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Student innovators win big with tiny device designs

Student innovators win big with tiny device designs

Posting in Design

Big thinkers from Texas Tech University and Carnegie Mellon University who developed tiny devices won this year's student design contest at Sandia National Laboratories.

Big thinkers from Texas Tech University and Carnegie Mellon University who developed tiny devices won this year's student design contest at Sandia National Laboratories. The awards were announced last month.

Texas Tech students created a dragonfly-inspired aerial surveillance device that could be a pioneer in new developments in the field. Aerial surveillance devices have a variety of uses "from quantifying the radiation leaking from damaged Japanese nuclear reactors to delineating enemy positions," according to Sandia. The students' device is smaller than its state-of-the-art counterparts, with "biologically mimetic wings" about the width of five human hairs. Rather than flying with the propulsion of a motor or jet, the device is powered by small electric currents that cause its wings to flap.

"Among the countless insect species able to fly, we chose the dragonfly because it flaps its wings in the vertical direction, rather than back-and-forth or in a rotary motion," Texas Tech student Sahil Oak said in news release. "The vertical motion of the large wings in our design not only provides greater surface area for lift than most flying insects but the wings cool faster, enabling faster flapping."

At Carnegie Mellon, students designed a highly-sensitive microvalve. Used to control fluid flow, traditional valves have either screw-based (shower or sink) or switch-based (ink-jet printer) motions. The students' project maintained fine control over tiny amounts of liquid flow thanks to its micro-switch-based valve. The design, according to Sandia, "will help determine characteristics that would create the most efficient and lowest leakage microvalves on Earth." Eventually, these technologies could be put to use in biological research laboratory experiments and medical facilities.

"One of the most common types of microvalves is electrostatically operated, which is the model for our design," Carnegie Mellon student research lead Vitali Brand said in news release. "The best microvalves are useful in certain fuel cell designs and in microengines because they can close or open in less than one-thousandth of a second and function against heavy pressures without leaking."

Image, top: Rendering of Texas Tech project

Image, bottom: Rendering of Carnegie Mellon project

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure