HOUSTON – (July 22, 2013) – Rice University nanotechnology researchers have unveiled a solar-powered sterilization system that could be a boon for more than 2.5 billion people who lack adequate sanitation. The “solar steam” sterilization system uses nanomaterials to convert as much as 80 percent of the energy in sunlight into germ-killing heat.
The technology is described online in a July 8 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesEarly Edition. In the paper, researchers from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) show two ways that solar steam can be used for sterilization — one setup to clean medical instruments and another to sanitize human waste.
“Sanitation and sterilization are enormous obstacles without reliable electricity,” said Rice photonics pioneer Naomi Halas, the director of LANP and lead researcher on the project, with senior co-author and Rice professor Peter Nordlander. “Solar steam’s efficiency at converting sunlight directly into steam opens up new possibilities for off-grid sterilization that simply aren’t available today.”
In a previous study last year, Halas and colleagues showed that “solar steam” was so effective at direct conversion of solar energy into heat that it could even produce steam from ice water.
“It makes steam directly from sunlight,” she said. “That means the steam forms immediately, even before the water boils.”
Halas, Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, professor of physics, professor of chemistry and professor of biomedical engineering, is one of the world’s most-cited chemists. Her lab specializes in creating and studying light-activated particles. One of her creations, gold nanoshells, is the subject of several clinical trials for cancer treatment.
Solar steam’s efficiency comes from light-harvesting nanoparticles that were created at LANP by Rice graduate student Oara Neumann, the lead author on the PNAS study. Neumann created a version of nanoshells that converts a broad spectrum of sunlight — including both visible and invisible bandwidths — directly into heat. When submerged in water and exposed to sunlight, the particles heat up so quickly they instantly vaporize water and create steam. The technology has an overall energy efficiency of 24 percent. Photovoltaic solar panels, by comparison, typically have an overall energy efficiency of around 15 percent.
When used in the autoclaves in the tests, the heat and pressure created by the steam were sufficient to kill not just living microbes but also spores and viruses. The solar steam autoclave was designed by Rice undergraduates at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and refined by Neumann and colleagues at LANP. In the PNAS study, standard tests for sterilization showed the solar steam autoclave could kill even the most heat-resistant microbes.
“The process is very efficient,” Neumann said. “For the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program that is sponsoring us, we needed to create a system that could handle the waste of a family of four with just two treatments per week, and the autoclave setup we reported in this paper can do that.”
Halas said her team hopes to work with waste-treatment pioneer Sanivation to conduct the first field tests of the solar steam waste sterilizer at three sites in Kenya.
“Sanitation technology isn’t glamorous, but it’s a matter of life and death for 2.5 billion people,” Halas said. “For this to really work, you need a technology that can be completely off-grid, that’s not that large, that functions relatively quickly, is easy to handle and doesn’t have dangerous components. Our Solar Steam system has all of that, and it’s the only technology we’ve seen that can completely sterilize waste. I can’t wait to see how it performs in the field.”
Paper co-authors include Curtis Feronti, Albert Neumann, Anjie Dong, Kevin Schell, Benjamin Lu, Eric Kim, Mary Quinn, Shea Thompson, Nathaniel Grady, Maria Oden and Nordlander, all of Rice. The research was supported by a Grand Challenges grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and by the Welch Foundation.
VIDEO is available at:
The following IMAGE is available at:
Rice University graduate student Oara Neumann, left, and scientist Naomi Halas are co-authors of a new study about a highly efficient method of turning sunlight into heat. They expect their technology to have an initial impact as an ultra-small-scale system to treat human waste in developing nations without sewer systems or electricity. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
A copy of the PNAS paper is available at:
HOUSTON – (May 14, 2013) – A team of Rice University students has designed a new capo for guitar that won’t block players from making certain chords without cramping their fingers.
The capo is a clamp-like device that acts as a sixth finger across the strings.
The students’ attempt to build a better capo was inspired by Rice trustee and alumnus John Jaggers, managing general partner of Dallas venture capital firm Sevin Rosen Funds. In his spare time, Jaggers plays in an acoustic duo with his friend and fellow picker Matthew Carroll. Knowing from experience how well Rice students are trained to think about such issues, Jaggers approached engineering educators at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) to see if his idea struck a chord.
