PSU's InventOR teams focus on clean air, forest fire prevention

At Portland State University, innovation is ingrained in the student body. It’s not uncommon for students to not only think about problems, but develop solutions. The PSU CleanTech Challenge, hosted recently at PSU’s Viking Pavilion at the Peter W. Stott Center as part of TechFest NW, is emblematic of the drive to change the world students experience.

CleanTech 2019 launched two PSU student teams — Turner Automotive and Lite Devices — toward the InventOR Collegiate Challenge — a statewide competition focused on solutions to social and economic challenges facing Oregon. All told, 21 teams competed from 17 different colleges and universities. 

"When we empower students to see themselves as inventors, it changes their perspective,” said Juan Barraza, who manages the PSU Center for Entrepreneurship, CleanTech Challenge and InventOR. 

Both Turner Automotive and Lite Devices took different approaches to the same underlying core issue: protecting the environment.

Turner Automotive

For about $5,000 and an hour of your time, Turner Automotive has a plan to convert your 1994 Honda Accord — or any gas engine car — into a zero-emissions vehicle. The key is hydrogen and a conversion kit.

 The kit utilizes the existing engine and its components, meaning after it’s installed, the car can switch back and forth between gasoline and hydrogen as needed. 

“It’s really a one-car solution to what up until this point has been a two-car problem,” said Blake Turner, Portland State University engineering student who developed the concept driving Turner Automotive.

Turner first worked with a team at Rogue Community College as a student there to build the kit and convert his own car to run on hydrogen. The prototype fueled a trip to InventOR in 2018. But the pitch flopped. 

Turner transferred to PSU’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science geared to try again. Teaming up with PSU School of Business student Sean Krivonogoff has proved to be a winning combination.

 This year, Turner Automotive competed in the CleanTech Challenge — and won $3,500.

That win sent them to InventOR for a second chance to pitch the hydrogen conversion kit. They took second place in the statewide competition, which was also held at PSU.

Krivonogoff added that addressing climate change is now an ethical obligation businesses need to consider; and the shifted focus point on moral obligation over profit is even being taught in business schools.

“We’re focusing on the triple bottom line,” he said. “Focus on the planet, the people and then profit comes last. Because if you’re benefiting the planet and people in the community, profit should be there, because you’re giving back.”

Lite Devices

In theory, the millions in damage caused during the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge could have been dramatically reduced if Lite Devices existed in 2017. But that fire — and the devastating Carr Fire that followed in California — served as inspiration for Lite Devices to develop a monitoring system that could help prevent another similar occurrence.

 “Each time we have any of these types of disasters, inevitably, the dialogue always moves toward, ‘Well, what could we have done? And how can we position ourselves to prevent something like this in the future?,’” said Kai Brooks, a PSU electrical engineering student, who helped create Lite Devices. “And that led us to ask, what does fire detection look like?”

Brooks and his team, PSU computer engineering students Seth Rohrbach and Mikhail Mayers, found the Oregon Department of Forestry still relies on satellite imagery and watchtowers to detect fires.

The team developed a small, self-sustaining device that utilizes a mesh network to better monitor fires.

The device, the size of a home smoke alarm, attaches to a tree and can detect the low-frequency wavelengths that emerge when a fire begins. Once detected — the data including GPS coordinates, time, intensity and temperature — is sent to firefighters and other emergency responders for review.

“It gives them more visibility, and helps them allocate their resources more effectively, especially during the critical first moments that a fire starts exponentially,” Brooks said. 

The device is 3D printed using a wood compound. Brooks said to be most effective, four devices are needed per acre.

 “We can figure out very quickly if a fire is isolated, like a campfire that’s otherwise contained, versus a fire that's out in the wild,” he said.

In more remote areas where cell and internet reception are problematic, that’s when the mesh network feature really shines. The device network can bounce information down the line until it reaches a device with a reliable internet connection.

The device can also integrate with existing systems.

“We really designed this from the ground up to be very interoperable with existing systems,” Brooks said.

Although Lite Devices hasn’t yet reached the final prototype stage, Brooks said the Oregon Forest Service has been interested to see what the final iteration of their product will look like.

“That's a conversation that we're continuing,” he said.

Homepage image by Kim Nguyen; Story and photos by Katy Swordfisk