• Sophomore Xavier Gonzalez, right, shows his team's poster to judge Cora Leibig, an MIT alum who works at Dow Chemical. Gonzalez' team, Biogas Nicaragua, finished second in the MADMEC contest, held Sept. 25, 2007. Open image gallery

    Photo / Edwin Thomas

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Students shape materials for their own devices

A team of MIT students has taken the concept of using biomass to generate energy and shrunk it to fit inside a handheld device that could be used to charge cell phones.

The team of materials science students, known as BioVolt, won first prize in the inaugural MADMEC (MIT and Dow Materials Engineering Contest), held Tuesday, Sept. 25.

The BioVolt device generates electricity from cellulosic biomass for household use in economically underdeveloped countries. In particular, the gadget is designed to charge mobile phones in rural areas where electricity can be scarce.

Professor Edwin (Ned) Thomas, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said the judges were impressed by the team's creativity. The BioVolt prototype uses anaerobic microorganisms to digest cellulose and convert it to electricity and water in a microbial fuel cell.

"They took risks, and it was really different. They had done a lot of materials work," Thomas said.

Five teams reached the finals of the MADMEC competition, which challenged students to use principles of materials science and engineering to build a prototype device that harvests, stores or exploits alternative energy sources. Teams were judged on the creativity, practicality and potential useful impact of their inventions, said Thomas.

Members of the winning team, which took home $5,000, are graduate students Ethan Crumlin, Gerardo Jose la O' and Joseph Walish, and sophomores John Craven and Andrew Hoy.

The second place team was Biogas Nicaragua, which included graduate student Jonathan Rose, 2007 graduates Chris Tostado and Julian Villarreal, and sophomores Xavier Gonzalez and Russell Rodewald. Biogas Nicaragua developed a prototype that uses microbes to convert biomass such as crop waste and animal dung into methane that can be used for cooking. The team has set up a testing station in Nicaragua and plans to continue the project next summer.

Third place went to the Curie Brothers, who designed a prototype to improve automobile engine efficiency. Their redesigned shock absorber generates electricity which can be stored in the battery whenever the car hits a bump in the road. Team members are seniors Vladimir Tarasov and Paul Abel, and junior Shakeel Avadhany.

The prize for second place was $3,000 and the third-place team won $2,000.

Judges for the competition were MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering faculty members Eugene Fitzgerald, Michael Cima, Yoel Fink and Francesco Stellacci, plus two representatives from contest sponsor Dow Chemical, who are also MIT alumni--Cora Leibig (B.S., S.M., S.M. 1993) and Ted Carnahan (Ph.D. 1991).

Contest organizer Michael Tarkanian (S.B. 2000, S.M. 2003), a technical instructor in materials science and engineering, praised the teams' work.

"They had some really good ideas, and some great prototypes were built," he said. "Everybody should be pleased with the results."

The contest started in April, when student teams submitted their proposals. Teams spent the summer working on their projects, and six finalists were chosen in August (one team dropped out before the final round).

Thomas is also the founder of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, which holds a similar contest that has led to development of several startup companies. Thomas said he hopes this contest will become just as successful.

"If things go well, we want to expand it," he said.

For more information about the contest and the teams, visit the MADMEC web site at dmse.mit.edu/madmec.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 3, 2007 (download PDF).

Topics: Materials science, Contests and academic competitions


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