Jaggers said he and Carroll started talking about capos and decided changes were in order.
“I’ve been fairly involved in Rice and a big believer in the OEDK,” Jaggers said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a mechanical design challenge.’” He noted that he and Carroll are not mechanical engineers. “And frankly, we don’t have a lot of time to sit around designing capos. So I thought this might be a great project,” he said.
The team of A.J. Fenton, Eric Stone, Lisa Sampson, Nicki Chamberlain-Simon and Amber Wang took four months this spring to design and build a series of prototypes that flatten out the capo, sweeping the mechanical elements back and out of the way of flying fingers while retaining all the qualities good commercial capos offer: versatility, speed of placement and the convenience of being able to clip it onto the headstock when not needed.
Few think about all the problems the guitar poses for a capo maker. The device acts as the barre, taking the place of the index finger that spans the neck in a barre chord and depressing the strings just enough to create solid contact with the frets but not so much as to throw the tones off-pitch. That lets a player change the key of a song to match one’s vocal range without changing the basic chord shapes.
The capo also has to be forgiving enough to accommodate a variety of guitar necks, which not only change from guitar to guitar, but also along the neck of a single guitar. Finally, it had better not dig into the woodwork.
“Sometimes capos hurt,” the guitar-playing Fenton said as he demonstrated a commercial unit that juts out perpendicularly from the neck. “When you play this F major 7, it presses against your index finger and it’s quite uncomfortable, especially if you want to wrap your thumb all the way around.”
“Most people figure out how to make do and curse a little bit while they play, but it’s pretty awkward,” Jaggers added.
“There are a lot of nuances we didn’t think about before we started, like the curvature of the guitar neck or the materials we had available,” Wang said. “Every single part of the prototype we had to make ourselves. So we had to be creative.”
The students’ final prototype has a two-piece, spring-loaded plastic framework created on a 3-D printer with a hard rubber strip that contacts and gently clamps the strings. While it’s not yet perfect – the capo has to be placed just so – the teammates feel they’ve come a long way in four months toward the guitarists’ goal.
They expect the capo project will continue next year, perhaps with a new team of students to work with advisers Ann Saterbak, a professor in the practice of engineering education, and Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer in engineering.
Watch a video about the capo project here: http://youtu.be/HwHlp79ld9Q
Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews
Rice Capo Team: http://oedk.rice.edu/Content/Members/MemberPublicProfile.aspx?pageId=1063096&memberId=9266280
Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen: http://oedk.rice.edu
George R. Brown School of Engineering: http://engr.rice.edu
Images for download:
Rice freshmen created a capo that sweeps the mechanical elements out of the way of the player’s fingers to make it easier to play certain chords. (Credit: Tommy LaVergne/Rice University)
A.J. Fenton demonstrates the Rice Capo Team’s product, a prototype capo that is easy to move along the neck of a guitar while staying out of the way of flying fingers. A team of freshman engineering students invented the device. (Credit: Tommy LaVergne/Rice University)
Guitar player John Jaggers, a Rice University trustee and alumnus, brought the idea for a new kind of capo to students at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. (Credit: Tommy LaVergne/Rice University)
HOUSTON – (May 13, 2013) – Rice University students have created a belt that monitors signs of epileptic seizures and sends information to the caregiver’s bedside.
The belt detects increased electrical conductance in the skin and changes in respiration rate, both signs that a seizure is underway. Though children or adults can wear the belt, the students designed it with kids in mind. They want parents to be aware of when a child is having a seizure, especially during the night.
The members of Team Seize and Assist – Ethan Leng, Mihir Mongia, Charles Park, Tiffany Varughese and Andrew Wu – built the belt as their senior capstone design project, required of most Rice engineering students. Cyberonics Inc., a Houston-based medical device company, sponsored the project; Gary Woods, a Rice professor in the practice of computer technology and electrical and computer engineering, advised the team.
The SMART (Seizure Monitoring and Response Transducer) belt has two silver/silver chloride electrodes, like those used in lie detectors, positioned on the torso. They sense electrical conductivity. The belt has another sensor that monitors breathing. The sensors are attached to a removable electronic module that acquires and transmits the signals. When the sensors show signs of a seizure, the transmitter sends data via Bluetooth to either a computer or smartphone.
