Engineering Inside:

2012 Issue 2
Green Technology

Meet Kimberly Newman

April 2012

Kimberly Newman is a Research Associate in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her area of research is in biomedical engineering, where she focuses on biomedical monitoring, but she is also interested in renewable energy. She focuses on security issues related to the emerging smart grid, and recently she was instrumental in applying solar power technology to Denver Health Medical Center’s ambulance fleet.

Newman assembled a team from Lockheed Martin and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado to retro‐fit an ambulance with rooftop solar panels and batteries. The goal of the solar system was to provide enough power to operate fundamental equipment while idling so that the engine could be turned off to save fuel. The flat ambulance roof offered 83 square feet of space on which they installed four solar panels which could generate 1000 watts. “The medical equipment only needed 463 watts to stay charged, so we actually over‐designed it,” Newman explains. “We found that each ambulance wastes about ten gallons of fuel each day just by idling. The solar panels can save that fuel.” At a cost of about $20,000 per vehicle to install the solar equipment, if each vehicle saves 10 gallons of fuel a day the solar panels would pay for themselves in less than two years.

Q: How did you get interested in applying solar power to ambulances?ambulance_battery

Newman:  This project emerged as a result of conversations with ambulance drivers who were concerned about being ready to respond to emergencies around the city of Denver.  Currently, they are idling at about 40 locations around the city and burning expensive diesel fuel to keep the mobile hospital ready to deploy.  For me, this was a great experience since I was involved from the beginning to the deployment and was able to learn a great deal about the complexity of working with large groups of individuals.  It was great that we were able to have it operational in 6 months.

Q: What inspired you to integrate solar panels on the ambulances? Why was making them “green” so important?

Newman:  The inspiration for putting solar panels on the ambulance came after an analysis of options to make the fleet more efficient and less toxic to the environment.  Several ideas were discussed from making them into hybrid electric to using alternative energy.  Solar power is clean and available throughout the day.  The use of the vehicles at night requires storage of power so they can maintain operation.  Due to the number of hours they sit idle, it was important to have some way to reduce the amount of burned fuel.  The summer is bad since the vehicle must be in high idle mode to run the air conditioner so even more fuel is burned.

Q: What technical challenges did you face in incorporating the solar panels?  What had to change?

Newman:  Technically we had some issues wiring the panels to the charge controller and battery.  Some of the specs on the vehicle weren’t documented so we had to pull it apart in some areas to see where to run the cables and get to the battery.  There isn’t a lot of free space on an ambulance so the battery area required design of a shelf and tray.  Mounting of the charge controller was also tricky so we just put it on the door.  We also had to reprogram some of the interfaces to the battery so that it didn’t discharge when the vehicle was in the garage.  There were a few times it didn’t crank after being out of service for 12 hours.  After working with the paramedics for a few months of operation, we developed a set of steps for maintaining the system and this reduced a lot of the issue.  We also put in a GPS and power usage logger to see where the vehicle spent most of the time in order to fine tune the panel interface.  This gave us a good bit of data that could be used if we were to expand to the entire fleet.

Q: Can you explain a little about biomonitoring? 

Newman:  My research group works closely with physicians to identify problems that can be solved with the creation of embedded systems.  I am now part of the task force on with engineers and physicians based on a presentation at the 2nd AMA-IEEE Medical Technology Conference.  Current emphasis is on technology at the point of care in the areas of limited mobility, limited sensation, rehabilitation, and chronic illness.  These projects take time to develop and deploy since we are bridging between traditional engineering disciplines and the medical profession.  We have systems deployed for fall monitoring at an assisted living community in Colorado Springs and are going through the process to evaluate a prototype at a Denver Hospital to aid individuals after polytrauma to communicate with care providers and loved ones.  My students really enjoy seeing the transition from the lab to the real-world and have helped me over the last 7 years pursue these topics.

Q: Do you find that “going green” has economic advantages too? 

Newman:   These vehicles are in operation for 12 hour shifts and just being able to save fuel is well worth it for the retrofit.  After doing a quick energy audit of the loads, estimating the typical idle patterns on the vehicle, and logging the mobility patterns of the vehicles over a period of a week, it was determined that a solar system could pay for itself within about 2 years.   Costs will continue to drop as the technology matures so it is definitely worth it to go green.

Q: How did you decide to go into engineering as a career path?  Was it a tough decision?

