Every Wall is a Door

by Michael Mullaney on March 7, 2011

Important research takes time, and it’s always fascinating to watch a project evolve over several years. One of my favorite examples is Professor Tim Wei’s group. A few years back, Wei partnered with colleagues in California to measure the flow around swimming dolphins. Once the technology was developed, Wei’s team fine-tuned the system and started measuring the flow of water around Olympic swimmers. In turn, this led to Wei adapting the same techniques to measure the flow of air around Olympic skeleton sledders. What’s next? My vote is for measuring the flow around this guy.

Another project evolving at Rensselaer endeavors to pass information through solid steels walls. I wrote about this way back in the summer of 2009. The newest piece of the puzzle – a significant innovation – secured doctoral student Tristan Lawry a spot as a finalist in the 2011 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer student Prize.

Be sure to check out the above video, which Tristan created as part of his application for the Lemelson prize. It’s a great overview of the project and his work.

Here’s the research in a nutshell:

To install critical safety sensors on the exterior of ships and submarines, the U.S. Navy is forced to drill holes in the hulls of these vessels. Navy engineers then run power cables and data cables through these hull holes. The cables deliver data and power to and from the sensors on the outside surface of the vessel. Every hole drilled presents a potential problem, ranging from leaks to more serious structural issues. To boot, installing these sensors on vessels already at sea requires the use of a drydock or cofferdam, which can take months and cost millions of dollars.

Lawry’s invention solves this problem. His system uses ultrasound – high-frequency acoustic waves, just like the kind used at your doctor’s office – to easily propagate signals through thick metals and other solids. He then uses piezoelectric transducers to convert electrical signals into acoustic signals and vice versa, allowing the system to form wireless electrical bridges through the metal wall.

For more info on Lawry’s invention, be sure read this story and watch this (other) video: