Winning Ideas: The Bodyheat Powered Flashlight!

body_heat_flashlightEvery year, IT giant Google holds an online competition open to students aged 13-18 from around the globe to come up with new and challenging scientific ideas. And this year, one the winners just happens to hail from my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. Her name is Ann Makosinki, a 15 year old high school student who invented a way to power a flashlight using only the warmth of your hand.

She claimed a trophy made of Lego for the 15-16 age category at an awards gala that was held on Monday, Sept. 23rd. Her prizes were a $25,000 scholarship and a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” from either CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), LEGO or Google. Quite the impressive accomplishment for a 11th grader, but then again, Makosinki has been a scientist at heart ever since she was a little kid.

google-science-fair-winners-2013For starters, when other children were playing with toy cars and dolls, she busied herself with transistors and microcircuits. What’s more, by Grade 6, she began submitting projects to science fairs and began showing an interest in alternative energy. Still, Makosinki was surprised to be getting an award, given her competition. As she said:

I’m in shock, I’m in shock. It’s actually kind of embarrassing because I didn’t even change [before the awards ceremony]. I didn’t even comb my hair or anything. I must have looked like an absolute mess on stage because I didn’t expect to go up at all.

As for the invention itself, it is easy to see why she won. Basically, it is an LED flashlight that relies on the thermoelectric effect to generate electricity when held. This is done through a series of devices that are known as Peltier tiles, which produce electricity when heated on one side and cooled on the other. The tiles are fixed to the outside of the flashlight while the tube itself is hollow.

peltier-figure-9When held one side of the Peltier tiles are heated by the warmth of the person’s hand, air flowing through the hollow tube helps keep the other side cool. This combination of body heat and air cooling allows enough power to be generated to maintain a steady beam of light for 20 minutes. And all without the need for batteries and the resulting ewaste when they go dead.

Makosinki came up with the idea while researching different forms of alternative energy a few years ago. Already, she had experimented with Peltier tiles for her Grade 7 science fair project. While researching her project, she thought of them again as a way to potentially capture the thermal energy produced by the human body. After doing some calculations, she found that the amount of energy produced by a person’s hand was theoretically sufficient to power an LED light.

ann_makosinksiHowever, putting it into practice proved somewhat more difficult. After buying some Peltier tiles on eBay, she tested them and found that while they generated more than enough power, the voltage produced was only a fraction of what she needed. She rectified this problem after doing some further research, where she discovered that the addition of transformers could be used to boost the voltage.

She spent months doing research on the internet, experimenting with different circuits and even building her own transformers, which still didn’t provide enough voltage. In the end, she came across an article on the web about energy harvesting that suggested an affordable circuit that would provide the voltage she needed when used with a recommended transformer. Finally, the circuit worked.

ann_makosinksi1Makosinski admitted there were points in the experiment when she thought it would never work. But as she said:

You just kind of have to keep going. This took quite awhile ’cause I had to do it during the school year as well and I had homework, plays, whatever that I was also doing.

After making it to the Google Science Fair, she and her colleagues spent the day presenting at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Here, the 15 judges – which included scientists from a variety of fields, science journalists, an astronaut, and a former Google Science Fair winner – witnessed their creations and tried to determine which held the most promise.

The other winners included Viney Kumar, an Australia student who captured the 13-14 age category for an Android app that warns drivers of an approaching emergency vehicle more than a minute in advance, in order to help clear a path for it. And then there was Elif Bilgin of Turkey, a 16-year old who took home the Scientific American Science in Action Prize and the Voter’s Choice Award for inventing a way to make plastic from banana peels.

Ann-Makosinski-Google-Science-Fair-2The Grand Prize for the 17-18 age category went to Eric Chen, a 17 year old student from San Diego who is researching a new kind of anti-flu medicine using a combination of computer modelling and biological studies. He received the top prize of a $50,000 scholarship and a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Alas, Makosinki felt the best part of the competition was getting to meet the other finalists in person at last.

It’s just so inspiring to see other people who are kind of like me and kind of want to make a difference in the community not just by talking about it but by actually doing stuff.

What’s next for the young inventor? Personally, I hope Makosinki and her fellow prize winners will be forming their own research group and looking for new and exciting ways to come up with renewable energy, recycling, vaccinations, and electronics. What do you think Makonsinky, Kumar, Bilgin, Chen? That’s what Andraka and his fellow finalists did after winning ISEF 2012, and they seem to be doing pretty good. So… hintedy, hint hint!

And be sure to enjoy this video of Ann Makosinki showing off her invention, courtesy of Technexo:


Sources:
cbc.ca, (2), gizmag.com, technexo.com, huffingtonpost.ca

The Future is Here: Radiowave-Powered Devices

radio-waves-airwaves-spectrumIt sounds like something out of science fiction, using existing existing internet electromagnetic signals to power our devices. But given the concerns surrounding ewaste and toxic materials, anything that could make an impact by eliminating batteries is a welcome idea. And if you live in an urban environment, chances are you’re already cloaked in TV and radio waves invisible that are invisible to the naked eye.

