Inventing a Better Koozie
Imagine sitting next to a swimming pool or standing at a tailgate in the blazing heat of summer. There might be drinks sitting out, but even the cold ones warm up quickly. As student Cody O'Rear says, "Who doesn't want a colder drink?" He and Kyle Johnson are undergraduate students working to make their invention idea into a reality. In the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering, with the help of their advisor Dr. Chris Kitchens, the two are developing a koozie-a fabric drink holder-that keeps beverages cooler for longer.
In their research, Johnson and O'Rear are working to chemically modify koozies so that when the fabric is wet, it pulls heat out of the drink and cools it down. In a process similar to sweating, the wet fabric would absorb heat in order to evaporate the water. The students are specifically using the polymer polyvinyl acetate; since the chemical has good evaporation properties, it could be added to the koozie fabric to help it cool down drinks. In the lab, their research focuses on finding the best method to add the polymer to the koozie.
Johnson and O'Rear's ultimate goal is commercialization of their invention. There is currently nothing on the market resembling their idea, so they see this as a good opportunity to develop a product and start a business based on it. Their enthusiasm for this new product is one of the reasons why Kitchens agreed to start this Creative Inquiry project with them. He believes that the science and engineering curricula at Clemson should have a bigger emphasis on entrepreneurship. Many students have creative ideas for new products and technologies but do not have the resources to run experiments or build prototypes for their ideas. The Creative Inquiry research program is one way that students can get some financial help and mentoring from faculty.
This research and product development process has involved "a lot of self-teaching," according to Johnson. He is majoring in chemical engineering, while O'Rear is a biological sciences major and chemistry minor. Their research work has involved some overlap with what is taught in chemistry classes, but most of what they learn comes from reading scientific journal publications. They have gone to professors in the chemistry department for feedback on their ideas, and Kitchens has provided advice on designing and troubleshooting experiments. Over the year that the students have been working on this research, they have learned to be more analytical when approaching problems in the lab. As Johnson says, "It's definitely helped with our critical thinking processes."
Everyone involved with this project is optimistic about its success. Johnson and O'Rear are seeing positive results in the lab and believe that they are moving in the right direction toward the drink-cooling koozie. But even if they ultimately do not find a way to make the final product, they still see the project as a success. Kitchens notes that "the worst outcome of this would be that they actually got some experience working in lab, applying fundamental principles that we teach in our chemical engineering classes." According to Johnson and O'Rear, learning what does not work is equally as valid as figuring out what does. Johnson strongly believes that "even if it doesn't end up working out, it's just something cool to say: I looked into this, and it doesn't work, but I was the one who found it out."