to shared instrumentation and the clean room located in the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research. Columbia University’s extensive library system has superb scientific and technical collections.

E-mail and computing services are maintained by Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT).