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Meet Joseph Piacenza

Engineer Explores Fail-Resilient Infrastructure Systems
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New mechanical engineering faculty member Joseph Piacenza is interested in designing complex infrastructure systems, such as power grids, that are minimally impacted in the event of a system crash, natural disaster or a strategic attack.

His interest grew into his doctoral studies at Oregon State University, where he focused on creating concept-stage designs for complex infrastructure systems, motivated by reliability issues in the North American power grid.

Infrastructure systems have increased in recent years based on user demand, yet they haven’t been designed as an integrated system — making them vulnerable to uncontrollable and cascading failures, Piacenza explained. An example of this is the 2003 Northeast blackout that began in New York.

“This area of study is relevant because the population is constantly growing and continuously sprawling, which increases the demand on critical infrastructure systems that also include satellite and traffic networks,” said the assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “I’m interested in understanding the emergent behavior of these systems after being impacted by an initiating failure.”

Piacenza, who earned both his master’s and doctorate in mechanical engineering from Oregon State, also studies sustainable building designs, with an emphasis on structures with renewable energy sources, and the social impact of sustainable building designs that are self-sufficient for energy and water needs.

Beyond these research areas, Piacenza also is interested in automotive engineering. His passion for vintage cars, especially Volkswagens, date to his youth growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla. After earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of South Florida, he founded and managed an automotive-based small business that focused on restoration, service and retail parts sales for European vehicles. During this time, Piacenza’s entrepreneurial interests piqued and he returned to his alma mater to earn his MBA, studying entrepreneurship and management.

Piacenza’s automotive background has helped him in his new role as faculty adviser for three student teams designing and building a formula-style race car, Baja racer and unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, for collegiate competition later this spring.

“I really enjoy teaching the senior design class and helping students solve problems and physically realize and build their designs,” said Piacenza. “Undergraduate research is key for producing quality mechanical engineers. It gives them the opportunity to practice critical thinking, and not just match equations with variables as they often do in classes.”