The Create the Future Design Contest has helped stimulate and reward engineering innovation over the past 16 years, drawing more than 14,000 product designs from engineers, students, and entrepreneurs worldwide. Top prizes in the 2017 contest — including the Grand Prize and winning designs in seven categories — were awarded on November 10 in New York City.
Creating a Comfortable Future
Most homes have only one thermostat, so they operate like a house with only one light switch — everything is either on or off. That leaves some rooms boiling hot, while others are freezing cold. Dipul Patel — winner of the Sustainable Technologies category in the 2014 Create the Future Design Contest — developed the ecovent system of wireless vents, sensors, and a smartphone app that makes any forced air heating and cooling system smarter by directing conditioned air where it’s needed most.
At last month’s awards event, Patel spoke about his journey from inventor to entrepreneur since his win three years ago. “The idea for ecovent was pretty simple. The concept was that in 90 million homes in America, there is central air, heating, and cooling, but only one zone — there is one thermostat for the whole house.” The idea of ecovent, he said, was to create a system that could understand the climate of each room, and give room-by-room control, commonly referred to as zoning.
Patel explained that the Create the Future Design Contest “helped ecovent in its journey. The mission of ecovent was the concept that a building should be smarter, and now everyone is all about smart buildings. What made ecovent work was that there were periodic moments, like winning this award, that give you energy. There are other people that believe in it. That’s the beauty of this contest,” he added. “Anybody can apply from anywhere in the world, with no affiliation with anything. It’s the technology or innovation that binds us all together. ecovent was a success because the technology that was seen as innovative is still out there. A big part of its success is because of this contest.”
A Grand Way to Fight Climate Change
The winner of this year’s Grand Prize felt a responsibility to fight climate change. Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao and his team at Cornell University saw that the extraction and consumption of fossil carbon to run our daily lives accounts for more than 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions each year. The goal of their work was to enable the conversion of CO2 back to simple hydrocarbons, potentially transforming carbon conversion into a profitable enterprise.
The HI-Light Solar Thermal Chemical Reactor Technology enables the conversion of CO2 and water to methanol and other high-value hydrocarbons. Optical energy focused into the reactor interacts with a catalyst to convert incoming sequestered CO2.
Said Cao, “Our technology does nothing new that nature hasn’t already done. In nature, you have plants that absorb carbon dioxide and water, and using sunlight, they create food that the plants need. What we’re doing is mimicking the photosynthesis process, but using materials and technologies nature hasn’t had access to — using a reactor instead of a leaf.”
Working with startup Dimensional Energy, Cornell’s invention converts the waste carbon dioxide into liquid fuels and feedstocks. In addition, the team is in close collaboration with Shell to design a reactor for syngas production. What they learn from that process could be expandable to other production as well. Cao added, “This recognition is not for our team alone — this is recognition for the general science community to fight against climate change and push forward our renewable energy research.”
Preventing Loss of Control
The Airfoil Performance Monitor (APM), winner of this year’s Aerospace & Defense Category, is, as inventor John Maris of Marinvent Corp. put it, “designed to save peoples’ lives — that’s all.” The APM provides real-time information to pilots regarding the state of airflow over the plane’s wings and tail. This information is critical to prevent stalls and loss of control (LOC). The APM uses miniature pressure transducers to measure air turbulence that has been shown to correlate closely to stall proximity, and can prevent dangerous tail stalls. As Maris explained, “About 2,000 people have died due to [LOC], and probably a few more will die this winter from what we’re trying to avoid with the APM.”
Redesigning Portable Power
Today’s highly mobile world is very dependent upon portable power, which means batteries are the primary power source. This leads to batteries consuming a significant portion of the weight and size of a device, and constraining the shape of a device. The Conformal Battery from Battelle — winner of the Consumer Products Category — has a thinner profile and can be shaped in different geometries, allowing it to be integrated into the final product. Dr. Steve Risser of Battelle explained that the idea started several years ago when Battelle was trying to find ways to save volume and weight for military vehicles. But, “it’s not just the military that has a need to reduce weight and not have to design around a battery. That’s what we’re trying to do — to start allowing design to be more for function, and have the battery be part of the device, instead of picking a battery and building the device around it,” he said.
