NIU students showcase innovative projects for Design Day

May 4, 2019 GMT

DeKALB – Gregory Solomon doesn’t see China’s refusal to take American plastic as an unsolvable problem. 

What he and his team of fellow Northern Illinois University engineering students see instead is an opportunity to revolutionize the process of recycling. 

Along with Solomon’s team, 79 others showed off their semester-ending engineering projects Friday at the NIU Convocation Center. The projects ranged in sizes, scope and application, from a noninvasive device that can detect diabetes to a self-learning robot.

“We really wanted to automate consumer recycling,” Solomon said. “In most manufacturer recycling places, you literally have a conveyor belt with people on it … and it’s incredibly slow and incredibly expensive.”


Solomon and his team’s solution was to create a hydrocyclone, a cost-effective device that uses a water vortex to sort through different kinds of plastic. Lighter plastic is caught in the middle of the vortex and carried through the device by air, while heavier materials are forced through by the water.

“There hasn’t been much exploration,” Solomon said about the use of hydrocyclones in recycling. “People have just been shipping it off to China, where they use cheap hand labor, and now things are really changing. People are being more conscious of how much plastic we’re using.”

Other senior engineering students, such as Kristen O’Connor, had a more health-focused application in mind. Her team developed a device that can detect Type 2 diabetes up to seven years earlier than a blood test by reading fluorescence signals in the eye.  

“When you’re early on in diabetes, you have transient spikes; it goes up and down throughout the day even, so

it’s hard to catch,” O’Connor said. “But your eye stores all

of that. It’s kind of like the rings of a tree.” 

O’Connor said the device could become a normal sight in drugstores alongside blood pressure machines.

Senior engineering student Jordan Blair and his team sought to use their project as a teaching tool for future engineering students. They built a robot and wrote the code it uses to time its own kicking motions while hanging from a bar – a feat that has taken months of work, Blair said.

“Most [artificial intelligence] learning is going to say, ‘OK, well if I kick like this, I get a good result, but if I kick more, I get a better result,’ ” Blair said. “And it will keep doing that until it’s capable of getting to the point of swinging around the bar.” 

Blair said the robot and the code will be used as a platform for future engineering classes. 

“Using this as a general tool in classes to say, ‘This is what code looks like,’ it’s mostly going to be used as a learning device,” Blair said.