By Mike Drummond
It looked easy on paper.
Search the nation for stand-out college students doing ground-breaking, innovative research-and-development in the areas of science, technology and engineering.
Finding these bright, motivated young people – in short, future inventors – wasn’t the hard part. Post a clarion on Facebook and Twitter and ping a couple of news sourcing services and the next thing you know you have scores of potential candidates to profile.
Not too surprising, considering there are some 5,000 colleges and universities in the country, with nearly 20 million students, according to U.S. Department of Labor stats.
But selecting just a few to spotlight proved to be painful.
How do you objectively identify the next Dean Kamen or Sally Ride? How can you judge whether one student’s nano robot research is better than, say, another student’s human-powered helicopter?
Turns out, you can’t, really. The best you can do is showcase a small sample of some of the more intriguing collegiate innovations and hope they offer inspiration.
Neither gender nor geography played a role in our selection process – it didn’t matter if the students were Razorbacks or Demon Deacons, from polytechnic institutes or from the Ivy League. We focused on the following criteria: immediate or future impact on sustainability, commercial viability, intellectual property portfolio, novelty and what we loosely defined as a cool factor.
So here it is, our wholly unscientific roster of stand-out student scientists, technologists and engineers:
Full Steam Ahead
Mechanical engineering major Eden Full bailed on her junior year at Princeton University this semester.
But she’s no drop-out.
The 19-year-old Canadian is among the inaugural 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship recipients. Each will receive $100,000 over the next two years to pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship and build companies of the future.
Full has a head start.
She’s the founder of Roseicollis Technologies, a solar energy startup that deploys, among other things, her patent-pending SunSaluter, a solar panel rotating system that tracks the sun to optimize energy collection by up to 40%. Conventional solar panel trackers cost upwards of $1,000 – hers cost $10.
The technology is helping power two villages in Kenya.
She says she has always loved working with her hands and building things. At an early age she was drawn to robots and spaceships. But at a science fair, a man from Indonesia spoke with her about poverty. Outside Jakarta, the capital and that country’s largest city, lays “a rural wasteland,” Full recalls.
“We can worry about designing robots and space shuttles later,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great there are really smart people working on those things. But for me, I want to work on something that has more of an impact now – I value having an impact instantly.
“If we want new technology to be adopted,” she adds, “it has to be useful for people most in need.”
Full is an Ashoka-Lemelson Youth Fellow and the 2009 recipient of the Weston Youth Innovation Award. She has trekked the Canadian Arctic expedition through the Students on Ice/International Polar Year scholarship program. And at Princeton, Full was vice-president of the Africa Development Initiative, as well as historian for the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
Don’t make the mistake of using Princeton in the past tense when it comes to Full.
“I’m not dropping out,” she says. “I’m taking time off. I will be back in the fall of 2013 to finish my education at Princeton.”
Here Comes the Sun
It seems solar technology has been stuck in the Dark Ages – at least when it comes to powering U.S. households.
While residential installations of solar systems grew from 62 megawatts to 74 megawatts last year – enough to power about 12,000 homes – the total share of household installs dimmed compared with institutional and commercial markets. In 2009, residences accounted for 36% of all solar systems. Last year, the rate dropped to 30%.
A major reason is cost. Sunlight is by far the largest source of potential energy. Yet solar systems remain high-ticket items. It’s more economical to build massive solar harvesting farms in the desert than to install solar panels on millions of individual rooftops.
Like Princeton’s (nee Thiel Fellow) Full, two University of Arkansas post-grads are working on ways to drive down costs and increase efficiency and use of solar energy.
Douglas Hutchings and Seth Shumate invented a process to reduce the cost to manufacture solar cells by at least 26%.
Hutchings, 28, and Shumate, 27, have applied for three patents and started a company, Silicon Solar Solutions.
Their technology is called “top-down aluminum induced crystallization” or TAIC. It crystallizes amorphous silicon commonly used in solar panels into large grain polysilicon. Larger grains increase the likelihood electrons will move through solar panels and become useful electricity.
The TAIC process reportedly creates grains 30 times larger than competing methods in 1/40th the time and at one-third the temperature.
Hutchings, who recently earned a doctorate in microelectronics-photonics with a graduate certificate in entrepreneurship, and Shumate, who is working on his doctorate in microelectronics-photonics, have yet to commercialize their technology.
However, their company has raised nearly $1 million in seed capital from private, state and national funding sources.
The University of Arkansas had been developing the technology for the last decade. Hutchings and Shumate got TAIC to commercial viability and moved it out of the lab and into business plan competitions. They went on to win several national contests.
Shumate says the technology can be used for things other than solar cells, such as electronic displays.
Hutchings, who describes Silicon Solar Solutions as an “advanced materials company,” says the big goal this year to scale up the TAIC technology to show it can be done in a manufacturing friendly way.
