Department of

Aerospace Engineering

rob kunz

Robert F. Kunz, Ph.D.

Senior Scientist & Head of the Computational Mechanics Division

PSU Applied Research Lab & Professor of Aerospace Engineering

207 Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel,

Penn State University

University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-865-2144/ F.814-865-3287


Whether you are designing the propulsion system for a submarine, a jet aircraft engine, or a heart pump, many fundamental elements of the systems’ physics are the same. It’s this fact that has enabled Rob Kunz, an affiliate associate professor of Aerospace Engineering and head of the Computational Mechanics Division of Penn State’s Applied Research Lab (ARL), to diversify his research focus across each of those applications.
            Kunz earned his master’s degree at the University of Illinois in 1985 and then went to work for Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut. There he became interested in jet engines, which he still considers “the coolest, most impressive devices in the world.” He started graduate school at Penn State in 1988, doing his doctoral research on turbomachinery Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and earning his Ph.D. in 1991. The state of the job market at the time diverted him away from aerospace and into a position as a senior engineer in the CFD unit at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in New York, where he performed research in the simulation of nuclear reactor thermal-hydraulics.
            Kunz returned to Penn State in 1997, as a research faculty member at ARL. His office is in the first ARL facility, the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel, which was built by the Defense Department in 1949 primarily to solve engineering problems relating to submarines and torpedoes. His research activities at ARL have included CFD algorithms, multiphase flows, turbomachinery, biological/biomedical systems, nuclear reactor thermal-hydraulics and thermal management analysis.
In 2001, he became the head of ARL’s Computational Mechanics Division, a group that today is comprised of 18 research faculty and staff engineers involved in research and application of hydrodynamic and aerodynamic modeling.  Kunz has taught a number of classes for the Department of Aerospace Engineering, including propulsion, CFD, and aerodynamics. He has also collaborated on multiple research projects with aerospace faculty in turbomachinery analysis, rotorcraft aerodynamics, and CFD algorithms, and he has co-advised several M.S. and Ph.D. theses in the department.
            A recent focus of Kunz’ research has been development of a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD). With support and collaboration from industry, Kunz is principal investigator on a team that is developing what is essentially a tiny turbomachine – an axial pump LVAD powerful enough to support the circulatory system of an adult male.
            “What we’re doing,” Kunz said, “is bringing aerodynamics to the medical device arena.”
LVADs have been in use for more than 35 years but currently can be inserted only after the chest wall has been breached, a complicated and traumatic procedure. In contrast, the LVAD Kunz’ team is developing is only 6 mm in diameter and intended to be snaked via catheter through the femoral artery for quick implantation in the heart chamber. After insertion through an incision in the thigh, the LVAD could be operating within minutes of a patient’s suffering a heart attack, potentially prolonging the life of as many as 30,000 people in the United States each year.
            Developing a tiny but effective turbomachine has required Kunz and his team to solve multiple challenges. An important one has to do with the nature of the fluid in question. The LVAD works by means of an impeller that moves blood by spinning at 30,000 RPM. But you can’t put blood in a blender – even a tiny one – and expect it to maintain the physical characteristics that enable it to support life. Instead, the impeller blades must be engineered so that they won’t damage the blood, either by causing clotting or otherwise harming red blood cells.
            This goal becomes more challenging because the material from which the LVAD blades are made must be flexible enough to compress within a catheter and travel through an artery. That same elasticity means the blades will deflect under the fluid load when they spin. Thus the tips must be designed to offset the deflection while at the same time preserving the desired hydrodynamic performance.
As principal investigator, Kunz leads a team of experts in materials science, experimental fluid mechanics, computational fluid mechanics, and controls, as well as machinists, CAD engineers, integration testing technicians, and a program manager. It may sound like a lot of people, but one thing Kunz appreciates about the project is the team’s comparatively small size. “If you’re working on an aircraft engine, you’re a fish in the sea,” he said. “You know you’re making a contribution because the engine is needed, but it’s hard to measure your own contribution. With this project, each of us has an immediate sense of the contribution he or she is making.”
As of summer 2009, the device has been in development for about five years and is about to begin FDA-protocol testing.
            Kunz grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., where his family’s house was beneath the flight path to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The resurgence of NASA’s space shuttle program in 1979 – his freshman year at SUNY Buffalo --  kindled his interest in aerospace engineering. Today he lives an easy bike ride from his office in “a broken down old house” he is fixing up in the College Heights neighborhood of State College.

Back to Faculty Page