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SOCORRO, N.M. December 9, 2009 – Five teams of electrical engineering seniors are culminating their undergraduate years with ambitious capstone projects.

The 20 budding engineers are working with National Laboratories, research organizations or professors to solve technological challenges for practical issues.

Each team has a difficult challenge in designing, simulating and building state-of-the art instruments. The projects span a diverse range of applications, from the analysis of lightning, the monitoring of cave and water conditions, to experiments involving lasers and high-speed protons.

In three of the cases, the teams have been asked to improve existing instruments to make them more efficient, more accurate, lighter or more robust – or all of the above.

Instructor Dr. Rene Arechiga said the Senior Design class is an important stepping stone for college students to make the transition to their first job or to graduate studies.

“This gives them the opportunity to explore their interests,” Arechiga said. “These projects are challenging so they can feel confident that they’ll be successful where they go.”

The five projects:

1) Lightning Interferometer: Professor Dr. Bill Rison tasked a team of students to design, build and test a new interferometer using more modern instrumentation than the one built 20 years ago. Their advisor is Dr. Aly El-Osery.

2) Wireless Cave Sensing Network: Professor Dr. Anders Jorgensen asked students to modify an existing design to be less bulky and more powerful. Their advisor is Dr. Scott Teare.

3) Submersible Water Quality Sonde: Professors Dr. John Wilson and Dr. Michael Pullin want students to design the next generation of water chemistry sensor.  Their advisor is Dr. Kevin Wedeward.

4) Barium Laser: Air Force Research Labs/Research-Directed Energy Lasers/Center for Excellence(AFRL/RDL/COE)  are working with students to design a continuous beam barium laser.  Their advisor is Dr. Hector Erives.

5) Beam Position Monitor: Los Alamos National Laboratory and National Instruments have asked that students extensively simulate and preliminarily implement a system to monitor the position of particles within the LANL particle accelerator. Their faculty advisor is Dr. Robert Bond.

Each of the teams has significant technical challenges and obstacles standing between them and success. The first three teams are working on improving existing instruments. Their obstacles are both technical – building a better mousetrap – and financial – staying within modest budgets.

Team 1 is Cody Winclechter, Ian Johnson, Austin Silva and Teague Bick. In their preliminary design review, they reported that they have extreme limitations in weight, size and power.

A former Tech graduate student designed a prototype of a network of sensors to monitor cave environments, but the original design was extremely bulky and required regular maintenance. Dr. Jorgensen now wants the electrical engineering team to modify the prototype to be lightweight, reliable and capable of running independently for an extended period of time.

Their challenge is to design a system that uses power-conserving processors and the latest generation of batteries and that can be programmed remotely.

Team 2 is Alejandro Valdivia, Patrick Leahy, Josh Aragon and James Smith. Their task is to design a submersible instrument that can measure temperature, pressure, turbidity, dissolved oxygen and other chemical analyses. Plus, they have to do it for less than $500.

Manufacturers currently offer these instruments, but they are expensive. Dr. Arechiga said the team may be able to reverse engineer an off-the-shelf sensor and design a new one.

“If they can modify an existing instrument and satisfy the constraints of the project, that would be great,” he said. “But that would be hard to do. This project is not technologically easy.”

Team 3 is Jennifer Leue, Andrew Ronquillo, Luke Uecker and Brian Kamer. Most lasers operate on pulses. Their challenge is to design a continuous beam barium laser. In their preliminary design review, they said they are examining methods of depopulating the metastable electrons in order to create a continuous beam.

Team 4 is Vanessa Salas, Nikos Arechiga, Will Taylor and Ryan Schlegel. They are designing and building a state of the art radio interferometer for the imaging of lightning.

The interferometer generates two-dimensional images of lightning by looking at the orientation of the radio wave emissions generated by lightning as they are received. The interferometer will complement the Lightning Mapping Array currently used by

Langmuir Labs in their mission to better understand lightning and its underlying processes.

“They will look at different interferometric techniques … to try to have a better picture of lightning,” Professor Arechiga said.

Team 5 is Matthew Aurand, James Castillo, Dominic Candelaria and Scott Freund. They are working with scientists at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, or LANSCE, to simulate the monitoring of the position of a beam.

The Neutron Science Center is home to a massive, particle accelerator. Charged particles are shot through a mile-long tube, then directed toward a large circular accelerator and storage system (the proton storage ring). Los Alamos scientists want to monitor the position of the particles as they travel at nearly 85 percent the speed of light. 

“They are simulating the acquisition and processing of data at very high speeds,” Dr. Arechiga said.

Ultimately, the Neutron Science Center facility wants 20 of the NMT-designed monitors distributed around the proton storage ring, all connected to one computer.

The team has access to National Instruments products and engineers, as well as support and resources from Los Alamos staff scientists.

Each team has a sponsor to whom they report their findings and can offer advice, input and feedback, as well as a faculty advisor from the department to help the students adapt to the tough, industry environment.

Throughout the school year, the teams meet with their sponsors and faculty advisors, and also have periodic public presentations to a wide array of electrical engineering students, faculty and the department’s advisory board.

The class isn’t simply a technical challenge, though. The students also learn about ethical matters, teamwork, oral and written communication skills, budgets,  planning and project management.

“We’re preparing them for their next move,” Arechiga said. “This is the final touch."

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech