Research Rockstars

@ The Cockrell Booth

Ankita Kaul and another student show off one of the BloxRevolutionizing the Industry, One Block at a Time
Jesse Tannahill, Dan Cleary, Zach Wasson and Ankita Kaul

Perhaps you can remember playing with blocks as a child. Students in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department have created their own 'Blox,' which could propel the ordinary children's toys into the tech-savvy future by embedding technology into them, such as a microprocessor, touch-panels, display screen, speaker, wireless Xbee and infrared sensors.

The 3.2 x 3.2-inch cubes designed by students have the ability to auto-teach children basic skills such as counting and arithmetic, as well as explain difficult concepts using hands-on technology.

The "Blox" can also be used as a tool for budding application developers. As far as the students can tell, no other product currently in the market allows developers a complete software development kit to create their own distributed applications to run on multiple embedded systems.

In these ways, a Blox is more than just technology packed in a cube; it's more than a new children's toy; it's more than a platform for developers to create distributed applications and more. It's a new way of playing, thinking, teaching and learning.

Dr. David Bourell shows off some of his 3D printing modelsCreating Prosthetics and Aircraft Components Using 3D Printing
David Bourell

If you want to print a document, you simply hit print and a copy slides effortlessly from a printer. Now, the same can be said for fully functional 3D objects such as prosthetics, teeth and even aircraft components.

"We're working with three-dimensional printers in the same way that you sit at your computer screen and type something, and once you're done you hit the print button," said David Bourell, Temple Foundation Endowed Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of Laboratory for Freeform Fabrication. "We do the same thing, but with three dimensions … Once we're happy with what we have, we hit a print button, and that information goes to a fabricator and prints a 3D product."

The products are formed using Selective Lasering Sintering, an additive manufacturing process invented at the Cockrell School in the mid-1980s. Generally, anything that can be melted by a laser beam is fodder for materials used to create the products. In the case of 200 mini Tower replicas at SXSWi, nylon was the powder of choice.

"There are a whole host of applications — medical, dental, tooling, aerospace," Bourell said, "and the technology we have developed is out there."

Reeja Jayan holds a solar cellWorking to Print Solar Cells Like we Print Newspapers
Reeja Jayan

Solar power, solar cells, solar energy, solar cars. The term solar has proliferated a new era of energy consciousness. And now, a group of engineering students are examining solar cells to see if they can find a way to mass produce them for less.

"We try to find more affordable materials that can be used in solar cells to try to bring down the cost so more people can buy them," said Reeja Jayan, a graduate student in material science and engineering who has been researching solar cells. "The main philosophy in the lab is to find these materials, improve them and have them be inexpensive and do the job better."

Currently, Jayan is trying to produce solar cells combining semiconductor nano-structures with a sunlight-absorbing plastic that is more affordable than silicon — the material that is now used most often for solar cell production. The plastic she's using has met one criterion — it's affordable — but it isn't working very well in terms of absorption. Her goal is to dramatically improve the efficiency of the plastic, and find other inexpensive alternatives to silicon, so solar cells can be mass produced for less.

"In the long run, we're hoping you could actually print out these cells like you print out newspapers, so you can print out millions of them and they would be cheap," she said.

Jared GarrisonStoring Air to Store Electricity
Jared Garrison

The biggest challenge to integrating wind and solar technology into the electric grid is the intermittency of wind and sunlight. But faculty and students at the Cockrell School of Engineering are developing ways to store energy as compressed air powered from wind turbines, so that it can be used at a later time and converted into electricity when needed — in essence creating a more clean supply of electricity than natural gas or coal.

"The goal of energy storage is that consumers are able to use the electric grid as they did before, but in a way that's reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Jared Garrison, a mechanical engineering doctoral student who's leading research on energy storage.

Garrison's research centers on developing ways to store compressed air driven from wind turbines at high pressure. The air would be stored in deep geological formations for large-scale electricity use or in above-ground tanks for small-scale use. Following a heating and expansion process that uses heat from solar power and turbines to reduce the pressure, the air could be converted into electricity when needed, thus eliminating the intermittent nature of wind power for electricity.

Annie Weathers holds thermoelectric devicesImproving Fuel Efficiency, Starting With the Exhaust Pipe
Annie Weathers

What if fuel efficiency began at the exhaust pipe — if the heat generated by automobiles' exhaust could be captured and transferred into the engine to improve efficiency. Researchers are working on that very thing using thermoelectric devices.

"We're examining how a thermoelectric device can generate electricity from automobile waste heat," said Annie Weathers, a graduate student in mechanical engineering in the Nanomaterials and Thermo-Fluids Laboratory. "Thermoelectric devices on the exhaust pipes of automobiles will help recover wasted heat from the exhaust and turn it into electricity which can be used to power the engine."

Weathers demonstrates the heat transfer process by heating thermoelectric devices using a hot plate and, in turn, using the electricity generated to power a small fan.

"Our group is working to design thermoelectric materials that are affordable and abundant, but as efficient as current state-of-the-art thermoelectrics," she said. "We want these to be implemented more easily."

@ The Front Stage

Energy Abundance, What Then?
Bob Metcalfe

Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and new professor of innovation, wants to find the YouTubes of energy.

"When we're done solving energy in the coming decades, we'll have a squanderable abundance of cheap and clean energy," he said. "It's time to begin thinking about what we are going to use all the energy for."

During his five minute presentation at Ignite SXSWi, Bob will brainstorm new uses such as generalized economic prosperity, visiting the Moon or migrating to Mars, providing all the world with potable water, scanning and sequencing all of us for personalized health care, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and more.

Bob will also present a talk titled "The Future Enernet: A Conversation with Bob Metcalfe" Sunday at 12:30 p.m. where he'll discuss everything from how energy innovators can compete against the status quo to the energy technologies that look promising and what energy entrepreneurs can do to help facilitate their adoption.

@ The Pharos Booth

Building a Robotic Testbed to Enhance Mobile Communications
Chien-Liang Fok

Imagine pulling up to an intersection without any stoplights or signage and being surrounded by robots. Instead of waiting for a stoplight to turn green, the robots coordinate among each other and automatically navigate the intersection quickly and without incident.

All of this and more is being researched at the Pharos lab, a revolutionary testbed within the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering that examines perception, control and coordination in mobile computing environments and devices. The 'mobile' device is often a robot (aka node), which resembles a remote-controlled car, Roomba vacuum cleaner or Segway. The lab has between 30-40 nodes it works with regularly.

"We take all of these robots to a big parking lot and program them to move around while they talk to each other wirelessly," said Chien-Liang Fok, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wireless Networking and Communications Group. "Then we take all that data, process it, and see how it compares to simulations. We find that real life behavior is very different than simulated behavior."

Visitors to the Pharos booth can program the robots to perform simple commands and move about the space. The bots will have cameras attached to them so people can take pictures using the robots.