News and Announcements

  • Wednesday, June 13, 2012 12:27 PM | Anonymous

    This ‘mousetrap’ may save lives


    Special to the Rice News

    Instead of building a better mousetrap, a team of Rice University freshmen took a mousetrap and built a better way to treat dehydration among children in the developing world.

    “The goal was to regulate the amount of fluid delivered to children so we could prevent over-hydration and under-hydration,” said Melissa Yuan, a member of the IV DRIP (Dehydration Relief in Pediatrics) team and a mechanical engineering major. “It’s designed to be used in severely underdeveloped parts of the world, where conditions can be pretty primitive and they may not even have electricity.”

    The challenge that sparked the innovative design has been mentioned by physicians working in Africa since Rice’s Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden began traveling there six years ago in search of real-world design challenges for students in Rice’s Beyond Traditional Borders program. Richards-Kortum is the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and director of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, which oversees Beyond Traditional Borders. Oden is a professor in the practice of engineering education and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

    IV Drip team

    Rice University freshmen created a device to regulate IV flow for children in developing countries. Members of the IV DRIP team (from left) are Thor Walker, Kamal Shah, Taylor Vaughn and Melissa Yuan. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    “Many times physicians have mentioned to us that they would like a tool that can better moderate IV-fluid delivery to children, who are often connected to adult IV-bags,” Oden said. “In understaffed medical settings, monitoring IV-fluid delivery to patients can be a challenge. At the same time, it is of critical importance that the appropriate amount of fluid is delivered.”

    The device designed by the IV DRIP team is inexpensive; it costs about $20 to manufacture. It’s a mechanical, durable, autonomous and simple-to-operate volume regulator that uses a lever arm with a movable counterweight similar to a physician’s scale to incrementally dispense IV fluid.

    The system uses the change in torque as an IV bag is drained of fluid to set off a mousetrap-like spring that clamps the IV tube and cuts off the flow of saline solution or other prescribed fluids. Tests have shown the device dispenses fluid within 12 milliliters of the desired volume in increments of 50 milliliters.

    Melissa Yuan and IV Drip

    Rice University freshman Melissa Yuan checks an IV bag during tests of IV DRIP, a mechanical device to regulate fluids for young patients in developing countries. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    “We knew we needed something simple and reliable, not high-tech or terribly sophisticated,” Yuan said. “There’s nothing digital about it, nothing electrical or fancy.”

    The team includes chemical engineering major Paige Horton, bioengineering majors Kamal Shah and Thor Walker and mechanical engineering major Taylor Vaughn. Rebecca Hernandez, a senior in bioengineering, serves as the team’s apprentice leader representing the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership.

    Walker emphasized the old-fashioned engineering of the device: “There’s nothing revolutionary about this thing. It was matter of determining the right weight for the steel counterweight, which is 812 grams, and calibrating everything else correctly.”

    The device can be mounted on a wall or attached with clamps to a portable hospital IV pole. The most time-consuming part of assembling the device was calibrating the counterweight and determining the precise spacing of the notches the counterweight falls into and holds as the fluid drains, he said.

    IV Drip

    The mechanical IV DRIP invented by students at Rice University takes cues from mousetraps for its ability to halt the flow of fluid through an intravenous line without electricity. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    “Then the clamp goes off and it folds the tubing in a V-shape, the way you would crimp a garden hose to make the water stop coming out,” Walker said.

    This summer Shah and Yuan will transport four of their prototypes to Malawi and Lesotho, respectively, to test them under practical field conditions. Malawi, in southeastern Africa, is among the least-developed countries in the world, with a high infant mortality rate and a life expectancy of about 50 years. Some 1.5 million children in developing countries die annually of dehydration.

    The device was conceived in the fall of 2011 as a freshman project in the Engineering 120, Introduction to Engineering Design course taught by Ann Saterbak, a professor in the practice of bioengineering education and director of laboratory instruction in Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering. Team IV DRIP has already received the 2012 Willy Revolution Award for Innovation in Engineering Design, and its members will share a $2,000 prize.

    In April, during the second annual National Undergraduate Global Health Technologies Design Competition hosted by Rice 360˚ and Beyond Traditional Borders, the team won the People’s Choice Award for best poster. They also picked up the $500 Best Freshman Design award at the 2012 George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase.