“Our belt is targeted for ages 6 years and up,” Varughese said. “It works best during the nighttime because there’s not a lot of other stimuli, and we can definitely detect changes in the two signs.”
While an electroencephalograph (EEG) is the standard of care for seizure detection, it is expensive and can’t be used 24/7, Varughese said. The students aimed for an inexpensive, comfortable device that could be worn around the clock under a patient’s clothes and not only monitor for seizures but also compile a record of seizure occurrences that would be of value to their doctors, she said.
The students said testing has not been performed on people with epilepsy, but their own tests on healthy volunteers, as approved by Rice’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), were promising.
“We’ve had Andrew wear it overnight and had multiple IRB volunteers wear it for 20-30 minutes to get data,” Varughese said. “They rate this device highly in terms of comfort.”
To gather data, volunteers were asked to hyperventilate or they were startled by a loud noise, both of which prompt a “fight-or-flight” response similar to what a person with epilepsy experiences during a seizure.
The students said bed-vibration sensors are often used to detect convulsions that occur in 20 percent of epileptic seizures, but they are prone to false positives. “You don’t want parents waking up too frequently, or they won’t use the device,” Varughese said.
The students see their device as a way to help many of the 2.3 million people with epilepsy in the United States. “The main goal of our project was to build the sensors and demonstrate that they work, and show they have the potential to detect seizures,” Park said.
While it does not stop a seizure in progress, such an early warning device will help parents keep their children safe, Varughese added. “Having someone there to make sure the person is stable is the most important thing,” she said.
Watch a video demonstration at http://youtu.be/MieHWxER3us
Seize and Assist team: http://oedk.rice.edu/Content/Members/MemberPublicProfile.aspx?pageId=1063096&memberId=8104051
The Seize and Assist team of Rice University engineering students has created a sensor belt to give a wireless alert of the onset of an epileptic seizure. From left: Charles Park, Mihir Mongia, Tiffany Varughese, Ethan Leng and Andrew Wu. (Credit: An Le/Luxe Studio Productions)
Rice University engineering students Tiffany Varughese and Andrew Wu prepare their SMART belt for testing. The belt monitors for signs of an epileptic seizure and sends data wirelessly to a smartphone or computer. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
Rice University engineering student Andrew Wu tries on the SMART belt, which monitors for signs of an epileptic seizure. The belt would normally be worn under clothes and in contact with the skin, where it can detect changes in electrical conductivity and breathing patterns. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
The prototype SMART belt to monitor for signs of an epileptic seizure includes a Bluetooth transmitter and a battery in a snap-on box that can be removed to allow the belt to be cleaned. Senior engineering students at Rice University designed the device. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
HOUSTON – (May 9, 2013) – Rice University students have created a way to help health care workers track vaccines and keep them at a safe temperature.
The SAFE Vaccine senior engineering design team, working at the request of Dr. Patrick McColloster, an associate professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, assembled a device to regulate the temperature of any standard refrigerator to keep it within a range that’s safe for vaccines. Their invention also tracks vaccine stock, usage and expiration dates and, as a result, takes a load of paperwork off the backs of nurses.
A 2011 study by McColloster determined that many refrigerators in Houston medical facilities were freezing vaccines. While freezing doesn’t necessarily destroy them, the vaccines are less effective once they thaw.
Installing laboratory-standard refrigerators would solve the problem, McColloster said. “But average physicians are not going to have these. They wouldn’t be able to afford them.”
Many of these physicians are part of the massive Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vaccines for Children program that serves millions each year. “When I did the study, I initially thought this was an idiosyncratic problem here,” McColloster said, but noted the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general issued a report in 2012 that found refrigeration problems nationwide.
“The problem isn’t that the vaccines are wasted or thrown away because of improper temperature management,” said Amanda Walborn, a member of the SAFE Vaccine team. “It’s that the vaccine gets damaged and nobody knows it. And it gets administered anyway.”
Walborn and her teammates, Anisha Kunder, Josh Mrozack, Max Chester and Andres Martin de Nicolas, found the rudimentary temperature controls in standard refrigerators make it hard to keep vaccines within the mandated range of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius.
