Feature Stories

NJIT Student Team Wins Contest Sponsored by IBM and The History Channel

NJIT students named "IBM Engineers of the Future"

A team of NJIT students has won a nation-wide engineering contest for proposing ways to provide electricity to New York City in the next century.

The contest was sponsored by IBM and The History Channel, and the four team members were named “IBM Engineers of the Future.” They also received $5,000 and four IBM Thinkpad computers.

The contest, called “City of the Future,” was co-sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The students -- Latha Singanamalli, Kiratbir Khurana, Arwa Gheith and Gian Francisco -- all study electrical and computer engineering at NJIT.

“As engineering students, we love cutting-edge technology,” said Francisco, a senior majoring in electrical engineering who served as team captain. “And you can’t get more cutting-edge than the technologies we envisioned for this contest.”

In a hundred years, large swaths of New York City are submerged in knee-high water. The rivers encircling the city have risen dramatically, due to global warming. That was the premise of the contest and the conditions under which the students had to work.

In the first phase of the contest, an architecture firm redesigned the city so that its residents could navigate the waters. The firm designed a network of sky bridges to connect Manhattan’s tall buildings. City dwellers use the sky bridges to avoid the water coursing through the streets.

The students had five weeks to design a power system for a 22nd Century Manhattan mired in such sodden conditions.

The contest was inspired by a History Channel series, Engineering an Empire, which focused on ancient empires and their engineering marvels. Conversely the channel hosted this contest to give students -- America’s future engineers -- a chance to design aspects of a future city. Competitions were held in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

The NJIT team competed in New York City against other student teams from the metro region.

The power system that the NJIT team created for the contest was futuristic, creative and bold. The students proposed, for instance, building solar farms in southwestern Arizona, where open land and abundant sunshine abound. Some of their other solutions included these:

  • Coating solar panels with nano-crystals that, by absorbing the entire light spectrum, would be 80 percent efficient; today’s solar panels are about 14 percent efficient.
  • Installing the solar panels on the omnipresent sky bridges that replace streets.
  • Embedding the solar panels with nano-prisms that refract the light directly onto solar cells. The prisms, driven by microscopic MEMs gears, would absorb all the rays of the sun.
  • Using superconductive transmission cables to transport the electricity from Arizona to New York City. That electricity would heat and cool all the office buildings and power the households.
  • Designing semi-conductive Peltier pumps to heat and cool the buildings. Such pumps allow heat to be transferred quickly without using much power.
  • Using electricity to power all cars and vehicles, which will be equipped with super-capacitor batteries that store energy electromagnetically.

The students derived their ideas from research now being done at various universities around the world. But they had to imagine what state these technologies would be in a hundred years hence.

For the contest, the students had just 15 minutes to present these ideas to a panel of engineering and design experts at IBM’s Manhattan headquarters. The panel evaluated the student’s power-point presentation based on innovation and viability as well as how it fit certain design specifications.

The team won first place in the New York City competition.

“I’m proud of our students for their vision, creativity and intelligence, said Atam Dhawan, chairman of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE). “Their plan combined nano-technology and solar power to develop a highly-efficient power generation system. Their plan was so sound that it could feasibly become a new technology.”

The team worked hard to develop its energy plan, Francisco said, but when you love what you are doing “it doesn’t feel like work,” he added. “It feels like play.”

The ECE Department is rife with students who are passionate about hands-on, team-based projects such as this one, the students said. The department also delights in helping its students find internships and research projects, they added.

Gian Francisco, for instance, is now doing research with IBM's Poughkeepsie office, where he is designing an MP3 chip – one that will extend the battery life of portable electronic devices. The department, with help from the Career Development office, also helps its students launch their careers. Franciso will graduate from NJIT in May. But he already has a coveted job lined up: He’ll work as a design engineer for Intel, in Fort Collins, Colorado, helping to design the next-generation microprocessor.

For his senior research project, team member Kiratbir Khurana designed a GPS tracking device replete with a Radio-Frequency transceiver. He has also interned at two major companies: Honeywell and JP Morgan. He, too, has a job lined up already: He’ll work as a technical associate for the world’s largest financial firm, based in New York City.

Latha Singanamalli has done research on how to build secure and efficient routing protocols for computer networks. She has presented her research at a conference held at Penn State University. She’s talking to various employers in the field of wireless communications.

Arwa Gheith specializes in a booming subfield of electrical engineering known as control theory and can thus work in a variety of fields. Right now, she is keeping her employment options open and fielding offers.

All four team members are grateful to the ECE department for taking a personal interest in them.

“We would like to extend out deepest gratitude to the ECE department for supporting us,” said Francisco. “We couldn’t have won this competition without them all. And we were not shy about telling the contest coordinators from IBM and the History Channel how great the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is at NJIT.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)