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Capstone Team’s Designs Could Win DARPA Competition

April 28, 2014

Improvements for a ubiquitous device that cools high-powered electronics aboard military aircraft could do more than just earn a group of engineering students their senior capstone design credits.

It could also win a competition funded and hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

Led by Professor Yanbao Ma, the six-member Team TEC – which stands for thermally efficient connector – started out answering a call from the two federal agencies to develop novel field-reversible, low-resistance thermal connectors that improve on the design now being used.

But Ma thought the work would also make a good senior capstone project, and collaborated with School of Engineering Dean Dan Hirleman to incorporate the team into this year’s capstone groups.

Team TEC already won the first phase of the annual Field-Reversible Thermal Connector (RevCon) Challenge, which invites teams from all over the world to participate.

The thermal connectors are ubiquitous and critical components in military electronic modules, where they transfer heat from the edge of a printed circuit board to the water-cooled or air-cooled wall of an electronic module, according to DARPA’s website. High-powered electronics produce a lot of heat and wear out quickly, leading to expensive and potentially dangerous equipment failure.

“There is always room to improve a design, and that is what our team is doing,” Ma said.

TEC has to have a working prototype before the end of the semester and by the end of May will know if it is among the final four teams that will go to University of Missouri, Columbia, for onsite testing and judging. They also get to interact with government and industry experts who will provide feedback on the designs.

“Our designs focus on copper, which is more conductive than off-the-shelf aluminum products,” said team Leader Jose Guadarrama.

Ma said the most commonly used wedgelock design looks simple, but is actually intricate and leaves gaps for cooling air to escape, and also doesn’t clamp the expensive and critical electronics tight enough for use onboard aircraft.

“Now that we have seen the problems, we can design the solution,” he said. “We’ll optimize our design to meet DARPA’s requirements.”

The six members of Team TEC have been busy fabricating parts, coming up with back-up design plans, writing proposals and conducting research.

“We have to conduct experiments to see how our designs compare to the commercial product already available,” said team member Salvador Diaz. “That’s the research component. You don’t just come up with a design, you have to gather data about the clamping pressure, the temperature and make sure your design works.”

Ma said Team TEC members are also helping him with a research project on electric vehicles, and the experience in his research lab will help them as they take their next steps, to graduate school or out into the working world.

“I chose them because of their abilities and because they excelled in my classes,” Ma said. “They should be inspirational to other students.”

Lorena Anderson

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