And that’s precisely what researchers at the University of Washington have managed to do. Nine months ago,  Joshua Smith (an associate professor of electrical engineer) and Shyam Gollakota (an assistant professor of computer science and engineering) started investigating how one might harvest energy from TV signals to communicate, and eventually designed two card-like devices that can swap data without using batteries.

wireless-device1Running on what the researchers coined “ambient backscatter,” the device works by capturing existing energy and reflecting it, like a transistor. Currently, our communications and computing devices require a lot of power, even by battery, in order to function. But as Gollakota explains, all of these objects are already creating energy that could be harnessed:

Every object around you is reflecting signals. Imagine you have a desk that is wooden, and it’s reflecting signals, but if you actually make [the desk] iron, it’s going to reflect a much larger amount of energy. We’re trying to replicate that on an analog device.

The new technique is still in its infancy, but shows great promise. Their device transfers data at a rate of one kilobit per second and can only transmit at distances under 2.5 feet. Still, it has exciting implications, they say, for the “Internet of things.” The immediate use for this technology, everything from smart phones to tablets and MP3 players, is certainly impressive.

wireless-deviceBut on their website, the team provides some added examples of applications that they can foresee taking advantage of this technology. Basically, they foresee an age when backscatter devices can be implanted in just about anything ranging from car keys and appliances to structural materials and buildings, allowing people to find them if they get lost, or to be alerting people that there’s some kind of irregularity.

As Smith claimed on the team’s website:

I think the Internet of things looks like many objects that kind of have an identity and state–they can talk to each other. Ultimately, I think people want to view this information… That’s part of the vision. There will be information about objects in the physical world that we can access.

The energy harvester they used for the paper, which they presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication in Hong Kong, requires 100 microwatts to turn on, but the team says it has a design that can run on as low as 15 microwatts. Meanwhile, the technique is already capable of communicating location, identity, and sensor data, and is sure to increase in range as efficiency improves.

vortex-radio-waves-348x196The University of Washington presentation took home “best paper” in Hong Kong, and researchers say they’re excited to start exploring commercial applications. “We’ve had emails from different places–sewer systems, people who have been constrained by the fact that you need to recharge things,” Gollakota says. “Our goal for next six months is to increase the data rate it can achieve.”

Combined with Apple’s development of wireless recharging, this latest piece of technology could be ushering in an age of  wireless and remotely powered devices. Everything from smartphones, tablets, implants, and even household appliances could all be running on the radio waves that are already permeating our world. All that ambient radiation we secretly worry is increasing our risks of cancer would finally be put to good use!

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the UofW’s backscatter device in action:

The Future is Here: Electronics that Dissolve

electronicsIt is no secret that research into nanotechnology is bearing fruit these days. Back in February, both Standford and MIT unveiled implantable devices which would be capable of delivering drugs directly into the human blood stream and detecting health problems. However, despite all the progress being made in terms of nano-miniaturization, there are still numerous barriers which need to be overcome.

For example, having microelectronics in the body, while initially beneficial, might prove problematic with time. What’s to happen when they are finished their jobs, become obsolete, or simply stop working after awhile? As anyone who’s ever owned a computer, PDA, mobile device or laptop can tell you, the stuff breaks! And if it does happen to live past its warranty, chances are it will be obsolete in six months… tops!

Such machines need a way to be removed, but given their size (o.oooooooo1 meters), that’s not exactly practical. And even if it were, there’s the question of disposal. Once commercially viable, there are likely to be billions of nanomachines in circulation. Even at their miniscule scale, such machinery could pose environmental hazards, especially if its likely to malfunction. Ever heard of Grey Goo? Well that’s a scenario that researchers have to consider.

Luckily, researchers at the University of Illinois have come up with a possible solution: electronics that dissolve! Composed of silicon, magnesium, magnesium oxide and contained within a protective layer of silk, these “transient electronics” are built to melt away just as soon as their tasks are complete.

In the process, they will reduce or remove the need to pass or surgically remove medical implants. Using rats as test subject, the researchers built their implants out of extremely thin sheets of silicon called nanomembranes to get the electronics to dissolve in hours or days instead of years.

Of course, the medical applications are clear. Already, electronics are being tailor made for the delivery of drugs, sensors implanted in internal organs to monitor of problems, and temperature monitors created to safeguard against infection and disease. Combined with external sensors, doctors would be able to do a full medical workup within seconds, and much of the guess work involving symptoms and patient history could be eliminated. Exploratory surgery could also become a thing of the past, since doctors would be able to use internal sensors to diagnose unexplained problems.

The researchers also used silk collected from silkworm cocoons to control the speed of disintegration. This is part of a growing field of electrical engineering that seeks to create biodegradable microchips and other electronics, in part for the sake of implantation but also to ensure the elimination of computer waste.

Such waste, which includes disposable cell phones, cameras, and computers, currently accounts for 50 million tons of waste a year. Sixty percent of that is produced in the US, but could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in developing nations such as India and China. Designing these types of components now could ensure the aversion of a possible ecological disaster.

Source: news.cnet.com