Driven to invent
Author: Katy Swordfisk
Posted: September 24, 2019

 Students are challenged to solve environmental problems.

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 was invented by Portland State students who want to reduce carbon emissions.

At PSU, that sense of innovation is ingrained in the student body. It’s not uncommon for students to not only think about problems, but develop solutions, too. The PSU Cleantech Challenge—where Turner Automotive first unveiled its conversion kit—is emblematic of that drive to change the world. The challenge gives students an opportunity to invent a solution to one of the numerous environmental issues facing society today.
This year’s Cleantech Challenge launched not only Turner Automotive but a second PSU team as well, Lite Devices, into the InventOR Collegiate Challenge. InventOR is a statewide competition focused on solutions to social and economic challenges facing Oregon. All told, 21 teams competed from 17 different Oregon colleges and universities. Turner Automotive and Lite Devices represented PSU. "When we empower students to see themselves as inventors, it changes their perspective,” says 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

THE CONVERSION kit created by students Blake Turner and Sean Krivonogoff, utilizes a car’s existing engine and its components, meaning after it’s installed, the car can switch back and forth between gasoline and hydrogen as needed.

Turner, a PSU engineering student who developed the concept driving Turner Automotive, says the ability to switch back and forth between two fuel sources will allow consumers to use clean energy when it’s available, and gasoline when it’s not.

As it stands now, hydrogen fueling stations are operating only in California. But Turner says they hope the flexibility the kits provide will pave the way for a focused effort to make hydrogen fuel more accessible.

They also plan to offer a specialized service—possibly mobile—to install the kits for customers.

The hydrogen car isn’t a new concept, BMW developed a version of its 7-series called the Hydrogen 7 in 2005. But the car never permeated the market. And with a $118,000 price point, it wasn’t affordable to the general public.

Turner says recent technological advancements in carbon fiber have allowed his dream to become an affordable reality.

He first worked with a team at Rogue Community College to build the kit and convert his own car to run on hydrogen. The prototype fueled a trip to InventOR in 2018 that included driving a converted car in the competition. But the pitch flopped.

Turner transferred to PSU geared-up to try again. Teaming up with Krivonogoff, a business student, proved to be a winning combination.

This year, Turner Automotive competed in the Cleantech Challenge—and won.

That win sent them to InventOR for a second chance to pitch the conversion kit. They took second place in the statewide competition.

“PSU is a school that was really focused on renewable energy,” Krivonogoff says. “And that always caught my attention—there's a ton of energy and power out there, but we're not harnessing it to its full potential.”

Further, they argue that addressing climate change is now an ethical obligation that businesses need to consider.

“I’m here, I want to build a business, so why not do it to help mitigate climate change,” Turner says. “Solving climate change is less of a neat thing to do now and more of a big business opportunity—because the solutions are going to have to be adopted.”

Krivonogoff added that modified focal point—and moral obligation—is even being taught in business schools now.

“We’re focusing on the triple bottom line,” he says. “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 of dollars in damage caused by the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge could have been less 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?,’” says Kai Brooks, a PSU electrical engineering student. “ 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 that the Oregon Department of Forestry still relies on satellite imagery and lookout towers, in remote parts of the state, to detect fires.

“They're mainly using satellite imagery, which is useful, but it can be a bit slow, expensive and ineffective with cloud cover, which never happens here, obviously,” he quips.

The team thought developing a sensor that utilizes a mesh network might do the trick.

The small, self-powered device is attached 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 the customer for review.

“It gives the customer more visibility, and helps them allocate their resources more effectively, especially during the critical first moments that a fire starts exponentially,” Brooks says. “The opportunity to contain a fire diminishes as time goes on. So if we can address something right away, that might be the difference between going in and hosing something down versus digging fire lines.”

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

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

If multiple sensors go off, the system can triangulate and find the spark point. In more remote areas where cell and internet reception are problematic, that’s when the mesh network feature really shines.

 “Because we utilize small, low-power devices deployed in an array, if one of our devices detects an event, but doesn't have a reliable internet connection, it actually bounces the information off of our other devices until it reaches one that sends it out,” Brooks says.

Most importantly, however, the device can integrate with any existing system a customer uses.

“The forest service, for example, is heavily invested in these geographical information systems that give them a lot of information about the lay of the land and things like soil quality,” Brooks says. “We really designed this from the ground up to be very interoperable with existing systems.”

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

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

Katy Swordfisk is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Photos by Kim Nguyen

Captions: Mel Turner, Blake Turner and Sean Krivonogoff have created a kit that will allow a car to run on clean hydrogen and gasoline( top). Small sensors created by engineering students Mikhail Mayers, Kai Brooks and Angel Gonzalez network from tree to tree to detect forest fires (center). Seth Rohrbach, the fourth member of Lite Devices, holds their fire-detecting prototype.