Vaccine refrigerators are opened and closed many times during the day, and nurses often turn the thermostat down to compensate, McColloster found.
“They set it to the lowest setting to keep it cold enough,” Martin de Nicolas said. “But if they leave it there overnight and during weekends, the temperature will drop too much. It’s very easy to overlook.”
McColloster approached the team’s adviser, Maria Oden, director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, to see if Rice students could build a better system.
“He wanted us to build a fridge,” Martin de Nicolas said. “But we decided that instead of reinventing the wheel, we would deal with existing equipment and control it better.”
Their more practical solution involves sensors placed inside the refrigerator wired to a controller mounted on the outside. The controller monitors the temperature and adjusts it to a fine degree by literally turning the power to the refrigerator on and off as needed. Ultimately, they plan to link the sensors and controller wirelessly.
The heart of the system is a Raspberry Pi, a complete computer that costs only $35 and can output data to a monitor and be programmed with a keyboard and mouse.
“Generally for this sort of control system, we’d use a microcontroller rather than a full CPU,” Mrozack said. He said the computer they’re using is “much easier for prototyping and programming.”
The computer was flexible enough to allow the team to incorporate the vaccine-tracking system that prints bar code stickers for every box in a refrigerator. When nurses remove vaccines for use, they scan the box and the system prints the necessary paperwork.
Martin de Nicolas and Chester plan to stay on after graduation to prepare a functional prototype for testing this summer. They also plan to develop a power backup system that McColloster said will be especially useful in areas prone to brownouts and blackouts.
“I’ve been working on this type of problem for 20 years,” said McColloster, who sees potential for the device in developing countries as well. “Thank God (for) this program with Dr. Oden.”
Watch a video about the SAFE Vaccine project at http://youtu.be/GPL09jgTcjM
SAFE Vaccine: http://oedk.rice.edu/Content/Members/MemberPublicProfile.aspx?pageId=1063096&memberId=8093971
Vaccines for Children: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/programs/vfc/index.html
Vaccines for Children Program: Vulnerabilities in Vaccine Management: http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-04-10-00430.pdf
US vaccine refrigeration guidelines: Loose links in the cold chain:http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/vaccines/article/14489/?nocache=106851251
Graphic-output temperature data loggers for monitoring vaccine refrigeration: implications for pertussis: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21088272
A team of Rice University seniors built a system to control the temperature in standard refrigerators used for vaccine storage. From left: Max Chester, Josh Mrozack, Amanda Walborn, Anisha Kunder and Andres Martin de Nicolas. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
Rice senior Josh Mrozack shows the SAFE Vaccine device during the university’s recent Engineering Design Showcase. The device regulates temperatures in standard refrigerators used to store vaccines and tracks their usage. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
A group of Rice University mechanical engineering students are getting a charge out of having the coolest new shoes on campus.
As their capstone project that is required for graduation, four seniors created a way to extract and store energy with every step. Their PediPower shoes turn motion into juice for portable electronics and, perhaps someday, for life-preserving medical devices.
Cameron, a Houston-based international company, approached the Rice engineering students with the project. The company primarily works on the macroscale as a provider of flow equipment, systems and services for the oil, gas and process industries, but it asked the students to look toward microscale green energy technologies.
Julian Castro models the PediPower, an energy-producing prototype to run small electronics. It was invented by senior engineering students at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.
The Agitation Squad – Carlos Armada, Julian Castro, David Morilla and Tyler Wiest – decided last fall to focus their attention on where the rubber meets the road to create a shoe-mounted generator. Another device to draw energy from the motion of the knee had already been developed and patented and led them to analyze other sources of energy.
Working with the Motion Analysis Laboratory at Shriners Hospital for Children in Houston, the team determined the force at the heel delivered far more potential for power than any other part of the foot.
“We went to the lab and saw the force distribution across the bottom of your foot, to see where the most force is felt,” Morilla said. “We found it would be at the heel and at the balls of your toes, as you push off. We went with the heel because, unless you’re sprinting, you’re letting gravity do the work.”
Their devices as currently designed are admittedly too big for day-to-day wear, but the prototypes developed at Rice’sOshman Engineering Design Kitchen with the team’s advisers, David McStravick and Omar Kabir, meet the benchmarks set by the company. McStravick is a professor in the practice of mechanical engineering and materials science; Kabir is a senior principle research engineer in corporate technology at Cameron.