A “Super” Alternative for Truck Fleets
“In 2002, when the EPA’s greenhouse gas rules went into effect, the industry responded with new technology that decreased emissions and fuel consumption from tighter aerodynamics; cleaner, more powerful engines; and exhaust gas recirculation. But damaged parts from underhood heat continued to be a critical issue,” said Joshua Medling of Enviro-Cool, winner of the Automotive/Transportation Category. This led to the invention of the Enviro-Cool Air Management System that transfers underhood heat out of the truck body, rather than into the engine compartment. It does not affect the engine or body aerodynamics, enabling an “Aftermarket Super Truck” that is affordable for fleets. Added Medling, “Fifteen years later, three prototypes, and patents in 22 countries, we now have the solution.”
Cost-Saving Inspection Robot
Invented at Mansoura University in Egypt, the EJBot — winner of the Machinery/Automation/Robotics Category — is designed to both reduce the cost of inspecting vessels, and protect health of human inspectors. EJBot goes inside vessels such as petrochemical tanks to inspect them. “The idea,” said Dr. Mohamed Gouda Alkalla, “came from a discussion on turning the propellers of a quadcopter so that it can generate a thrust force to a wall.” This enables the robot to climb the wall of a tank or reactor. A new hybrid actuation system that consists of propeller thrust forces and standard wheel torque is the adhesion system for the climbing robot. This system generates the required adhesion force to support the robot on the climbed surfaces.
Building a Better LED
Today’s LEDs are built with many compound semiconductors, with some colors commonly made with one type of alloy, and other colors made with a different alloy. Integrating these LEDs on one wafer was almost impossible. NASA Langley Research Center’s integrated hybrid crystal LED display device that can emit red, green, and blue colors on a single wafer is the winner of this year’s Electronics/Sensors/IoT Category. Invented by Dr. Sang Choi of NASA Langley and Yeonjoon Park of the National Institute of Aerospace, the device is made with a hybrid crystal structure. The trial-and-error process of developing the technology closely relates to NASA Langley’s own history. Explained Dr. Choi, “Langley has been in the aeronautics area for 100 years. It was named after Samuel Pierpont Langley, who tried to fly an airplane and failed. So, NASA Langley stands for overcoming failure. That’s the way we have developed many airplanes that flew — and fly.”
A Critical Connection
In 2014, board-certified plastic surgeons performed 5.8 million reconstructive procedures in the US. Of those, more than 175,000 required micro-anastomosis, the surgical joining of small veins and arteries that’s performed with standard manual suturing techniques. The Arterial Everter — winner of the Medical Category — is a pencilsized device that provides an alternative to manual suturing of arteries. According to Jeffrey Plott, leader of the University of Michigan team that developed the technology, “When you suture arteries together, you need high magnification, and it takes a very skilled plastic surgeon about 25 minutes to connect two arteries. The Arterial Everter elongates the vessel and flips it over coupling pins, hooking the artery together.” This reduces the connection time to 5 minutes. “If you multiply that over several vessels,” added Plott, “it makes a big difference in the time under anesthesia.”
Water, Water Everywhere, But …
According to inventor Volodymyr Khranovskyy of Talent Molecule LDA, “Nine million people die every year because of environmental pollution. It’s more than malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS combined. Water can be contaminated biologically, mechanically, or chemically. Among the chemical contaminants, heavy metals are the worst. Once they get into our bodies, they stay. And slowly, but surely, they are killing us.” His invention — winner of the Sustainable Technologies Category — is a novel nanomaterial that attracts heavy metal ions in aqueous solutions, binding to the metals, and filtering them out. But, he added, “this is just the beginning. We don’t think our invention will replace all of the existing technology, but we will contribute to solving this environmental issue. We will help save many lives — and at least one planet.”