  • Thursday, May 31, 2012 1:09 PM | Anonymous

    An invention with impact

    Special to the Rice News

    What do you get when you combine a slingshot, a fish tank, a stack of 2-by-4s and five engineering students determined to help the United States Air Force?

    For Team CADET at Rice University, the answer is a device to stop high-velocity projectiles without destroying them. With the Air Force’s current methods, artillery shells are destroyed beyond recovery. The Air Force wants to know more about their behavior as they accelerate and decelerate.

    Team CADET

    Students prepare to test elements of their Controllable Acceleration-Deceleration Equipment Tester, developed at the request of the Air Force. From left: John Stretton, Duncan Eddy, Tremayne Kaseman and William Li.

    “The challenge was to simulate high-acceleration impacts in a nondestructive way,” said Duncan Eddy, a junior in mechanical engineering and member of the Controllable Acceleration-Deceleration Equipment Tester design team. “The problem turned out to have a hands-on, mechanical engineering focus.”

    The other team members, Autumn Allen, Tremayne Kaseman, William Li and John Stretton, recently earned their degrees in mechanical engineering from Rice. Their adviser is Andrew Dick, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

    Currently, the Air Force simulates deceleration by firing cannons into walls. The strategy is expensive and the sensor module and target are typically destroyed in the process. Team CADET’s goal was to sustain deceleration for at least 10 milliseconds, and without destruction. They machined a cylinder of aircraft-gauge aluminum and sealed a digital accelerometer inside. Next, they built a 14-foot wooden frame to hold a track fashioned from angle iron.

    On one end, they attached a slingshot made from surgical tubing; on the other, above the track, they fitted a 20-gallon fish tank with transparent plastic. Into the bottom of the tank they drilled a line of 40 holes and sealed them with a removable rubber sheet.

    Tremayne Kaseman

    Tremayne Kaseman stretches the slingshot to the max during a test of Team CADET's device.

    When the cylinder holding the accelerometer is fired with the slingshot, reaching a maximum velocity of about 50 miles per hour, the sheet is pulled off and the water is released from the tank. The falling water slows the cylinder, and the rate of deceleration is measured and recorded on the digital device. The cylinder and its contents remain undamaged and the test can be repeated indefinitely.

    “Nothing is destroyed. You just fill the tank with water again and reload the slingshot,” said Eddy, who stressed that the prototype can be scaled to any size.

    We started last fall with a ton of different ideas but ended up with a plan that is simple and inexpensive, and the scale can easily be changed – a bigger tank, more water, more holes, a longer track, a bigger slingshot,” Eddy said.

    In April, the team visited Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and met with members of the Munitions Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory, which commissioned the project. The team presented a video demonstration and PowerPoint explanation, and submitted their 65-page final report.

    “They liked what they saw and said they were interested in exploring the idea further. We know we’ve created something entirely new. The parts are not new but the combination is. Also undefined and this is important undefined we came in under budget,” Eddy said.


    About Mike Williams

    Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.
  • Friday, May 18, 2012 10:52 AM | Anonymous

    Rice’s art car celebrates the Owl in the school’s centennial year

    Rice University will celebrate the 25th annual Art Car Parade this weekend by entering an Owl-designed vehicle undefined called “Centenni-Owl” undefined in recognition of the school’s centennial year. The unconventional event, boasted as the largest art car parade in the world, runs from 1 to 3 p.m. May 12 along Allen Parkway, from Waugh Drive to Bagby Street in Houston. For more information on the Art Car Parade, visit

    Below (top) are the “Centenni-Owl,” Rice’s Art Car Parade entry, and (bottom) KTRU’s Art Car.

    Rice Art Car


    KTRU Art Car














  • Friday, May 11, 2012 10:22 AM | Anonymous

    Rice University freshmen engineer devices for Houston Zoo to feed giraffes, orangutans

    Special to the Rice News

    Like their human cousins, orangutans enjoy food and don’t mind working a little to get it. If the menu’s right, giraffes are even less picky.

    Two teams of students at Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering have designed devices to efficiently, durably, safely and inexpensively meet the feeding needs of these very different residents of theHouston Zoo.

    “For the orangutans, we wanted to make it like a puzzle,” said Julia Bleck, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering who got involved with the project through the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership. “They have mental skills similar to those of humans and learn things pretty quickly, and know how to be patient. We wanted to keep it interesting for them.”