The prototypes deliver an average of 400 milliwatts, enough to charge a battery, in benchtop tests (and a little less in walking tests, where the moving parts don’t move as far). They send energy through wires to a belt-mounted battery pack. A voltage regulator keeps it flowing steadily to the battery.
Rice University senior engineering students were charged with creating a source of green energy from human motion. The team -- from left, Tyler Wiest, Carlos Armada, Julian Castro and David Morilla -- created prototype generators mounted to shoes. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.
The PediPower hits the ground before any other part of the prototype shoe. A lever arm strikes first. It is attached to a gearbox that replaces much of the shoe’s sole and turns the gears a little with each step. The gears drive a motor mounted on the outside of the shoe that generates electricity to send up to the battery.
“It may be worth looking into having both the heel and the ball of the foot produce power, especially if this shoe could be used while running,” Armada said.
The students expect the project to be picked up by another team at Rice in the fall, with the hope they can refine the materials, shrink the size and boost the power output, all of which will get PediPower closer to being a commercial product.
“If we could prove that we could produce some usable power, store it in a battery and discharge that battery on a mobile device or an MP3 player, then we could prove this device works,” Armada said. “Now the next team can come in and make it smaller and lighter without sacrificing power.”
Tyler Wiest attaches a PediPower to a shoe for a demonstration of its power-generating capabilities at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
For now, the team would like to provide enough dependable power for cellphones and other portable electronics. But they’re aware that Cameron has partnered with the Texas Heart Institute to apply its expertise in moving fluids to a new generation of artificial heart pumps, and the students hope their work will contribute to that goal.
“Just the fact that you’re relying on human movement to power something that’s critical to your life is a little bit scary,” Armada said. “You sleep for eight hours a day and you’re not moving. You want to make sure you’re making enough power during the day to last. Realistically, this might be more of a device to charge your phone.
“Theoretically it would be something you just wear, and you don’t notice it,” he said. “That’s the end goal. If you showed someone the shoe while you’re standing still, they wouldn’t even see the device.”
The latest student invention from Rice University’s award-winning engineering design program undefined a set of intravenous tubing that could slash IV-related infections undefined looks so simple. But looks can be deceiving.
The four graduating seniors who created the EZ Flush IV tubing set spent hundreds of hours creating an elegant solution to a major health care problem in the developing world: Most hospitals there cannot afford the prefilled saline syringes that nurses in developed countries routinely use to flush IV lines.
Regular flushing prevents infections from forming around the IV catheter, a thin, flexible tube that stays inside the patient’s arm. Infections from catheters can be deadly, and the rate of these infections is much higher in developing countries.
Smooth Saline team members Becky Zaunbrecher, Lindsay Miller, Jessica Williams and Kathleen Wiest are each slated to graduate May 11 with degrees in bioengineering. Prior to teaming up last fall at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), all four had taken courses in global health, and three had spent a summer abroad testing innovative medical designs in the developing world as part of Rice’s award-winning, hands-on engineering education program Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB).
Smooth Saline team member Lindsay Miller explains the EZ Flush design to Rice University Representative Y. Ping Sun at Rice's annual Engineering Design Showcase.
“Ours is pretty unique in terms of a global health project because ours was actually pitched by Becton/Dickenson, a medical device company in the United States,” Wiest said. “BD sells prefilled saline syringes in the United States and around the world, and they asked us to create a new design that would be more affordable for developing countries.”
Smooth Saline’s ingenious solution would allow a nurse in a low-resource hospital to regularly flush IV lines using sterile saline from a patient’s IV bag. All that’s required is a set of IV tubing that contains three tiny clamps, about six inches of extra tubing and a tiny plastic pouch about the size of a ketchup packet. To flush an IV catheter, a nurse simply clamps off the IV line leading to the patient’s arm, redirects a few milliliters of sterile saline from the IV bag into the pouch, opens one clamp, closes another and then squeezes the saline from the pouch through the catheter.
“If we add up the features of our prototype, it costs us about $2.50 to manufacture the whole thing,” Williams said. “But we’re using slightly more expensive parts since we don’t buy them in bundles of 5 million like an IV tubing manufacturer would.”
