U of T news

Engineering students from U of T, Brazil invent sustainable soybean harvester

Collaborating to create a leaner, greener machine

Renan Gomes, Shahed Mirmohammadi, Professor Steve Thorpe, Jonathan Hoo and Ricardo Barnasky)

It may have hydrogen fuel cells, a solar panel and three lithium-ion batteries, but a new electric vehicle from students at U of T won’t be found on the highway – it’ll be working on the farm.

A group of engineering students has proposed a new type of sustainable soybean harvester, recently winning first place in a unique graduate design course on campus. The machine produces zero emissions while powering its driving, threshing, storage and cleaning phases.

The idea was born in MSE558: Nanomaterials in Alternate Energy Systems, a course that brought together students from various engineering disciplines, including exchange students from Brazil’s Science without Borders program. It took participants outside their comfort zones of engineering problem-solving, and added business skills development such as market analysis, branding and education.

Now in its tenth year, the course taught by Professor Steve Thorpe is modeled after the National Hydrogen Association Design Contest and puts students through the whirlwind experience of launching a start-up.

It was the “Dragon’s Den” of engineering – not only did Engineering students Shahed MirmohammadiJonathan Hoo, Renan Gomes and Ricardo Barnasky have to invent the potentially world-changing combine, but they had to sell a team of judges on its business viability, safety and practicality.

The sheer scope of the challenge and the chance to apply new nanomaterials to a real product appealed to Gomes. Like Barnasky, he is a Brazilian exchange student studying at U of T through the Science Without Borders program.

“Nano is never easy – it’s always complicated, but that’s the future,” said Gomes. “Our job as engineers is to learn how to solve problems using these new technologies.”

PURE – Powerful, Unique, Reliable and Efficient

All four team members shared excitement about the vision of greener farming with international impact, and their first task was to define their corporate identity. They dubbed their new company PURE, for Powerful, Unique, Reliable and Efficient.

Hoo, the team’s technical lead, conducted extensive research into load profiles of the current state-of-the-art machines, including phoning competitors, who wanted to sell him a combine, and Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture & Food. The team even phoned the Brazilian government to inquire about a similar project there.

“Was it like detective work? No, it was like espionage,” said Hoo. “The harvester, you don’t just drive it – you have to cut the crops and process them and store them in a tank and empty them. Our load profile was pretty complex.”

Mirmohammadi said: “I learned so much about hydrogen fuelling, fuel cells, hydrogen storage and the issues with it, the cost of actually doing something like this. It’s doable, but it’s very expensive at this time.”

Pitching time
Similar to the television show Dragon’s Den, Team PURE presented their ideas to a panel of judges – including Professor Thorpe, Amy Jiang of BP and Alex Ayers of Pratt & Whitney. For Barnasky and Gomes, it was the first professional presentation they had ever delivered in English.

“These people are sharp, they know their stuff — if you screw up, they’re going to pick up on it,” said Hoo.
After handling a 20-minute question period with the judges, the team emerged victorious, winning an engraved plaque and $180 in prize money.

The second-place team designed a food truck serving First Nations cuisine to Bay Street bankers without using an atom of fossil fuels. The third-place team invented a zero-emissions personal-delivery drone.

Holistic solutions
“The whole point of this is to come up with a holistic solution,” said Thorpe. “We teach tools for screening new ideas quickly and performing failure analysis… keeping them in the box is challenging!”

Mirmohammadi said the course opened the team’s eyes to the incredible complexity of creating a product like this.

“If you were in a firm and you had all these different departments you work with, you can’t ever come up with one option thinking, ‘It’s technically feasible, let’s do it!’ Well, did you take into consideration that this is going to kill 100,000 fish? Or you’re going to have to spend billions of dollars trying to get the infrastructure to even build this thing. That’s definitely something that we’ve never done before.”

Despite the trial, would they enter this Dragon’s Den again?

Absolutely.