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Electrical engineering students unveil capstone designs

Senior electrical engineering students from Ohio University's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology demonstrated their original design projects this week, ranging from innovations for the healthcare industry to autonomous robots.

Seven teams exhibited their unique designs, which they spent the entire year developing from idea to prototype. The projects included a floor mat that captures the energy from foot traffic and a vacuum chamber capable of testing nano-electrical devices under various conditions.

Thomas Caston, a member of the Energy Harvesting team, said the basic principle behind their floor mat is piezoelectricity, which describes how certain elements, when mechanical energy is exerted on them, actually generate an electric current.

The team's mat is raised up on a set of springs so when it is stepped on, the mat moves up and down. This motion produces an electric current in the piezoelectric cable that runs throughout the mat.

This concept, Caston said, is already being used successfully in subway stations in Japan and dance floors in European nightclubs. In both applications, the systems generate enough electricity to power all the lighting in each location.

But the possibilities don't stop there, according to Caston.

"The applications of this really are endless," he said. "Wherever you find mechanical energy, especially areas with a lot of foot traffic, you can put in a system like this to power just about anything."

The Vacuum Chamber team developed a cost-effective way to test micro and nano electronics to increase the precision and accuracy of experiments on these devices.

The team was challenged to build the chamber, along with the necessary testing software, without exceeding a fixed budget. Team member Jason Wright said developing the project cheaply was difficult, but they found ways around the high cost of materials.

Wright said the team bought some items on eBay, saving tens of thousands of dollars. Wright and his team also developed the software for the device themselves.

"The kind of skills that the software design required aren't really taught in any electrical engineering classes, so getting a chance to work on that part of the project really allowed me to learn a lot I wouldn't have otherwise," Wright said.

Bryan Riley, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and lead instructor for the capstone projects, said the projects allow students to learn what it is like to be practicing engineers. 

"We try to guide students through the rigors of the design process and train them to be good project developers, manage a limited budget and work well in teams," Riley said. "It really prepares them for real-world expectations and readies them to be successful engineers."