    The Buffoonery

    A team of Rice University freshmen calling themselves The Buffoonery created a maze-like feeder for orangutans at the Houston Zoo. Clockwise, from left: Reinaldo Amendola-Mayorga, Julia Bleck, Jake LaViola, Jade Juzswik and Greta Shwachman. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    Bleck is the apprentice leader of The Buffoonery, a team name taken from the collective noun used to describe a group of orangutans.Other team members are freshmen Reinaldo Amendola-Mayorga, Jade Juzswik, Jake LaViola and Greta Shwachman.

    “The primate people at the zoo wanted something that would give the orangutans not just food but daily mental enrichment,” Bleck said.

    Last fall the team started with more than 60 possible designs but quickly settled on the idea of a maze. By solving the maze, the Houston Zoo’s six orangutans would be rewarded with nuts or the food pellets they enjoy as a supplement to their customary fruits and vegetables. The team’s prototype is a flat box of high-impact plastic, transparent on one side. Inside is an elaborate maze of wooden slats holding a ball bearing.

    With a magnet, an orangutan moves the steel ball through the maze. If the animal navigates the maze successfully, the ball trips a lever and releases a measured portion of pellets.

    Team Koolookamba

    A team of Rice University freshmen invented a new hanging feeder for giraffes in collaboration with the Houston Zoo. The members of Team Koolookamba, from left, are Adam McMullen, Andrew Markham, Sarah Frazier, Joseph Mapula and Calvin Tsay. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    The other zoo project is the creation of Team Koolookamba. All of its members are freshmen: Sarah Frazier, Adam McMullen, Andrew Markham, Joseph Mapula and Calvin Tsay. Allison Garza, a junior mechanical engineering student, was the team’s apprentice leader.

    Their challenge was to design a feeder for giraffes that is safe and prevents the animals from consuming the hay it contains too quickly.

    “They already feed the giraffes things like yams and fruit, and up till now they’ve been putting the hay in cargo-net feeders,” Frazier said. “The animals get their horns stuck in the net, and they eat the hay too fast.”

    Using plastic pipe, the team made a barrel-like cylinder about 4 feet long and cut 3-inch circular holes into it. Filled, the barrel device holds about 7,500 cubic inches of hay. Giraffes use their tongues to grasp their food, and the small holes prevent them from quickly emptying the contents. The feeders are suspended 10 to 13 feet above the ground by winches attached to a wooden pole.

    “The students worked hard on a design that met the goals of challenging the giraffes to work to get their food from the feeder and making it convenient for the keepers to get the food into it,” said John Register, the zoo’s hoofed stock supervisor. “They did several prototypes and tested them on our giraffe herd. We’re happy with the final design and plan to use it.”



    About Mike Williams

    Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.
  • Monday, May 07, 2012 9:30 PM | Anonymous

    Skin no barrier for cardiac charger

    Heart-failure patients may someday get a life-saving charge from technology developed by students at Rice University.

    A team of seniors designed and built a transcutaneous energy-transfer (TET) unit to power a minimally invasive ventricular assist device (VAD) being created by a Houston company. The VAD is a tiny pump inserted into the aorta via a catheter that helps increase blood flow and heal patients with heart failure.

    Rice tCoil – Michael Torre, Erin Watson, Tyler Young, Trevor Mitcham, Hana Wang and Alex Dobranich – made a complementary device that sits a centimeter under the skin and feeds power to the VAD. The challenge presented to the seniors, who were required to complete a capstone design project by Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering , was to charge the unit wirelessly.

    “A lot of people need heart transplants, but there aren’t enough hearts available,” Young said. “One alternative is to have a heart pump implanted, but that carries risks. It’s very invasive surgery, and afterward you have to have wire leads running out of your body” to a battery pack.

    tCoil team

    As their senior design project, Rice University engineering students created a transcutaneous energy transfer system to power a ventricular assist device. From left: back, Erin Watson, Tyler Young and Hana Wang, and front, Alex Dobranich, Michael Torre and Trevor Mitcham. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    The portal through the skin to a power supply can become infected, he said. But the problem is avoidable by sending power to the VAD without wires. The students’ prototype consists of a small coil and a battery that would be inserted one centimeter under the skin at the patient’s waist and wired to the VAD. The patient would also wear a belt-mounted external battery and coil to generate alternating magnetic fields and induce alternating current in the subcutaneous coil. The coils charge the battery, which can operate the pump for more than three hours.

