Winter 2008
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TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  Interview with a poet

Sensing danger

By Nancy Bartosek

Engineering senior Tracy Haverty admits her nervousness the day she accepted the research assistant job in the campus engineering lab.

A mechanical engineering sophomore, she lacked much of the basic electrical knowledge she would need to complete the project she just agreed to do -- create an alcohol microsensor that detects when a driver is legally drunk and then silently signals authorities.

"For the first few weeks all I did was read and work through the lab manuals for classes that I would be taking in the fall," she said. "I'd call my Dad up and say, Dad, I don't know what I'm doing!"

A year later Haverty would proudly accept an award usually reserved for graduate research -- first place for her paper on the project from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The device will move into the commercial development stage within the year. Senior Kris Shuman is working this year with Kolesar to add features and tweak the final design.

The core of the project is a half-dollar-size fuel cell with a tiny fan attached to the back to draw air past the cell. The black platinum front of the fuel cell reacts with ethyl alcohol molecules in the air, creating electrical impulses. The magnitude of the electrical output can be directly related to the amount of ethyl alcohol in the air -- which correlates to the amount of alcohol consumed by the driver.

If the electrical impulse indicates the driver is emitting levels that exceed the legal limit, the device activates a transmitter that sends a signal to a police receiver. Police then have probable cause to stop the car and investigate.

The technology could be used in any sort of vehicle, including trains or heavy equipment cabs. The signal can also be connected to the car's global positioning system and the vehicle's location will be beamed by satellite to anywhere, including the owner's home if requested.

Once fully developed, the device will cost less than $100 and likely be installed in the roof or dashboard of every new car. Auto makers, as well as law enforcement agencies and groups like MADD, are clamoring for this project's completion, Kolesar said.

"While the device creates some touchy issues about privacy, it also will protect auto companies from accident liability if they can prove that a driver was impaired," he said.

Haverty, who landed an internship at Lockheed Martin this past summer, said working on the sensor was a lesson in self-reliance.

"The only jobs I'd had before this was as a lifeguard and a waitress," she said, laughing. "This experience taught me to trust myself and have confidence even doing something I know nothing about."