Newman:  Pursuing engineering was natural to me since I grew up taking things apart and wondering how they worked.  This sounds a bit cliché but I grew out of playing with dolls at a very early age and started working with my dad and grandfather on woodworking projects.  In middle school, my interest in mathematics, science and industrial arts expanded as well as my growing interest in music.  By the time I got into high school, I was weighing my choice between veterinary medicine and my passion for computers.  My dad purchased a Vic 20 for me and upgraded to a Commodore 64 for my entertainment.  While my other friends were just playing the Atari, I was learning to program in Basic and getting on the bulletin boards to download games.  It was fun and challenging at the same time.  During my third year in high school, I decided to pursue engineering which to me was something that I had never heard of before.  My high school had a computer club and also a robotics program so it was easy for me to get my hands on interesting systems, learn about logic, and do more detailed programming.  We were an engineering magnet school so I had the opportunity to meet with people working at industries around my hometown and I also went to science fair competitions.  The project I created for my final year ended up at the national finals and there I got to meet even more researchers and discuss my ideas and plans for the future.  It was pretty clear to me that I wanted to be an electrical and computer engineer.

Q: You have many degrees….why did you decide to go for PhD?

Newman:   When I was a junior in college, I took a class from a Professor who was doing a lot of research in my areas of interest.  He liked my work ethic and persistence so I was given the opportunity to work in his lab.  Based on this experience, I studied in France at the start of my graduate education and continued research with other faculty to expand my knowledge.  In the meantime, several large research centers emerged on campus in Atlanta so I was brought back to continue to develop my topic as a graduate student.  Our work was tightly integrated with industry needs and there was a good flow of interaction between project work and classroom experiences so I didn’t hesitate when an opportunity to pursue the PhD was provided.

Q: How long have you been a member of IEEE?  What prompted you to join?

Newman:  I think I joined as an official member in 1999 when I finished my Ph.D.  Before that, I participated in events on campus as a student and started to read the magazines.  When I got my first “real” paycheck I was happy to invest in an organization that is beneficial to humanity.  It has been very beneficial to me over the years and I strongly recommend it to my students to join as soon as they can.  One really nice part of the organization is that it isn’t like a lot of the fraternal societies.  Women and men are equally recognized and promoted based on their technical contributions.  This was very appealing to me.  The contacts that I have made at conferences, along with my participation in the societies, has been very rewarding.   I was able to participate in the Computer Society International Design Competition after meeting the organizer at a “Frontiers in Education” conference.  Students came up with some really creative solutions using the Bluetooth development kits and software platforms from places around the world where this technology is very hard to obtain.  Reading their reports and interacting with my colleagues to shape the competition was very helpful for me to have a fresh perspective on engineering around the world.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing about the work you do? 

Newman:   I really enjoy helping people.  This includes my colleagues, students, and members of the public.  If I can tackle a complex problem and break it into pieces that are easy to explain, I think my goals for the day are met.  There are so many new and emerging computing platforms that can be harnessed for the benefit of humanity.   It just takes time and patience to understand the need and match up with the capabilities.  We would joke about engineering tomorrow the night before but sometimes that is the case.  You have to be ready to respond and have the team with you to do so in a safe and effective manner.

Q: Can you share a story about how the work you do has impacted the world?

Newman:  I am a little modest about my own accomplishments but I think the success of my students is my major contribution to the world.  The “ah-hah” moment is something that is hard to describe but keeps me energized for the next project and challenge on the horizon.

One of my students went with me to an international biomedical conference.  He presented a poster on a system he created for pressure sore monitoring in a vehicle for individuals with diabetes who had peripheral neuropathy.  The attendees were amazed with the clarity and complexity of his presentation as well as the questions asked during the sessions.  He is currently considering a PhD.

A few years later, my lab was invited to develop a book chapter for ambient assisted living with international collaborators as a result of connections made at this conference.  We have since generated IP that is going through patent protection and implemented a test system to help individuals at risk of falls to show the proof of concept.  I am also now working with international collaborators on additional research projects in the biomedical area as a result of this initial project with my former student.

Q: What advice would you give a student who was interested in working in a “green” field that involved engineering or computing?

Newman:  Go for it!  The need for sustainable systems is on the rise and will continue to grow.  Engineers with skills in electrical, computer, and energy have an advantage and will find many opportunities to pursue exciting career paths.  The power of computing platforms provides many opportunities in the last 20 years.  As we move into electric vehicle, high penetration solar and wind, as well as smarter use of technology for medical applications, the integration of these systems into everyday use will continue to provide opportunities for young engineers to make their mark on society.


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