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Safety, salt and silicon: WVU Tech student Design Expo highlights wide range of research projects

Students in WVU Tech's Carter Hall Auditorium discuss their design projects.

On Thursday, April 19, dozens of students shared their research and design projects at the annual Design Expo in Carter Hall.

The projects on display included everything from remote-controlled airplanes and hydraulic-powered bicycles to aluminum refining and computer cooling systems.

Here are just a few of the many fascinating design efforts on display at the day’s event:

Batter up

WVU Tech student Alexis Branch discusses her research at the Design Expo.Tech student Alexis Branch discusses her team's work on a protective batting glove.

Alexis Branch is a senior mechanical engineering major from Iaeger, West Virginia. She was part of a team showcasing their work on a batting glove designed with improved safety features.

"There are five companies that have attempted to do this, and they're all hitting major key points where injuries occur. So we're picking up where they left off, creating more protection and using a more efficient way to reduce injury by up to 90%," she said.

She said that her team has learned a lot of skills along the way, and that their passion for the project stems from their love of the game.

"We got this idea because we play the game ourselves. We knew what was missing," she said.

Because of that passion, they’re doing more than sharing their idea on campus. Branch said the team has also worked alongside the WVU Tech LaunchLab to share their work with potential investors at business pitch competitions throughout the state.

"That to me was a little crazy. You got to meet these CEOs who own multi-million-dollar companies and have them come to you and say 'we like your idea and, if you can get these things done, we'll help sponsor you,'" she said.

Though the team graduates this year, they plan to carry on their work.

"We're looking forward. We're going to hopefully get our prototype built, get a design patent, a license agreement with a production company and get it on the market,” Branch said.

To build a better sifter

Students who worked on the salt sifter project showcase their project poster.(L-R) Dustin Hill, Christopher Alpeter, Terry Foster and Samuel Stone share their work on a one-of-a-kind salt sifter.

Branch’s team wasn’t the only one to select a project close to home. Charleston, West Virginia native Samuel Stone, a mechanical engineering senior at Tech, spent the last two summers working for J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works in Malden, West Virginia. It’s a small company that produces gourmet cooking salt.

"They pump liquid brine out of the ground and put it through evaporation houses until salt crystals form. We then have some processing to do before it can be marketed,” said Stone.

The company offers three marketable grain sizes, so there's a lot of sifting that has to be done. That's where the project team came into play.

"The sifting process can be one of the most labor-intensive aspects of production. Our job was to decrease the labor intensiveness and increase the efficiency of the sifting process," Stone said.

To do that, the team designed a number of sifting mechanisms. 

A mock-up of the oscillating salt sifter designed by Tech students.The team drew their inspiration from antique sewing machine designs.

"We had to do a lot of research on current types of sifting used by other companies in the industry. We needed to make the process continuous, we had to make our sifting screens interchangeable and we wanted to make it human-powered to not pollute the work environment with a lot of noise,” he said. 

The team designed three concepts for a sifter and chose to build a full-sized prototype of an oscillating version where gravity would feed salt from one screen to the next.

The team drew inspiration from an unlikely source: antique sewing machine designs that use a foot pedal to rotate a large gear.

“We had to make it human-powered, keep a motor off of it and keep it small enough to fit in their shop without taking up a lot of space. We worked with their current bins because that's what they have on stock to store the salt. It’s very purpose-built for this specific business,” said Stone.

Team member Christopher Alpeter added that, in addition to learning a lot about machining and project management, sharing work at the expo was a great way to help visualize the greater context of their work.

“This is our first scenario outside of the classroom,” Alpeter said. “When you see and share your work like this, that’s all of your calculations and time going into a physical product that you can see and touch. We've taken a lot of feedback from other students and from faculty.”

Silicon Mountain

Joseph Kinyoun and Nick Kondracki share their work on silicon reactions during the deign expo.Joseph Kinyoun (left) and Nick Kondracki spent the day discussing their team's work on a more efficient way to create high-purity silicon.

Just steps from where Branch and Stone were sharing their work, another group of students were discussing their process for producing high-purity polysilicon for use in solar panels and semiconductors.

Two senior chemical engineering seniors – Joseph Kinyoun from Statesville, North Carolina and Nick Kondracki from Fairfax, Virginia – shared their team’s work.

“What we do in our process is take metallurgical-grade silicon, which is 98-99% pure already, and we feed it through a section of reactors, most notably the Siemens reactor, to produce highly-pure silicon,” said Kinyoun.

The purity of silicon directly impacts its conductivity – the purer the element, the more efficient it is at transferring energy. The industry is already using the reactor process the team worked on, but in the spirit of ingenuity and innovation, the team wanted to improve upon the model, basing their work on an existing plant in Tennessee.

The improvement plan? Better efficiency through less waste.

“We work with some pretty nasty chemicals in this process. They're harmful to the environment if released, so we're finding the best way that we can use them. The majority of our processing occurs in just a small section of the design. More of the concept is dedicated to waste recycling, making sure we can send stuff back into the process to make things as safe and efficient as possible," said Kinyoun.

To address the waste issue, the team developed a sophisticated recycling system that reuses waste chemicals in the reaction process and maximizes the amount of silicon pulled from raw materials.

Kondracki and Kinyoun said that the project could also save companies money. Waste treatment can be one of the most expensive aspects of a chemical plant and reusing waste also cuts down on raw materials costs.

They picked up some skills along the way, too.

“It's been a test of our problem-solving abilities,” said Kinyoun. “You're doing research into these model plants and a lot of that information is proprietary, so you have to develop how you're going to perform each step of the process.”

Kondracki said that sharing the team’s work with the community and the industry was eye-opening. 

“It's not just an educational experience. It's a real-life experience. Sharing our work helps us narrow things down for our audiences. It helps us learn how to condense the material that we want to present to people,” he said.

Check out our Flickr album for photos from the Design Expo.

Projects included:

Design of a protective batting glove - Adriana Rosendo, Alexis Branch, Dominic Rich, and MacKenzie Wilson.

Salt filter - Dustin Hill, Samuel Stone, Christopher Alpeter, and Terry Foster.

TrueBlue auto belay demonstration tool - Justin Circeo, Jonathan Frazier, Jonathan Fore, and Jason Rudd.

Development and Analysis of Tissue Scaffolding - Matthew Siomos.

Tailor the synthesis of Amberlite-silica composites - Kendra Monnin.

Design of large-scale manufacturing facility of Mab - Kendra Monnin, Ashlynn Teator, and Matt Myers.

Production of Polysilicon using fluidized bed reactor - Abdullah AlMezyad, Besrat Seifu, Mohammad Alqallaf, and Jacques Gashugi.

Polysilicon production design using Siemens reactors - Joseph Kinyoun, Nick Kondracki, and Sabrina Yohannes.

Design of a CPU cooling system - Zachary Armstead, and Alfred Taylor.

Fluid Powered vehicle - Geoffroy Gauneau, Matthew Pittman, Amr Semmami, and Manuel Serrano Laguna.

Design of a RC aircraft - Fernando Rivero, Diego Dranuta, Fernanda Delduque, Morgan Smith, and Jesus Marroqui Garcia.

Steel Bridge - Matthew Papesh, Matias Pazos, and Ryan Pate.

Gestamp, off gaging failure mode effect analysis - Daniel Lynch, Brett MacIver, Michael Scott, and Sean Nforkah.

Design of molten aluminum refractory - Trevor Johnson.