    “The patient can take the belt off for a short time, to take a shower, for instance,” Young said. “The pump will work safely off the coils or on the internal battery alone, but obviously it’s best when they’re both working.”

    The team demonstrated tCoil at the Engineering Design Showcase  that was part of Rice’s recent UnConvention open house. The students put the internal and external coils on either side of a baggie containing lunchmeat to simulate power transfer through the skin. The internal unit was wired to a demonstration pump that clearly pushed red-colored water through a sleeve inside a tank.

    tCoil prototype

    A prototype of the transcutaneous energy transfer device created by Rice University students is meant to charge a battery under the skin that powers a tiny ventricular assist pump used by heart patients awaiting a transplant.

    The student project was in response to a request from Rice alum Michael Cuchiara, director of research and development at Procyrion , developer of the pump.

    “I mentored two senior design teams while I did my Ph.D. in bioengineering at Rice and helped bring a project to Maria Oden (a professor in the practice of engineering and director of theOshman Engineering Design Kitchen  at Rice) for a different client company in 2009,” Cuchiara said. “For this project, until recently, our company’s expertise was not heavy in electrical engineering design, and I knew Maria could put together a good team.”

    He said the students, who were mentored by Oden and Gary Woods, a Rice professor in the practice of computer technology and electrical and computer engineering, came through for him. “The Rice team brought us a quick, capital- and resource-efficient proof-of-concept system to show we can power our device through TET,” Cuchiara said. “There’s was no reason to think we couldn’t – but until you do it, you don’t have it.”

    The project is far from complete, Young said. “Erin will work on it this summer, but at some point Procyrion will take it over and continue development,” he said. “The next steps will be to miniaturize it and put it in biocompatible casing. Once that’s done, it can be implanted for large animal testing.”  Ideally, he said, the long process of approval by the Food and Drug Administration will follow.

    But team members will graduate with the satisfaction of a job well done and two awards: for Best Interdisciplinary Design Project at the Design Showcase and for best medical and rehabilitation technology at the third annualRice Undergraduate Elevator Pitch Competition  last November.

    Cuchiara said TET will make ventricular assist available to an ever broader set of patients. “The concept that you can induce a current in another coil without connecting them electrically has been around since Tesla ,” he said. “And VADs have been around for more than 10 years. But before, they were offered to people who were on their deathbeds. Now that we’re able to take the risk (of passing a wire through the skin) out of the equation, we’re starting to talk about bringing VADs to people who aren’t that sick and can just use a little bit of support.”


    About Mike Williams

    Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.
  • Monday, May 07, 2012 6:13 PM | Anonymous

    The "FluProof" ultraviolet lamp kills pathogens as they pass through a bus's air duct. Rice engineering student Joey Spinella says the team wanted the lamp to be visible to passengers. "So they can see that and they can have the peace of mind in knowing that this bus is clean," he said. "But another practical reason we have that is it's an indicator, you can see if the lamp is working correctly."

    May 7, 2012

    by: Carrie Feibel

    Some Rice University engineering students have developed a technique to sterilize the air on a bus. The invention has a lot of public health potential, and Metro is watching closely.

    “So here in the back of the bus we see this bright blue glow coming out of a plastic window on the top of the bus.”

    Joey Spinella, who will graduate this week, is showing me his team’s invention. It’s called “FluProof” and consists of a glowing ultraviolet lamp that bus riders can watch through a plastic window.

    The lamp is smack in the middle of the bus’s air duct, so as the air passes through the UV light instantly zaps dead any bacteria or viruses.

    “This could actually be something that could revolutionize air sterilization for any transit vehicle, especially in the developing world where many other people have upper respiratory diseases like tuberculosis.”

    Tuberculosis is also a problem here – the CDC reports Houston had the second most reported cases in the U.S., after New York City. Although it’s never been proven that public buses transmit TB, a number of studies indicate that it does sometimes happen.

    Marsha Feske is an epidemiologist who studied TB and Houston bus routes while doing research at Methodist.

    “Tuberculosis, once it’s respirated, it’s negligible to gravitational forces and so it remains airborne for up to nice hours. And the problem with that is someone can get on a bus and cough and actually respirate it get it into the air to be airborne, and then it continues to float around and potentially infect whomever else is on the bus for the rest of the day. So you don’t actually have to be riding public transportation with the person who has TB, you just have to ride the bus that someone who was coughing and had TB rode.”

