Fairfield University’s 2013 Dean’s Award goes to engineering students who invented device to help astronauts and the aging

Submitted by Nina M. Riccio on May 21, 2013

Each fall, Fairfield University’s School of Engineering requires all seniors to take their knowledge and ripe imaginations, and collaborate on innovative designs for much needed devices, tools or computer applications. The best of the projects is awarded the Dean’s Award.

The 2013 award was given to a group of students who made a prototype of a device to help NASA astronauts living for extended periods in a weightless condition, a situation that causes problematic bone density loss. It is equally important to the many men and women who suffer chronically from osteoporosis leading to brittle and easily fractured bones. Called “Infrared Bone Densitometer and Photoplethysmograph,” it’s a miniature device to measure bone density and blood flow using infrared light, and was created by Eamonn Grant, of Dobbs Ferry, New York; Daniel Liashek, of Gaithersburg, Maryland; and Rafique Vahora, of Norwalk, Conn., who developed it for the Senior Design course.

“Physiologically, living in weightless conditions causes loss of bone mass density over time – not a good situation,” said Jack W. Beal, Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering, explaining it can lead to easily fractured bones, other serious bone problems and loss of mobility. “The standard medical exam for bone mass density involves either X-Rays or radioactive tracers. Both of these procedures require big heavy equipment and the patient needs to lie still in the machine for about 30 minutes.”

That situation is not something practical for monitoring astronauts on the Space Station, so the engineering students decided to come up with a lightweight, portable solution; The idea is to use small infrared LEDs [Light Emitting Diodes] and IR [Infrared Radiation] sensors in a small package that an astronaut could wear on his or her arm. “Essentially this is a real-time monitor,” said Dr. Beal. “Reflecting the IR light off of bones gives a signal that can be used to measure bone mass density.”

It’s a development that has the chance to help many: Reportedly about 40 percent of American women and six percent of American over 50 will suffer a vertebral fracture due to bone density loss annually.

It is capable of wireless connectivity, said Vahora, who received a NASA undergraduate scholarship to develop the tool. “This way if used in space to monitor the bone health of astronauts, data could be obtained easily and frequently over a short span of time, to investigate the exact cause of severe BMD [bone mineral density] loss in space,” he said.

E. Vagos Hadjimichael, Ph.D., professor of physics and engineering and the students’ mentor along with Dr. Ryan Munden, said the tool will help the general aging population. “I think the project stands out because of its potential as a useful, portable, medical device which will benefit all those men and women who are at risk of losing bone mineral density due to osteoporosis, or suffering from celiac, a condition that requires folks to adhere to a strictly gluten-free diet,” said Dr. Hadjimichael. It has a big advantage over the current practice of using a dual-energy X-Ray device. That’s because unlike X-Rays, IR light is non-invasive and the designed device is portable. “The measurement can be done at home, not unlike the portable blood-pressure devices we have at home,” he added.

Vahora will further develop it while pursuing a master’s degree at the School of Engineering in electrical and computer engineering, with a specialization in biomedical engineering.

This project bested a competitive field of student projects that included a rainwater harvesting system, an unmanned quad copter for rescue operations, SenseFit: a Bluetooth fitness monitor, an automated video metrology device, Heliostat: Sun Tracker Photovoltaic Solar Energy Converter, a light sport utility aircraft, Brian Buddy: Helmet Integrated Impact Detection System, load slot bearing lapping, Bearing Radial/Axial Clearances Measurement Device Development, Aerodynamic Nose Improvement of a Formula Ford Racecar, and Formula F Racecar Frame Enhancement.

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