Maritime electrical engineers design the future

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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Maritime electrical engineers design the future

Microgrids on board ships. Brakes that harness energy. An underwater drone. Wireless signals transmitted underwater using light.

Each of these was a project – the result of a year of work – by teams of seniors enrolled in SUNY Maritime College’s Electrical Engineering program.

“Once you give students something of value and they know it’s good for them, they go and work so hard on their ideas,” said Dr. Yaqub Amani, professor of Electrical Engineering. “People say Maritime is all about the money and salaries. It’s not about that. We truly deliver first-class engineering. We are good at other things but the academics set us apart.”

Each of the projects, though very different, were about optimizing energy and operational efficiencies and harnessing more environmentally friendly power sources. Several of the projects are years ahead of their time, but each was an example of one direction the maritime industry is headed, or could be headed soon.

The teams had a year to do research on their topics and to investigate what has already been done, and develop their own prototype.

“Nowadays, you rely on efficiency. Companies want to spend some of their profits on something that will get them that money back and more,” said Kevin Linares-Ruis, whose group created a natural gas and hydrogen-powered microgrid for the cable-laying ship he worked on last summer. “If clean energy wasn’t enough of a reason for a company to convert its ships, the financial savings should be.”

Another group did a similar project, creating a microgrid to run off hydrogen fuel, with diesel as a back-up, on a cruise ship. Microgrids are essentially small power generation and distribution systems that are localized to one area.

Before final exam week, each of the teams set up their demonstration models and presentations around the electrical engineering lab for their classmates, professors and other visitors to explore and ask questions. Their grades depended on the quality of their work – the coding, circuitry and research – as well as their ability to explain what they did, why and how.

One of the projects was an attempt to send a wireless signal underwater using light. Underwater mining uses wireless drones, where the signal is transmitted through cables to the surface, or through sound waves. Cables are inefficient and sound travels slowly.

“Underwater mining is getting really big because resources on land are running out,” said senior Jeremy Henderson. “We decided we can use light to transmit the wireless signal. It’s brand new technology. They’ve been using it on land since 2012 but it’s only been underwater since 2015 or 2016.”

Though the team managed to transmit high-speed commands to control a number of motors through 10 feet of water, they proved that their idea was possible.

Another group tried to develop an underwater autonomous drone to inspect oil pipelines. Most pipelines, the team members said, are only checked for leaks once a year, which means oil can be leaking undetected for long periods of time. The drone was designed to have three sensors to detect changes in temperature – water at the ocean floor is cooler and oil mixing with water will cause changes in temperature, so a rise in temperature at a pipeline usually means there is a leak.

In the year-long project, the group built the drone and developed a rudimentary navigational system.

“This idea isn’t too prevalent but if it were to catch on, it could save oil companies tons of money,” said senior Joe Whelan. “With this type of drone, you can use any type of input. You can have these things monitoring the coral reefs and we’ll have better data about how quickly they are deteriorating.

“Wildlife organizations have an interest in this so there might be an opportunity for something as crazy as the World Wildlife Fund to work with Exxon-Mobile, for example.”

 While most of the groups tried to create something that isn’t prevalent yet in the maritime industry, the last group took a component that has existed for years – a cargo crane – and developed a dynamic braking system to harness the potential energy of a container that is naturally available when an object is lowered.

“The ability to generate power for free or to be able to sell and dispense it for anyone to use was appealing to all of us,” said senior Otelle Forde. “It seems to be the way the industry is headed. Companies are doing this now and since most of the world’s transportation is through shipping, we stand to gain a lot of power from this.”