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Success among Friends

Posted on December 18th, 2014

by Shianne Gruss

When Ruben Llamas began his career in telecommunications, customers’ Internet and telephone connections were on the line. Now, as a research assistant at IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, Llamas must find a way to transmit electromagnetic waves through water and sediment—from the backs of living freshwater mussels in riverbeds.

“When I started working at IIHR, my passion was antennas,” Llamas says. Fortunately, IIHR Research Engineer Anton Kruger had a place for him.

Llamas works with his curved spiral antenna design in the IIHR Wind Tunnel Annex.

Llamas works with his curved spiral antenna design in the IIHR Wind Tunnel Annex.

Llamas, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering, is part of an ongoing multidisciplinary research initiative at the University of Iowa to retrofit living freshwater mussels with a “backpack” of sensors that essentially help researchers gather data on the river’s nutrient content. Mussels, which act as natural filters, give researchers a better understanding of aquatic ecosystems such as the Mississippi River. “In some sense, [mussels] clean the water,” says Llamas. “If the water is contaminated, they don’t open up to eat. When they open or close, you can get a feel for how polluted the water is.” The sensors could someday help researchers measure and reduce the amount of nutrient runoff from the Midwest that reaches the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to the hypoxic area known as the “Dead Zone.”

The challenge for Llamas is to design an antenna that will allow the mussels to continue natural movement but that will also allow the radio to have enough strength to send frequencies through a variety of media. “If we take an antenna designed for free-space and place it into water or silt, it is effectively a new antenna and behaves differently,” Llamas explains. He has worked with a host of materials, including fabric and 3D printed housings, to create the current curved spiral antenna design.

“One of Ruben’s strengths is his experimental capabilities,” says Kruger, Llamas’ faculty advisor. “He is not afraid to get his hands dirty.”

He’s not afraid to relax and enjoy life, either. Having grown up just minutes from the beach in Cartagena, Colombia, Llamas spent afternoons playing soccer, throwing the Frisbee, and listening to Vallenato, typical Colombian coastal music. However, as much as he is drawn to Caribbean, his real passion is for telecommunications—and the Colombia national soccer team, of course. “Those things just get into you and you move with them,” Llamas explains.

Llamas at the Tayrona National Park in Santa Marta, Colombia, during his last visit in June 2014.

Llamas at the Tayrona National Park in Santa Marta, Colombia, during his last visit in June 2014.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from Universidad Technológica de Bolívar in Cartagena, Llamas worked for several years installing both antenna technology and DSL systems. “In South America, it’s not as much about research in engineering; it’s more about applying engineering,” he notes. In order to do more research, Llamas traveled to Marietta, Ga., where he attended Southern Polytechnic State University. With a master’s in engineering technology, he began his PhD work at the University of Iowa in 2010.

“The great thing about IIHR is that it’s a multidisciplinary department,” Llamas says. “You learn new things that aren’t even in your field.” He particularly enjoys the weekly group meetings during which a colleague presents about his or her work and others give feedback. “It’s like a family, you know. You know what everyone is working on.”

Over the past four years, Llamas has been involved with a myriad of research initiatives—Iowa Flood Studies (IFloodS), NASA Global Precipitation Measurement campaign, and others, including the implementation of accelerometers that estimate mass, water content, and diurnal cycles of trees. After he graduates in May 2015, Llamas will likely move on from academia to antenna or radio frequency design research for a company such as Boeing, Rockwell Collins, or United Technologies Research Center. “Several good prospective employers have shown interest in hiring Ruben after he graduates,” Kruger notes. “I believe Ruben will be very successful.”

While he is willing to move anywhere within the United States, Llamas says he will miss Iowa City—especially listening to performances by the local band Alto Maiz—and the friends he has made at IIHR. “You can make friends for the rest of your life here. And we play soccer,” he laughs. “That’s one of the requirements with Professor Witek [Witold Krajewski]—you have to play soccer.”


Watch a short video on YouTube about Llamas’ mussel antenna research.


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