    Buses present a special challenge when it comes to filtration. A bus’s electrical system runs on DC voltage, which means there isn’t enough power for the HEPA air filters used in buildings and on airplanes. That’s one reason METRO is interested in the FluProof lamp.

    Andrew Skabowski is a senior Vice President at Metro and arranged for the students to install and test the lamps on a METRO bus:

    “I think there’s a lot more to do, it’s not market ready yet, but I think they’ve done a  wonderful job. They were able to deliver a system below what my cost expectations were and they were able to do some testing to show that indeed it does reduce some bacteria within the bus.”

    Spinella and four other students tested the system and found it killed more than 99 percent of the bacteria circulating through a normal bus.

    They claim it can be manufactured for less than $500 per unit.

    They’re in the process of drafting a business plan.

    From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.



  • Friday, May 04, 2012 6:16 PM | Anonymous

    Two staffers make their departments shine

    To celebrate the Rice Centennial, this year the university will honor 100 staff members who represent the best of Rice culture. Each week, two Centennial Stars will be recognized for their contributions to excellence, and we’ll introduce them in Rice News.

    This week’s Centennial Stars have transformed the programs they work for and used considerable skills to make their departments shine. They are Amy Kavalewitz, Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL) administrator, and Mary Bixby, who serves a dual role as director of development for Fondren Library and executive director of Friends of Fondren Library.

    Amy Kavalewitz

    Amy Kavalewitz

    Kavalewitz was hired in 2006 as coordinator of the Computer Information Technology Institute, which is now the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology. In 2009, she became administrator of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK); when the RCEL launched in 2010, she became administrator of that program as well.

    Kavalewitz “matches high creativity with indefatigable industry to make a profound contribution” to the OEDK and RCEL, said the letter that nominated her.

    “Amy has substantially shaped the culture of this highly productive space,” the letter said. She has played an invaluable role in supporting student capstone design projects, in building relationships with industrial partners and in encouraging undergraduate entrepreneurship, the letter said.

    Kavalewitz has helped in crafting OEDK access policies, encouraged safety with signs and video and contributed substantially to “the creative buzz that characterizes the OEDK.” She assembled an “array of luminous judges” for the student poster competition at the RCEL’s recent Engineering Houston’s Future conference. And finally, she has “a deep facility for website development, social media and the identification of new tools to expedite our organizational operations.”

    “Amy has been instrumental in organizing numerous RCEL activities with her characteristic skill,” the nomination letter said. These events often involve working with other organizations – the Rice Alliance, the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Leadership Rice, the city of Houston – and Kavalewitz “has exhibited an excellent ability to collaborate across organizational lines.”

    Kavalewitz has been honored for excellence before. In 2008 she received the Rice Distinguished Employee Award, and she was the winner of the 2010 George R. Brown School of Engineering Hardy Bourland Award, which honors the school’s most outstanding staffers.

    “Amy is a linchpin of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership,” the letter said. “Her personality and high standards have shaped both organizations, and her creativity is invaluable.”

    Bixby came to Rice in 1996 as the executive director of Friends of Fondren Library. In 2000, she

    Mary Bixby

    Mary Bixby

    transferred to Development to become director of development for the library. In 2002, Bixby went back to her former position with Friends of Fondren, and she now does both jobs, working part-time in each position.

    “Mary has led the Friends of Fondren Library from a small club with occasional social events to a major nonprofit,” said the letter that nominated Bixby. “Friends of Fondren is arguably the best library friends group in the United States.”

    In her tenure, the letter said, Bixby has led efforts to raise nearly $1.5 million for the library.

    Bixby has used her skills to help the university in other ways as well.

    “In addition to organizing major social and fundraising events for the Friends, Mary brought her social organization skills to leading the inauguration planning for President David Leebron” in 2004, the letter said.

    Bixby’s work supports the university’s research and teaching, the letter said, and her graceful manner makes her an excellent representative of Rice.

    “Mary is gracious and charming and displays courtesy, tact and consideration in her interactions with everyone,” the letter said.

