Researcher Profile: Seth Thomas

We’ve written before about the fluid power research projects coming out of the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power. Ten new research projects have recently been selected for funding. One student benefiting from the funding is Seth Thomas, a student at Vanderbilt University who is working on the Controlled Stirling Power Unit project.

Education and Career

Seth completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and Writing at the University of Central Arkansas in 2008, and after working for a few years and a stint in the United States Peace Corps, returned to school for a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics (completed in 2016). He is currently pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, which he hopes to complete in 2021. In the long term, he would like a career centered around renewables, energy efficiency, or advanced manufacturing, either in industry or at a national lab.

Current Research

One of the CCEFP’s goals is to increase fluid-power energy storage density by an order of magnitude, so his research is focused on creating a fluid-powered, high-energy-density power source that is better than batteries and servomotors for human-scale robotics applications. In short, he is developing the Controlled Stirling Power Unit, a modified Stirling engine with oscillations that can be controlled in order to shape its efficiency and power output to leverage the power/weight advantages of fluid power to enable untethered human-scale robotics to work better with us, for longer. Currently, the first-generation prototype has been used to experimentally validate our mathematical model. Using simulation data, a second-generation model is being designed for use in an application.

Motivation for Choosing Engineering

Although it might seem unorthodox, Seth’s motivation for pursuing engineering and for joining the United States Peace Corps are very similar: in both cases, he wanted to address big problems. In the Peace Corps, his host country wanted to integrate into global organizations and markets following the collapse of the Soviet Union, so he taught English in order to help that transition at the local level. Similarly, he hopes to use engineering to address other great problems, such as our country’s reliance on fossil fuels by improving energy efficiency and adopting renewables, and our constant need to create new jobs and industries for people displaced by rapidly changing technologies and globalization. While these problems are certainly multi-faceted, he believes they are largely technical problems and as such, they can be addressed through engineering. On a personal level, engineering also gives him an outlet for creativity and represents a challenging and sought-after skill set to which he can aspire.

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