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Konrad Rykaczewski stretching a research material
Credit: Konrad Rykaczewski

One Innovator's Serpentine Journey to Solving Heat Crises and Saving Lives

Konrad Rykaczewski, PhD, is drawing on a diverse set of experiences to develop new cooling methods

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a...

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If you’ve ever witnessed heat stroke, you might wish for improved cooling methods. For one engineer, a biomimicry approach driven by his curiosity about rattlesnakes drinking rainwater off their skin offers a possible solution.1 The journey to that solution was a long one.  

For this innovator, his education early in life directly impacted his research many years later. These influences involved many seemingly unrelated childhood occurrences—moving 13 times, studying ancient Greek history, advanced math, and film photography, and even hanging out with a cook at a Polish restaurant one summer. 

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Konrad Rykaczewski is an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy (SEMTE) and global futures scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.2 He and his collaborators work to develop unique tools to prevent heat fatalities in the desert heat of Arizona.3 

A wild educational journey—13 moves across four countries

Parents often affect their kids’ educational journeys in unpredictable ways. Rykaczewski was influenced by his mom, an artist, and his dad, a nuclear physicist and spectroscopy task leader at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) who was part of the team that discovered element #117—Tennessine. It made for an impressive and helpful setting. 

Rykaczewski was born in West Germany, but his family moved 13 times. This resulted in going to school in four countries—Germany, Poland, France, and the US. He reflects on these moves as a positive influence with two cool outcomes: “I got to study ancient Greek history three times. In Poland, mathematics is taught earlier than here. It had an advanced curriculum, and I ran out of math courses. That allowed me, as a high school senior, to spend about a half day a week doing research at ORNL.”

ORNL factored in twice more with two meaningful work experiences. “I did a one-year high school internship in ORNL’s physics division and later worked as a CAD designer on Spallation Neutron Source construction.” He also did a Science Olympiad as a teen. These experiences were the beginning of his scientific explorations. But neither life nor his passions were solely STEM-related—both his interest in the visual arts and culinary expertise would come in handy.

STEAM, not STEM: Combining science and art

Rykaczewski’s passion for creativity and certain arts helped his scientific approaches. He experimented with black and white film photography while studying chemistry, math, and physics. This helped cement his views of science with art, but his future was still unfocused. “I didn’t yet have a solid idea of what to study.” This uncertainty would continue for Rykaczewski. But as he had each new learning experience, his passion focused and grew by accretion.

He enjoyed artistic pursuits; with film photography, the “15 minutes before the shot” was filled with questions that required one’s artistic flair. Then, developing his photos in the dark room was another engaging part of the process. “I was bored with digital photography’s ease of taking as many photos as you want.” His passion for continually challenging himself would serve him well much later in his scientific career.

Rykaczewski was influenced by his mom, an artist, and his dad, a nuclear physicist and spectroscopy task leader at Oak Ridge National lab who was part of the team that discovered element #117—Tennessine.

He usually spent summers in Poland, but at one point in high school he couldn’t leave Tennessee because his green card was delayed. While a disappointment, this would create learning opportunities. “Out of boredom and curiosity, I went through the library’s cooking section—[it was] a summer of learning! I also hung out with the cook at a Polish restaurant.” He learned the art and science of cooking—and more, as it turned out. 

Learning comes from connecting different concepts

Rykaczewski enjoyed diverse learning—the physical aspects of hands-on learning, the mental challenges in computational studies, and the fun of experimenting with electron microscopes. Still, he asked, “What do I want to be when I grow up? Where does this or that come from? What’s missing?” He felt a need to understand science and what’s missing from our knowledge that can help solve real problems. 

Originally planning on going into chemical engineering, he changed to mechanical engineering on his first day of college. He laughs, “There were too many formulae in chemical engineering!” He managed to get his BS in three years and his MS and PhD in four years.  His photography experience came in handy—he studied carbon nanotubes, electron microscopy, and turning 2D images into 3D printing using nano beams (i.e., electron beam induced deposition). 

After completing his PhD, Rykaczewski did a postdoc at National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Those in charge of his postdoc told him, “Go have fun.” He didn’t need to be told twice. “It went fantastic,” Rykaczewski remarked. He studied condensation enhancement and de-icing using nanoengineered surfaces and how these work by playing with new types of electron microscopes and cameras. “For example, I optimized an environmental electron microscope to image, in detail, the growth of sub-4-micron, perfectly spherical droplet on a superhydrophobic surface. It’s good science and I had fun!” His 90+ research publications keep building on each other, facilitating innovation.

Rykaczewski had his PhD, and he had completed a successful postdoc surrounded by the brightest minds, and with some of the best equipment, in the world. Yet, he did not find it fulfilling. “But what’s the meaning of it?” he asked himself. He had gotten bored with his PhD topic—now what? 

Experimenting with droplets and super hydrophobicity

In a hot cooking pan, the Leidenfrost Effect creates a “vapor cushion,” which can cause water droplets to move about, almost dancing. Cooks use this to check if their pan is hot enough. Rykaczewski first saw this at the Polish restaurant he hung around in high school.  Years later, he connected the dots between that experience with his scientific expertise and developed an interest in hydrophobicity. As a result, today he studies moisture and heat, both up-close and personal. Intrigued by the solid/liquid interfaces, especially up close, he’s using advanced microscopy tools, top notch metrology, and thermo-sciences to understand it microscopically. 