Smooth Saline team members Becky Zaunbrecher and Jessica Williams test some prototypes to determine if the seals are watertight.
With economies of scale, Smooth Saline estimates the design will add less than $1 to the cost of producing a set of IV tubing. Because each set can be used for about two dozen flushes, the per-flush cost of adding the feature is around 4 cents.
The EZ Flush design earned Smooth Saline the top prize in Rice 360°’s Undergraduate Global Health Technology Design Competition as well as first prize in Rice’s annual Undergraduate Elevator Pitch Competition. The simplicity of the award-winning design is worthy of a team with such terrific chemistry that the members often finish one another’s sentences. But arriving at the design was far from easy.
“It was very iterative,” Miller said. ” We didn’t start out with our end prototype in mind.”
“We didn’t start anywhere near that,” Williams said. “We started with a Windex bottle or maybe like a Nerf-gun type thing.”
“We had a lot of crazy ideas to start with,” Zaunbrecher said.
Some of the crazy ideas had to do with producing saline. The team knew it would be expensive to ship, so they toyed with lots of notions about producing it on site.
Smooth Saline team members (from left) Jessica Williams, Kathleen Wiest, Lindsay Miller and Becky Zaunbrecher.
“At a certain point, we were talking about making giant vats of saline, and we realized it was just NOT feasible to expect doctors or nurses to do that,” Williams said.
Smooth Saline credits their OEDK advisers undefined bioengineering faculty members Ann Saterbak and Maria Oden undefined with directing them toward the more practical option of using what was already available.
“They already have IV bags at all hospitals and clinics,” Miller said. “The biggest decision we made was to take advantage of the saline that was already there, and that’s what led us to design this IV tubing set.”
But that too was a challenge. In fact, most of their initial ideas about how to get the saline from the bags were also overly complex.
“As we were drawing out our ideas, we were literally drawing tubing sets without realizing that we were drawing them,” Wiest said. “We were coming up with these ideas of connecting something between an IV bag and a patient, and it didn’t dawn on us until …”
“… after we had designed it, and someone phrased it to us differently,” Zaunbrecher continued. “And we were like, ‘Oh, wow. It really is just an IV tubing set with something added on.’ It was a big breakthrough day because we realized that was how we could market it and sell it, and it would just make it much more accessible and usable by nurses.”
All four members of Smooth Saline credit BTB and Rice’s global health program with permanently changing their lives. Williams is joining the Peace Corps in June, and Wiest decided to become a doctor rather than an engineer and to practice medicine in the developing world.
“I don’t plan on directly pursing global health, but it’s definitely changed my outlook on health technologies,” said Zaunbrecher, who, like Miller, plans to attend graduate school in bioengineering. “It will definitely always stay with me … the importance of keeping health technologies accessible to everyone and just helping the overall health of the planet and not just a small subset of the people who can afford something.”
Rice University bioengineering professors Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden, the winners of the 2013 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, are donating their prize money toward the construction of a new neonatal ward at the African hospital that has helped implement Rice’s low-cost, student-designed health care technologies since 2007.
Maria Oden (left) and Rebecca Richards-Kortum at Rice University's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen in Houston.
The Lemelson-MIT Program today announced that Oden and Richards-Kortum won the prestigious award in honor of their life-saving inventions and pioneering efforts to inspire and lead Rice students to invent and deliver low-cost technological innovations to improve health care for people in developing nations.
“When Maria and I learned we had won this award, we both knew exactly how we wanted to use the prize money,” Richards-Kortum said. “Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre (Malawi) is an extraordinary place that is committed to caring for the world’s most vulnerable patients. The physicians there have shown us how simple innovations can dramatically improve neonatal health, and they’ve inspired us to engage our students in solving the challenges of newborn care in low-resource settings.”
Oden and Richards-Kortum are two of the driving forces behind the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies and Rice 360°’s award-winning, hands-on engineering education program Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB). BTB is an engineering-design program founded in 2006 with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. More than 10 percent of Rice undergraduates undefined including many non-engineering students undefined have participated in BTB, which has produced 58 low-cost health technologies, including two that are already being broadly distributed by national health authorities in the developing world.
