ECU’s Steinbaker earns award from Duke Energy

Griffin Steinbaker, an East Carolina University electrical engineering major, won an award for best undergraduate research poster during Duke Energy Week at Duke University in Durham.

The idea behind his daylight harvesting sensor is to help businesses save energy costs by automatically turning off indoor lights when outside natural light meets Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lighting requirements.

Griffin Steinbaker, an electrical engineering major, received the award for best undergraduate research poster from Duke Energy. (Photo by Ken Buday)

“We were thinking of this for industrial applications, like factory floor settings. They generally have no monitoring of the lights whatsoever,” Steinbaker said. “This is something that can monitor bigger rooms that have a lot of natural light that may not necessarily need the lights to be on. We found that people will have the lights on when they have pretty big windows, and they don’t necessarily have to have those lights on. The sensor will see if that (OSHA) threshold has been met, and if it has, it will turn the lights off. That’s where the power savings comes into play.”

Steinbaker said his device would be a less expensive version of available products currently on the market that can cost hundreds of dollars.

“The full product was about $15 in parts,” he said. “The product contains three components that we had to buy. The rest of it was made with salvaged parts. We were really inspired by the idea of frugal engineering. That means to tackle a very complex task with very simple, rudimentary means. I think we did a good job of achieving that.”

Steinbaker said he drew inspiration from the maker movement in which people take initiatives to solve problems and then share those solutions with others.

“We wanted to make a device that was easily accessible by anyone,” Steinbaker said. “When we started this project, we felt that saving energy was the biggest thing, so we wanted to find a way to make it so that anyone could save power.”

As such, the technology behind the product will be available to everyone.

“We wanted to look at making this available online,” said Dr. Praveen Malali, director of research for the Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering (CSE3) and mentor on the project. “We want to have a manual and keep it open source so a lot of people can access it and produce the device. The inspiration for all of that was the maker movement.”

Dr. Faete Filho, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering, served as the co-mentor, and graduate student Julian Brady assisted as well. Steinbaker received an Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Award from ECU’s Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement to fund the project.

Malali said he saw a need for such devices as part of CSE3’s energy-savings initiative.

“There’s a need for devices that could assist in energy savings, and we have the faculty expertise and the mentorship that was needed, and Griffin had the know-how in terms of working with the device,” Malali said.

Steinbaker said that a lot of research and work on lighting focuses on new buildings and facilities, leaving existing businesses to work on solutions themselves.

“We wanted to find something on the back end to improve our pre-existing systems,” Steinbaker said. “That’s where we’re going to make a real impact.”

Work on the device isn’t finished. Steinbaker said plans call for a connected smart system among multiple devices so that they can communicate and adjust lighting in bigger rooms as well as what would be the equivalent of a dimmer switch so lights can be adjusted to increase or decrease the amount of indoor lighting needed based on available outside light.

“It will be able to save a lot more power that way,” Steinbaker said.

– By Ken Buday, University Communications