But while Rykaczewski is a creative and prolific researcher, he knows he can’t be satisfied with just papers and patents. He wants to use his creativity to accomplish something of deeper meaning and focus on how he could help others—so now he’s leveraging his scientific expertise to help people manage their heat exposure.

Rykaczewski’s ongoing research

In Arizona, the heat is devastating. It’s often over 90°F before dawn or 85°F to 95°F inside without air conditioning. If you’re heat intolerant, it’s worse. Many Arizonans want to be outside, but the heat drives them back in. In searching for more meaningful endeavors, Rykaczewski decided to help address this problem. “We know that climate change requires adaptations. With recent health issues I’ve witnessed of many others, including a family member, what can I do? Are there innovations that can help people as individuals?” 

He decided to help those at the greatest risk and began quantifying differences in people who experience severe heat. There are predictive models, but the diversity of bodies and tolerance differences is a significant challenge. He reflects that “The things we value, like livable comfort, drive innovations such as conformal clothing to help cool the body.” 

The National Science Foundation recently funded a fourth grant of his and others’ labs to study sweat evaporation rates. “We know much about sweat…but not on a microscale.” They use three different imaging apparatuses to study sweat emerging from one to a few glands and pores, then changing back to droplets. He explains, “Physiology, sweat rates, and capsules each require different imaging. So, I go sub-surface in 3D using optical coherence tomography (OCT).” OCT can resolve images down to a micrometer, which allows direct and live imaging—it’s been called an “optical ultrasound.”

Rykaczewski had his PhD, and he had completed a successful postdoc surrounded by the brightest minds, and with some of the best equipment, in the world. Yet, he did not find it fulfilling.

As a thermal engineer, he works on temperature gradients—basically, how much and how fast temperatures change, both in the environment and different parts of the body. Much of Rykaczewski’s research focuses on cooling wear, but his students focus elsewhere: micro-electronics. “Most graduate students from my group work in the semiconductor industry; for example, five are here in the valley at Intel.” 

Why not an advanced heat manikin?

Rykaczewski emphasizes the related work of his collaborators including Jennifer Vanos, PhD, and Ariane Middel, PhD, as well as others in engineering. They have a thermal manikin called ANDI; with 35 different zones, it walks and breathes.6 

He explains, “The manikin is custom-made to be the first in the world to be routinely used outdoors, especially in extreme heat conditions. Usually, it’s used in a thermal chamber, which we have in ASU’s newest research facility.”7

Quantify, predict, and find better ways to cope with the extreme heat

Rykaczewski and his collaborators are metrologists. He explains, “Scientists of metrology measure heat exposures, often as the median radiant temperature, or MRT. For radiation, one can use cheap instruments like a ping pong ball with a thermocouple. A better option is a custom research instrument like ASU’s ‘MaRTy,’ [mobile MRT cart] made by Middel’s lab team.8 The problem with these devices and models is that they assume humans are spheres or cylinders.”

That’s why researchers developed thermal manikins; they are the most realistically shaped “radiation thermometers”. They can also be used to evaluate convection from the human body in real environments. For example, wind speeds are unsteady and air turbulence can double the heat coefficient. 

Much research used an average white male body. Instead, Rykaczewski uses 3D body shapes of US adult populations that are much more diverse. They’ve created 60 digital computational manikins of various heights, BMIs, male versus female, etc. Initially they use a silver shade/tone absent of skin tones, which they can add later. 

It’s just a step from sci-fi to reality

Although he wasn’t a huge sci-fi fan, Rykaczewski was enthused by the first six books and the 2020 film adaptation of Dune. The story contains a planet where water is so precious that people wear special suits to harvest and recycle any water each person produces. For clothes designed to cool, one needs to start at the microscale and then build up to the human body scale. Working with collaborators, they are trying to design not only clothes that cool the wearer, but also “backpack exoskeletons” as supporting mechanisms. 

Cooling, and cool-looking, clothing can be both practical and fashionable. He writes, “Much is focused on medical, military, and specialized applications. But it’s needed for the broader population.” This is his goal: to help as many people as possible who will be living under our future’s hotter weather. “In five to 10 years, we hope to have a better understanding [of what innovations work best to help people] and improve our heat adaptations.”9

What does he think in retrospect?’

He reflects back on his journey—both educational and professional. “I could’ve done better with ‘What do I want to do?’” This educational self-critique is common. What’s uncommon is that he’s still close friends with his PhD advisor. This undoubtedly influences how he relates to his students, along with how his unpredictable, but fortuitous, education affected him. 

As Rykaczewski sums it up: “I learned to have a healthy attitude toward sciences and academia, do interesting and potentially societally important research, while also keeping small exploratory side projects (e.g., fascination with rattlesnake skin properties!).” His fun passion for an artistic side clearly helps him continue to innovate in ways to help save lives. 

His serpentine journey has paid off in many ways and will likely continue to do so in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Heat deaths are far too frequent and likely to worsen in the future. Cooling wearable tech can’t come soon enough. 


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