Robotics, a Self-Driving Car, and Green Hydrogen: Mechanical Engineering’s Moment of Truth
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How to make devices smart? Why does Earth’s future depend on nature’s simplest and most abundant element? And why are Afeka mechanical engineering alumni snatched up by the industry as soon as turn in their final project?
As we approach the climate point of no return, a devastating moment for our planet, the global effort to wean off greenhouse gasses is kicking into higher gear. One of the effective alternatives, especially in industries such as aerospace, trains, and trucks, is hydrogen energy.
Those who’ve taken it upon themselves to lead the national effort to establish an Israeli hydrogen market are researchers from Afeka – the Academic College of Engineering in Tel Aviv. “We are certain that this will become one of the key vectors in coming years,” says Dr. Yinon Yavor, an expert researcher in the field and head of Afeka’s school of mechanical engineering. He is convinced that in time, as with utilizing solar energy, and in fact with most new technologies, a more economical solution will be found for the hydrogen market. But time, unfortunately, is something we don’t have.
Compared to other OECD countries, Israel doesn’t have too many reasons to boast when it comes to implementing renewable energies. The market in hydrogen, nature’s simplest and most abundant element, can go a long way towards closing this gap. It also bears remembering that every development in this field has massive profit potential, considering the climate crisis and the incentives currently offered by US government.
“This is no passing fad,” says Dr. Yavor, whose research also explores the burning of hydrogen fuels in rocket and other engines. “The world is marching towards green hydrogen produced via water electrolysis, in a process whose only byproduct is oxygen. And that’s where we need to be.” He adds: “Afeka’s faculty has decided to place significant focus on this subject. This is already evident in the required undergraduate courses, in the final projects, and in a weeklong sustainable energy seminar held once every semester at Eilat-Eilot.”
The energy market is just one of the key topics at Afeka’s school of mechanical engineering. Another fascinating field is everything to do with robotics and mechatronics – the sensors; their sensing ability – i.e., what they see, hear, feel, and identify (temperature, light, radiation); and translating this input into practical decisions (motion, movement, stopping upon identifying a stop sign). The analysis and the resulting decision-making ability – those are what makes “stupid” mechanical devices smart and autonomous. All this is practiced by mechanical engineering students even during their undergraduate studies, with final projects building robots and autonomous tools, and with contests to see who’s fastest or best.
But perhaps the field that sets Afeka’s school of mechanical engineering apart, with a specialization track unique within Israel academia, has to do with the automotive world. Here practical application receives special expression, based on a philosophy that considers skill acquisition (teamwork, critical thinking, language, and public presentation) to be no less important than engineering knowledge. Students build full assemblies and drive them by themselves on custom-built slalom courses. Some have even designed and built from scratch a solar vehicle, which is set to travel Israel’s roads in the near future, and soon a project to build an autonomous vehicle will also begin.
The final mechanical engineering projects receive widespread interest and score impressive achievements. Some are instantly snatched up by the industry. A good example is a special additive for powered parachutes, developed by two Afeka students based on the needs and requirements of a leading manufacturer in this industry. Mere months after development was completed, the additive was incorporated into the product, improving the parachute’s efficiency and creating a new model that’s sold in the US, to rave reviews.
Dr. Yavor notes that collaborations between academia and industry are very common at Afeka in general and at the school of mechanical engineering in particular. This, due to a conscious decision to break out of the traditional college mandate and incorporate research-oriented faculty members. “The knowledge hub created here at Afeka serves the needs of the industry, such as the Ministry of Defense, which signed on to take part in building and funding a research lab at Afeka – and of course serves the students, who do important research work and meet potential employers. For instance, mechanical engineering students from Afeka recently presented their final project at a science conference, and immediately received job offers from Rafael. And that’s hardly the only example.”
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