    To nominate someone as a Centennial Star, go to For more information, contact Rebecca Millet at

    To view previous Centennial Stars, visit

  • Wednesday, May 02, 2012 9:06 AM | Anonymous

    Students will compete for top honors in the third annual Rice Undergraduate Venture Challenge, a business plan competition to be held Thursday, May 3, at 1:30 p.m. in the Shell Auditorium of the Jones Graduate School of Business.  

    Students will present business plans for new technology ventures. The competition was founded in 2010 by CoRE (Community of Rice Entrepreneurs), an undergraduate club. The campus-wide competition is open to all Rice undergraduates and is sponsored by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL), the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), the Rice University Student Association, the Indo-American Charity Foundation, Rice Engineering Alumni, AlphaDev, and Schlumberger.

    More than 25 judges from the Houston business and investment community will evaluate the presentations and select the winners based on the viability of their technology and the potential market and feasibility of the business plan.

    The teams competing this year are Audio For All, Breath Alert, FluProof, Ice Owls, Impossible Challenges, O3, Respiratory Aides, Scan At Home, Stressed Out Seniors, and Wisga, LLC. The grand prize winner will receive $4,000; second place, $2,000; third place, $1,000; best pitch, $500.

    “The RUVC is a key component of the `entrepreneurship pipeline’ we are building for undergraduates. Students test their ideas at the November Elevator Pitch Competition and receive honest feedback from judges on their commercial potential. With expert mentoring from the Rice Alliance, they refine their ideas into full business plans for the RUVC,” said Mark Embree, director of RCEL and professor of computational and applied mathematics.   

    The managing director of Rice Alliance, Brad Burke, said, “The event was created to expose engineering students to the process of commercializing the technologies they create. We hope some of these projects move forward and result in the formation of new start-up ventures.”

  • Tuesday, May 01, 2012 9:24 AM | Anonymous

    Student-devised process would prep shale gas for sale

    A team of Rice University students accepted a challenge to turn shale gas produced in China into a range of useful, profitable and environmentally friendly products and did so in a cost-effective manner.

    The CHBE Pandas (CHBE stands for chemical and biomolecular engineering) designed a process by which shale gas extracted in the rich Sichuan Basin could be turned into methanol, hydrogen and carbon disulfide, all valuable products in the booming Chinese economy. The Rice team was one of seven groups of students presented similar challenges for locations outside of the United States as their capstone design projects, required of most graduates of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering.

    CHBE Pandas

    Members of the CHBE Pandas designed the process that would turn shale gas extracted into China into a range of marketable materials with low environmental impact. From left, Apoorv Bhargava, Kavita Venkateswar, Valicia Miller, Shelby Reinhardt, Prachi Bhawalkar and Erte Xi. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    For their efforts, the Pandas – Apoorv Bhargava, Prachi Bhawalkar, Valicia Miller, Shelby Reinhardt, Kavita Venkateswar and Erte Xi – were grand prize winners at the Engineering Design Showcase, part of Rice’s UnConvention earlier this month.

    “We literally got the last one in the hat,” Bhargava said of the assignment handed out for their final semester at Rice. “All of the chemical engineering projects were the same, just in different locations, and how we approached the solution depended on the location.”

    The team had to deal not only with processing what’s known as “sour gas” straight out of the wellhead, but also had to come up with a solid budget for the construction and profitable operation of the plant as well as a strategy to protect the environment.

    “We think it’s a viable project because of what we’re transforming the natural gas into,” Venkateswar said. The process they designed would take in the raw shale gas produced in the controversial extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The primary product would be methanol, of which China is the largest user in the world. China blends methanol into gasoline and is developing cars that would run on pure methanol.

    The second product, hydrogen, would be a feedstock for ammonia in fertilizer production, which has great value in the Sichuan Basin, the largest agricultural area in China. The third would be carbon disulfide, widely used in the Sichuan textile industry. The team said 99 percent of the recovered fracturing fluid would be purified into water and fed into methanol production. A small amount of crystallized sludge from fracturing chemicals would be sent to a landfill.

    Team advisers Kenneth Cox and Richard Strait were inspired to issue the assignment by a Department of Energy-funded 2011 study on shale gas and U.S. national security by Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The report details the rapid development over the last decade of technology to extract natural gas from shale, an increasingly rich resource in the United States, and the resulting shift in the world’s energy economy.

    “The world of shale gas presents a real interesting situation,” said Strait, an adjunct professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice and former director of coal monetization and CO2 management at KBR. “We’re in boom times – if you want to produce gas at what are now historically low prices. You make no profit.” He said energy producers are considering ways to turn raw shale gas into products that will better serve the market’s needs.