“Each year, more than 3 million babies die within the first month of life,” Oden said. “Ninety-nine percent of those deaths happen in the developing world, and many of them could be prevented if hospitals in low-income countries had access to a few low-cost technologies that combat the most common causes of infant mortality.”
Oden and Richards-Kortum said the new QECH nursery will provide excellent care for newborns and serve as an innovation hub for the design, evaluation and implementation of Rice 360°’s Day One Project, an ambitious $375,000 effort to improve the lives of newborns in the developing world from the day they are born. Through the Day One Project, Rice 360° aims to create a collection of low-cost, neonatal technologies that a district hospital serving 250,000 people can implement for about $5,000.
“Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden have applied outstanding research and motivated our innovative students to use simple technology to improve health care in the world’s poorest regions,” said Rice President David Leebron. “As teachers, they have challenged their students to become leaders who use their skills in the service of others and betterment of our world, in this case saving babies’ lives, and that is a fundamental part of Rice’s mission.”
Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor and chair of Rice’s Department of Bioengineering, also directs Rice 360°. Oden, professor in the practice of bioengineering and director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, coordinates the technical design efforts of BTB students.
BTB students work in teams to design technologies that address health care challenges identified by clinicians in the developing world. Each summer, about a dozen Rice students take the year’s most promising BTB designs to Africa and Latin America for evaluation under the guidance of physicians and nurses in clinics and hospitals. More than 90 percent of BTB summer interns plan to incorporate global health activities into their careers after graduation.
The Lemelson-MIT Program celebrates outstanding innovators and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. The program recognized Richards-Kortum and Oden for several BTB technologies, including Rice’s “bubble CPAP” system, or bCPAP, a respiratory support system for newborns that uses low-cost aquarium pumps to generate “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP).
CPAP technology helps keep a child’s lungs inflated and makes it easier for them to breathe. The technology, which is particularly beneficial for premature newborns with immature lungs and for infants who are fighting severe respiratory infections, is widely available in the developed world, but the machines there cost about $6,000 and are too expensive for most developing world hospitals.
Doctors at QECH challenged Rice’s BTB students to come up with a lower-cost alternative, and they created bCPAP, a $400 system that delivers the same therapeutic flow and pressure as systems used in the developed world. BTB evaluated the device at QECH in a clinical trial funded by Saving Lives at Birth, a joint program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Norwegian government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the World Bank. The clinical trial found that bCPAP greatly improved the survival rates for premature babies. BTB is now working with Malawi’s Ministry of Health to implement Rice’s system in all of the country’s hospitals.
Richards-Kortum and Oden said the Day One project is designed to replicate the success of bCPAP. Day One uses the methods pioneered in the bCPAP project to refine, implement and evaluate other neonatal technologies developed at Rice that will address the primary causes of infant mortality.
“We are accepting the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation on behalf of all of the people at Rice, the Texas Medical Center and around the world who have helped to make BTB’s work possible,” Oden said. “Our decision to donate the prize money to QECH is a way to recognize the efforts of our students and collaborators, while ensuring that more life-saving technologies like bCPAP will be used to improve neonatal care in the developing world.”
Other BTB innovations recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Program include:
“What is striking about these great professors is their vision that undergraduates can develop robust, inexpensive, technical solutions to solve real problems, and that the students can go to places like Malawi, deploy their prototypes and make the necessary modifications and improvements to deliver sustainable, practical, working devices,” said Ned Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering.
The Lemelson-MIT Program and its awards are named for Jerome H. Lemelson, one of U.S. history’s most prolific inventors. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994.
“By introducing their undergraduate students to the health care challenges that exist in low-resource areas, and training those students in the invention process both inside and outside of the classroom, Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden have created a group of young inventors who are developing solutions that save lives,” said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “The Lemelson-MIT Program’s award winners are chosen based on their own technological inventiveness and their ability to inspire the next generation of inventors. With several inventions in the field and many of the Beyond Traditional Borders students going on to include technology and global health as a focus of their careers, Rebecca and Maria are outstanding award winners and role models.”
The ideal system for monitoring a baby’s health would be as simple as one, two, three. Three teams of senior engineering students at Rice University are working to do so wirelessly in neonatal wards in the developing world.
The design teams have built a modular system to monitor an infant’s vital signs with a tablet that can track the progress – or warn of problems – for many babies at once.
