Saturday, September 24, 2016

Science Fair Rock Star: Nishita Belur

This is the seventh in an ongoing series highlighting some of the amazing young women participating in the 2016 Google Science Fair. (Here are the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth posts.) Each of these smart young scientists has survived both the rigorous first pass and the second regional round, and have been named Global Finalist, meaning they have moved into the final round of competition. You can be sure I'll be watching the celebration event on September 27, 2016.

One of the things I love about reading about these Google Science Fair projects is seeing the these kid's intense curiosity about how things work and how they can apply what they have learned to the objects around them and in the process learn even more. It's endlessly fascinating for me how they will take a principle they learn about in class and look for ways to use it to understand the world around them, and then look for ways to improve it.

Nishita Belur was curious about how sheet metal is inspected for use in manufacturing, and shocked to learn that production facilities still rely on a simple visual inspection for dents and scratches. For many items, like automobile panels, this may be an adequate technique, as paint and other finishes will cover most minor imperfections. But for other uses, like being formed into pipes or boxes, where even minuscule flaws can compromise the structural integrity, inspection of the sheet metal becomes increasingly important, and flaws that could cause problems in the final product may be missed by the human eye.

So she had the bright idea of using a laser to test the surface of a piece of sheet metal to find any scratches or dents. In her project, "Detection of Metal Surface Defects Using Laser Light Reflection," she investigates the effectiveness of measuring the reflection of a laser off the surface to determine if there were any underlying imperfections. She connected a photo-diode to measure the reflected light's intensity and turning it into voltage. The closer to perfect the surface is, the more light that falls on the photo-diode, and the higher the voltage.

While her test sheets were quite small, it is easy to image a system that could be build to run along larger sheets as they are being pressed and rolled, measuring for imperfections and recording their locations. While this may not change the way automobile factories operate, it could have wide-ranging benefits for manufacturing operations that rely on precision measurements.

Most exciting, though, is this young scientist is only thirteen years old, with many more years of learning and experimenting ahead of her!

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