“Now it’s an optimization game on our part,” Hutchings adds, “we’re nowhere near the end” of what we can accomplish.
A computer worm called Stuxnet attacked Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant last year, affecting staff computers used to run the facility.
Some believed Western governments were responsible. In any case, the incident served as a warning that power plants are vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Half a world away, Michael Crouse was in eastern Washington state, working on raising and deploying a colony of “digital ants” that soon may defend and combat computer viruses from hobbling U.S. power grids and corporate networks.
Crouse is a 23-year-old computer science graduate student from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He has been an integral part of the team of scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in evaluating how digital ants would actually work once deployed.
Efforts to bring so-called smart meters to every home to manage utilities, water and telecommunications will offer more opportunities for computer viruses.
The team, which worked at a facility near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, turned to nature for answers in how to protect modern computer systems. They had looked at bees, moths and termites. The scientists, however, didn’t like flying insects as a model – too much flying back to a centralized location to relay information, which in a computer environment is expensive.
Ants, however, leave pheromones along the path they travel, relaying information for others to glean. They also have their own “handshakes,” which can determine if another ant is friend or foe.
“There’s this whole area of authentication,” Crouse says, “with a lot of parallel things going on there with the computer world.
“This summer we did a huge amount of research on digital pheromones,” he adds, “particularly with how can we leave these pieces of pheromone and move it into a more discrete type of environment.”
Crouse was still a senior when he joined the digital ant project two years ago. Faculty called him “simply amazing” in doing critical fundamental research to actual development.
While the technology is not quite “corporate-level ready,” Crouse says it’s only a matter of time.
Meanwhile, Crouse is considering his next move.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I continue going to school and getting a PhD, which I’m leaning to right now.”
And if the career trail doesn’t lead to ants, there’s always apps.
In his “spare time,” he has created websites and various iPhone apps, including RideTheWake, a free app that lets Wake Forest students know exactly where campus shuttles are.
He didn’t get paid for that project, but he says he received “some course credits” and an iPad.
Lexi Hamsmith, a freshman at Northeastern University, is decidedly not a dog person.
They’re “messy and smelly,” the 18-year-old chemical engineering major says.
That revulsion didn’t prevent her from working with a pair of dogs as research lead for Project for Assistive Canine Technologies or PACT.
Working with the nonprofit Canines for Disabled Kids, Hamsmith and team examined ways to relieve joint pressure on dogs that help people with disabilities. She also explored ways to help service dogs pull wheelchairs in a straight line.
More recently, her team received a Team Provost Undergraduate Research Award to help disabled people clean up after their service dogs – pooper scoopers for those with special needs.
“Service dogs seem to have the biggest joint and hip issues,” she says. “A lot of times, their owners use them for support. We want to come up with devices that prolong the amount of time dogs can remain in service.
“We’re also trying to come up with a device that combines a harness, cane and a pooper scooper,” she adds. “It’s something that people who rely on these types of dogs really need.”
Earlier this year, Hamsmith and team worked with Bronson, a smooth-coat collie, and Jozsi, a copper-colored vizsla.
Despite the interaction with the clever canines, she remains a committed cat person.
But animals may not be in her future. This summer she was working at a small company that makes adhesives. She was exposed to many aspects of the business, including engineering, finances, purchasing and testing.
She’s also intrigued by nano-technology and pharmaceutical industries.
Her eclectic interests will serve her well. She’s enrolled in a five-year academic/work program. In partnerships with various companies around the world, she will work at various locations for six-month stints.
“That,” she says, “will offer me the opportunity to figure out where to go.”
Alec Ishak was 14 when the flash of genius struck.
He was hiking in Vermont with his family. It was winter. A steep icy slope led to the trail. The troupe attached yak tracks, ice-traction devices worn on hiking books.
“Having to take gloves off and do this in 20-degree blow weather is difficult,” Ishak recalls. “I said, ‘You know what, it’d be easier if our boots just had (traction gear) in them.”
His father, an optometrist who had filed patents, helped Alec begin the patent process. Last year, Alec obtained Patent No. 7,832,121 for “Footwear with deployable crampons.”
With the flick of a lever, spikes and traction gear pop out of the boot’s soles – sort of James Bond-meets-Jeremiah Johnson.
Ishak, 20, is junior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, majoring in robotics.
He doesn’t have a working prototype of his specialized hiking boot. But he says one company has expressed interest.
As a practical matter, he notes, the boots would be lighter than conventional boots equipped with standard snow shoes.
In any case, he’s thankful that his idea is gaining some traction.
“From my end it’s been a lot of work, something I’ve been doing since I was 14,” he says. “It’s cool that others see that it’s interesting too.”
While he continues to find ways to commercialize his first patented idea, he’ll be finishing his robotics undergrad studies. His dream job includes owning his own robotics company. And building an Iron Man suit.
“That’s not a joke,” he says. “Something like that has a lot of applications, particularly when it comes to rehab of muscles.”