The VitaLink system keeps tabs on infants’ breathing, heart rate and body temperature. The system is designed to match the capabilities of nurseries in the developed world but at a cost more realistic to clinics in developing countries where the need is greatest.
Gary Woods, a professor in the practice of computer technology in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and one of the team’s advisers, went to Africa last summer to see how his students could contribute to infant care at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi. The hospital has partnered with the Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies to develop cost-effective systems. At Queen Elizabeth’s neonatal nursery, a very small staff must care for dozens of babies with no way to monitor a crowded ward all at once.
Three teams of Rice University senior engineering students participated in the creation of VitaLink, a wireless system to monitor the health of infants in developing countries. From left: (top) Adrian Galindo, Yuqiang Mu, Rahul Rekhi, Alison Hightman, Abhijit Navlekar, Fabio Ussher and Kiran Pathakota; (bottom) Eric Palmgren, Nathan Lo, Gbenga Badipe, Chris Metzler and James Kerwin. Team members Matt Johnson and John Slack are absent from the photo. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
“I came away with a pretty good idea of what it would take to make this project,” Woods said. He pitched the idea to his senior students last fall. “There were so many interested that we formed three teams,” he said. “Their goal has been to build a system that has a little battery-powered dongle that can record the vital signs of a baby and wirelessly transmit them to a central tablet,” he said.
The three projects and their team members are the iNurse (the BioLink team of Nathan Lo, Abhijit Navlekar, Rahul Rekhi, Fabio Ussher and Eric Palmgren),VitaSign (Gbenga Badipe, Adrian Galindo, Alison Hightman, James Kerwin and John Slack) and the Scalable Wireless Alert Generator, aka SWAG (Yuqiang Mu, Chris Metzler, Kiran Pathakota and Matt Johnson). Each team built a component that contains the necessary electronics and can be linked together at the side of the crib to gather and deliver information.
The iNurse monitors temperature and respiration. The VitaSign adds a low-cost, low-power heart-rate sensor. Both alert caregivers if they sense trouble.
SWAG is where the information comes together. The iNurse and VitaSign are hooked to the SWAG “brick,” which sends data over the air to an Android tablet. The students designed a custom app to give caregivers an up-to-the-minute picture of multiple infants’ health. With its current Bluetooth implementation, the system can monitor several babies, but an upcoming revision to Bluetooth 4 would allow for many more.
The modular VitaLink system created by seniors at Rice University will monitor multiple infants through a wireless system that keeps tabs on their breathing, temperature and heart rates. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Putting 14 students on a project is highly unusual at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), which typically sees teams of three, four or five toiling away on a given task.
“It was like a startup environment where you have different sub-teams working on one larger project,” Rekhi said. “It put more on us to be able to coordinate and ensure that our individual devices and departments could communicate. But it did feel like an entrepreneurial endeavor.”
One member of the SWAG team, Johnson, will demonstrate the system in Ethiopia on behalf of Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) this summer. “Another team will go to Malawi, so our project will potentially be going to both places,” he said. Johnson said he hopes to come back at the end of the summer “with a lot of good data, and next year we’ll have something really awesome.”
Before it goes to Africa (and before they graduate next month), the students want to make the system robust enough to handle inconsistent power feeds. “Power is constantly in flux at Queen Elizabeth,” said Rekhi, a bioengineering major who worked there as a BTB intern last summer. “We want the battery backup to be able to handle the system in case of a power outage.” The team’s goal is to run the system for months on end on double-A batteries.
Caregivers in low-resource settings will be able to monitor the vital signs of infants through a tablet connected wirelessly to sensors that feed information to modular “bricks.” Photo by Jeff Fitlow
They expect future design teams to enhance VitaLink. “By the end of our design cycle, I think we’ve actually done enough hardware implementation that we can hand it off and tell the next team they don’t have to worry about hardware any more,” said Pathakota, an electrical engineering student. “All they need to do is write really good software for it.”
“It needs to be really simple and understand the entire ward,” added Metzler, who also studies electrical engineering. “It needs to be clear to the nurse how each baby is doing.”
Maria Oden, director of the OEDK and a professor in the practice of engineering, and Ashu Sabharwal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, also advised the teams.
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