There is no set path that ideas follow from insight to invention to innovation. They can simmer for years or strike like a bolt of lightning. For Matthew Reda ’19, inspiration fell from the sky one afternoon – literally. Clearing a commercial parking lot following a blizzard and lamenting the fact that his own snow-covered driveway waited at home, he thought, “There has to be a better way.” He thinks he’s found it – through robotics.

Andrea Cano ’17 dismissed an instinctive “ick!” to find something useful in the unpalatable – human waste. Michael Tadros ’18 took a look at his generation’s lackluster voting record and determined to rouse the Gen-Yers closest to him. And two visiting students from the Heritage Institute of Technology in Kolkata are trying to modernize and expand a century-old lunch delivery system.

For NJIT students, the ideas that spark research projects are as diverse as they are. What they share is the determination to find laboratories, mentors and funding, and the imagination and skill to apply technology to daily problems, using the resources around them. Over the summer, more than 120 undergraduates, including students such as Reda, Cano and Tadros from NJIT, as well as from other universities in the United States, Brazil and India, came back to campus to do just that. They were backed by a range of sponsors – NJIT’s Undergraduate Research and Innovation (URI) program,  NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Hearst Foundation, Capital One Bank, PSEG and the James Stevenson and Family Foundation, to name a few – and worked with more than 70 NJIT faculty and research staff members.

And now budding entrepreneurs will get another shot at funding, as the Provost’s office solicits proposals for the fall round of URI grants. “Whether it’s an app you’re designing, a device you’re inventing or fundamental scientific research you’re helping to rethink, start the process by sending us your ideas,” says Atam Dhawan, vice provost for research and head of the URI program. 

Summoning Snowbot

As any entrepreneur will acknowledge, inspiration sometimes stares you right in the face. Or in the case of Matt Reda ’19, a mechanical engineering major from Pequannock, it falls from the sky in millions of tiny flakes and then reassembles into dense and obstinate mounds on the ground. Riding around on a bobcat skid-steer loader one day last winter while plowing a snowed-in commercial parking complex– and facing more of the same at home – Reda got to wondering whether he could design a device to do the work for him. “Going around in circles for thirty-one-and-a-half hours, you think about a lot of things,” he recounted. And that is how he came up with the idea of Snowbot, a dome-shaped ‘autonomous snow removal’ robot outfitted with sensors to follow a designated path, suck up snow through a modified auger blade, melt it in a heating chamber at its center and drain it off-site through a heated hose. After touting its potential to not only save labor, but to avert pulled backs, bruised limbs and worse, he won a grant to develop it. The prototype has since gone through six revisions with more to come. There is one constant: the goal of creating a machine to keep a surface clear of snow no matter the length or intensity of the storm.  “This experience has felt a lot like a really long lab experiment with some crucial differences,” Reda says. “Instead of having all of the tools to solve the problem right in front of you, you have to go and find them yourself. And instead of having the objectives clearly stated, the objectives become as much of the search as the experiment itself. This lab is a pass or fail – either it works or it doesn't.” 

Porta Potty Power

In a laboratory in Colton Hall, an all-woman research team has created a device that looks like an abandoned aquarium, with two black rods engulfed by dense clumps of vegetation, jutting through its murky water.  But make no mistake, their tank – a microbial fuel cell (MFC) – is as practical as it is inspired. Andrea Cano ’17, one of its inventors, says she has high hopes it will one day serve as a mobile, on-site source of electricity to power LED lights in outbuildings in remote areas, such as portable toilets at refugee camps and construction sites. It runs on a plentiful, ubiquitous fuel: human urine. “We needed an inexpensive material to feed the bacteria and decided to transform waste into something useful,” says Cano, a civil engineering major who was born in Colombia, but moved to Linden when she was 15. “People wouldn’t have to come in contact with it, while reaping the outcome of the technology – and contributing to the process!” The team viewed solar power as too costly and the batteries that would be needed for power at night, vulnerable to theft. By contrast, the fuel cell technology uses microbes to make electricity, with organic compounds – bacteria in this case – serving as electron donors. The nitrogen-laden urine feeds the bacteria. “Large scale deployment of MFCs is quite rare due to their complex construction, material cost and durability, and they are, technically speaking, still far from attaining acceptable levels of power output,” she notes. “We’re looking to make this technology accessible in a way that is cost-effective and long-lasting.”

Vote Early and Often, Gen-Y!

Why do college students tune out elections? This is no idle question for Michael Tadros ’18, a Law, Technology and Culture major from Bayonne who is urging his peers to shape their futures through the ballot box. “People in my age group are the most impacted by the quality of our educational system, as just one example, and voting should be a top priority for them,” he notes. Tadros is not taking their inertia in stride, however. Over the past several months, he developed an educational brochure entitled, “Why Vote? The Importance of Voting for NJIT Students,” that he distributed over the summer and will continue to hand out throughout the semester.  It compares national voting trends for his cohort – “stunning,” he says, with fewer than 25 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds taking part in off-year elections – with other age groups. It features students’ own explanations – “busy with college” and “the candidates aren’t relatable to young people” – that he collected in a survey of University Heights students earlier this year. He gives compelling reasons to vote, both idealistic and practical – “the future of our democracy is at stake” and “politicians cater to those who vote most” – and information on how to register this fall and when to vote. He hopes to be able test the effectiveness of the brochure after the upcoming elections.

Digitizing Dabbawalas

For more than a century, deliverymen known as dabbawalas have earned a living in Indian cities and hopping on bicycles and trains at lunch hour to transport meals cooked by suburban housewives and kept warm in metal lunchboxes, known as dabbas, to loved ones holed up in downtown offices. Akanksha Mukherjee and Susnata Mandal, computer science students from the Heritage Institute of Technology in Kolkota, want to expand this thriving business by helping the amateur chefs play a more lucrative role. As participants in NJIT’s undergraduate summer research program, they developed an app called LunchBox that would allow the women to offer their fare to paying customers as well as family. Mandal explains:  “You press the chef hat icon if you’re a seller and the cutlery icon if you’re the buyer. The seller submits a description of the food as well as the price and amount available, and the dish is then added to options. Buyers click on the food they want and the distance they’re willing to have it delivered.” LunchBox uses the Avatar mobile cloud computing platform, which is fast, scalable and energy-efficient, to manage data. The dabbawala system, which has been studied by everyone from corporate executives to Harvard business professors, makes the deliveries possible. “Housewives in India cook really well and we’re creating a platform for them to sell their food,” says Mukherjee. “This way they can make money and earn some independence.”