NBCNews.com Story on Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Prize Winners

3/5/2013 3:34:00 PM

From botch-free punctures on the operating table to dramatically more energy-efficient lighting and well-watered kitchen gardens, the inventions of three $30,000-prize-winning students aim to make life better for people around the world.

The road to success in innovation, according to the recipients of the annual Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, begins with a profound respect for the power of learning.

“I refuse to stop being curious,” Nikolai Begg, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and winner of the school’s check, told NBC News. “Every single experience you have and every single time you can ask a question … you learn something new.”

Safer puncturing
Begg was honored for his invention of a pair of medical devices that solve problems that have risen to the fore with the advent of cutting-edge medical procedures such as laparoscopic surgery, where tiny cameras and instruments are routed into a patient’s body via small pathways cut into their bodies.

The procedure is minimally invasive and carries with it less risk of infection and pain, but “it starts with what’s essentially a glorified spear stuck into the patient,” said Begg, who shadowed surgeons at Boston’s Children's Hospital in a bid to understand the problem and engineer a solution.

He recognized that there is an imbalance of force once the needle or knife used to make the incision breaks through the tissue it’s piercing. “Anyone who has ever drilled through a wall has felt this problem exactly,” he noted. The drill “jerks forward” once it is through the wall.

His solution is a puncture blade that retracts at the very moment it passes through skin tissue. The mechanism opposes the force of acceleration. It is scalable for use in almost any puncture procedure – laparoscopy, yes, but also amniocentesis, epidurals and brain drilling.

Begg also invented a device surgeons can insert into patients during laparoscopic surgery and anchor organs out of the way from the view of tiny cameras. The device has a suture that the surgeon passes through the abdominal wall to an assistant.

A brighter world
Ming Ma, a mechanical engineer and prize winner at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, recognized that light emitting diodes (LEDs), may be the future of lighting, but their efficiency has not yet reached their theoretical limit of efficiency.

He took the problem to task and invented a new manufacturing technique that makes them brighter and more energy efficient than those on the market today. His inspiration was the literally world around him.

“Earth’s atmosphere has no reflection,” he explained to NBC News. That is, all of the light emitted from Earth into the atmosphere escapes to space. One of the problems with current LEDs is about 75 percent of the light produced by a LED gets trapped in the device itself.

The solution is to mimic nature with a structure on the surface of the LED chip that carries light out of the material and into the surrounding air. His patent-pending graded refractive index (GRID) technology improves the efficiency to 70 percent. And, with fabrication improvements, the sky is the limit.

“There is no law against us to achieve 100 percent efficiency,” said Ma, who grew up in southeast China and came to the U.S. aiming to develop technologies with broad impact.

“People need light sources every day, they need illumination in their homes and businesses,” he said. “So, I think by improving the efficiency of these LEDs that I can have an impact on people’s everyday lives.”

Well-watered plants

A sick and dying basil plant in his kitchen inspired prize winner Eduardo Torrealba from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign to create an automated plant-watering system that could make life easier for everyone from busy urban professionals to farmers in developing countries.

Eduardo Torrealba's Plant Link system monitors soil moisture and wirelessly alerts people to water their plants.

Plant Link, as the commercial product is called, is an internet-connected sensor that measures soil moisture and sends the data wirelessly to a software program that determines a schedule for watering whatever type of plant it monitors. An algorithm checks on plant details and the weather, for example.

It works for indoor and outdoor plants and will soon come with an optional valve to control a sprinkler. “It will be a closed-loop system that will water all of your plants for you,” Torrealba explained to NBC News.

He launched the product on Kickstarter with a team he assembled using entrepreneurial skills he pursued alongside his mechanical engineering studies. Individual units retail for about $100.

Going forward, the team aims to develop versions for home gardeners and small-scale commercial farming operations such as boutique vineyards. Ultimately, he said, the system could help farmers in emerging economies better manage their water resources.

“Being able to accurately predict and determine where those resources need to be allocated for the maximum possible benefit is going to be a big challenge,” he said. “We want to be able to build tools that can make a difference in that area for the 21st century.”

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, check out his website.