    “We tried to give the students problems for which there’s no current solution,” said Cox, a Rice professor in the practice of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “Major companies are looking at ways to upgrade shale gas, but no one’s built a plant to do that yet.”

    Also, Cox said, “There are a lot of issues associated with the public perception of fracking, and part of the assignment was to help change that perception by offering something that was environmentally friendly, gave benefit to the community, helped clean up the water and was still able to pull a profit at the end of the day.”

    He said the Pandas’ solution was “very imaginative” for their handling of the high concentration of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide found in Sichuan shale gas. “It’s 8.38 percent of the incoming feed,” said Venkateswar. “Usually natural gas feeds have it on the order of several hundred parts per million.”

    “The ability to make carbon disulfide provides us a solution to the high hydrogen sulfide content,” Xi said.

    Building the Pandas’ plant with the team’s innovative assembly of known technologies would cost the Chinese government $5 billion, Bhargava said. “Chemical engineering design in the real world, the way we understand it, works in three phases,” he said. “You start off with a preliminary design analysis, as we did. Then we move into another stage where the chemical engineers meet up with the mechanical engineers and start designing it in more detail: ‘What pipes do we need to go from here to there?’

    “And then we meet with the architects for the final design stage: ‘OK, what is this going to look like when we build it? Is it going to look terrible in someone’s backyard?’”

    Bhargava said the Pandas’ design process would generally take as many as 15 engineers six or seven months to accomplish. The team spent long hours using simulation software at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where the students aligned components and tested for the desired chemical reactions. “But a computer can tell you only so much,” Bhargava said. “A chemical engineer has to make the decisions. Our design is very, very close to what a real chemical engineer does in his or her job. We were working in a very realistic setting.”

    The quality of work by Rice students was so high that another team, TEXIJI, won the annual William W. Akers Senior Design Award, as judged by a panel of industry professionals. Team members John Chapman, Ivan Loo, Anthony Mulenga, Insoo Ro, Erin Walsh and Xiaoyun Wang were honored for their project, the “clean monetization of Burgos Basin (Mexico) shale gas to dimethyl ether.”



    About Mike Williams

    Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.
  • Thursday, April 26, 2012 9:24 AM | Anonymous

    Zero-G eyewash wins grand prize in Texas Space Grant Consortium event

    A team of Rice University senior engineering students won Top Design Team, along with several other awards, at this year’s Texas Space Grant Consortium (TSGC) competition with a proposal for an emergency eyewash system for astronauts.

    Team Helios

    From left, Team Helios members Zachary Foster, Rob Bauer, Thierry Rignol, Malcolm Blake and Eric Lee.

    In addition to the grand prize, Team Helios was honored for Best Test Procedure and Documentation, Best Poster and Model Presentation and Best Oral Presentation. The team tied for first for Forum Favorite and took home a total of $1,850 in prize money.

    Helios was one of 11 teams competing in the annual NASA-sponsored event, which included competitors from Texas A&M, Texas Tech and the University of Texas.

    Team members are Rob Bauer, Malcolm Blake, Eric Lee and Thierry Rignol, all bioengineering majors, and Zachary Foster, a mechanical engineering major. Their advisers are Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer in bioengineering, and Brent Houchens, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science.


    The eyewash goggles designed by Team Helios are designed to work in zero gravity.

    The goal of the senior capstone design project was to create a set of goggles that would allow spacefarers to both wash their eyes in an emergency while containing and eliminating excess fluids. The team’s solution involved borrowing suction from a space toilet to help contain the rinse water.

    “The comments from the judges were that this was very high-quality work, and everyone was very impressed,” Wettergreen said. “The device is successful based on the original constraints set by NASA, and with a few cosmetic modifications and superficial fixes, it could perform like a professional eyewash station.

    “The device will only work in zero gravity,” he said. “So the exciting opportunity the students had was to solve a problem that won’t even be used in the environmental conditions they inhabit.”

    Last year, two Rice teams undefined the Electric Owls and CardiOwls undefined shared the grand prize.



    About Mike Williams

    Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.

Contact us

Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen - Rice University

6100 Main Street MS 390 | Houston, Texas | 77005

Phone: 713.348.OEDK


  Industry Partners