April 28, 2011
A Senior Design team from Electrical and Computer Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology began their journey to more sustainable wireless devices with something near and dear to their hearts—and thumbs. By embedding tiny mechanical generators within devices that get a lot of use, the team hopes to create battery-powered accessories that never need to be recharged. Their first prototype is an Xbox controller that gets a charge every time you play.
The team's project, "Piezoelectric Energy Harvesting for Wireless Devices," was advised by Dr. Yu-Dong Yao, Department Director for Electrical and Computer Engineering. The team members are Ranji Bhola, Electrical Engineering; Jerahmeel Manansala, Electrical Engineering; and Ashwin Nelluri, Computer Engineering.
"We all have wireless devices like wireless mice and video game controllers that are annoying to recharge," says Ranji. "Our team thought we could fix this with piezoelectric materials."
Piezoelectric generators are a hot topic in engineering today. Able to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy every time they are compressed, piezoelectric generators can be affixed to any surface that is compressed or deformed through movement to create electricity. Engineers are exploring this essentially free, clean source of power for use everywhere motion or sound causes vibrations.
Initially, the team planned to design a wireless computer mouse, but after constantly watching technology news for several months decided that established players were already trying to bring similar products to the market. Determined to apply the power of piezoelectricity in a brand new market, the team turned instead to a dorm room favorite: the video game controller.
A typical rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery can power an Xbox controller for 30 hours of game time play. Using their modified controller under observation, the team has demonstrated that 12 hours of game play result in no noticeable loss of charge in the batteries.
Jerahmeel, the team's most active gamer, says that the user experience is basically unchanged from an unmodified controller. "Our controller is a little lighter, but the triggers respond in the same way and don't feel any different."
As soon as the team began their serious research, they started looking for a potential sponsor. After contacting a leading independent video game controller retailer, the President of the company wrote back to the team to express his serious interest in their project. They now have a confidential disclosure agreement (CDA) with the company and are working to secure a patent.
"This project is an excellent example of inventive student research with practical applications and strong market potential," reports Dr. Yao. "From the beginning they searched for patent opportunities and looked at what other companies were doing in this area."
"Dr. Yao has been critical to our project," Ranji says. "He kept us on track to develop a new application with this existing technology and even helped us write our CDA."
Ranji, Jerahmeel, and Ashwin have been friends since Stevens pre-orientation and hope that their Senior Design project can continue as a side business that keeps them connected after graduation. The entrepreneurial students are excited about the possibilities for the future.
"Piezoelectric technology is still in development, so it will only get better," Ashwin says. "Hopefully, we can capitalize on the emerging market as the technology advances."