University of Utah biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Nicholas Witham has earned first place — and $20,000 — in the inaugural Wilkes Center Student Innovation Prize. His project, “Renewable Energy and Carbon Capture with Thermomotive Biopolymer Textiles,” proposes employing a class of materials that would expand and contract along with the Earth’s daily temperature cycles.  

Witham currently works in the lab of Florian Solzbacher, professor and chair of the Price College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, researching biomedical uses for these “artificial muscles.”

The University of Utah Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy established the competition earlier this year, inviting students across the U to submit their most creative and innovative ideas for tackling climate change. Students are evaluated on their proposal’s impact, scalability, and feasibility, as well as other potential benefits to people and ecosystems beyond the reduction of carbon emissions.

Witham’s research specialty is at the intersection between mechatronics, electrical instrumentation, and materials science. His work in Solzbacher’s lab involves developing methods to enable large scale manufacturing of inexpensive thermomotive polymer actuators, with an eye toward their use in biomimetic control for prosthetic limbs.

Witham used his work on artificial muscle movements with temperature changes as the foundation of his proposal in the Student Innovation Prize competition.

“The thought is that we can use the changing temperatures throughout the day to make these artificial muscles move,” explains Witham. “The movement could be used to turn an electric turbine and generate power; I ran the numbers and found this could be scaled vertically and would be more cost-effective and lower maintenance than photovoltaic or solar power.”

He plans to continue his work through post-doctoral research and his award-winning prosthetic startup, Gaia Technologies. Witham previously won the Bench to Bedside medical device competition in 2019, has been granted two patents and has two additional patents pending approval.

Learn more about Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty research topics and discover ways to get involved in undergraduate research.