The Winning Play : Engineering Students Awarded for Cooling Data Centers Project in 2020 Virtual University Challenge

by, Nicole Rodriguez & Kiersten Thompson, Production Editor & Contributing Writer

Four Manhattan College engineering students, Marvel Palatty ‘20, Dulce Ruiz ‘20, Andrew Benz ‘21, and Ryan Kushakta ‘21 were awarded for their presentation in the 2020 Virtual University Challenge by the 7×24 Metro NY chapter. 

The University Challenge, sponsored annually by the 7×24 Metro Chapter, is a competition that invites regional universities to not only present their student projects to a large audience, but also compete for valuable scholarship awards. Engineering students, with the help of their professors and mentor teams, must demonstrate an innovative idea about data centers, the facilities operations industry, enterprise information and communications technology facilities. 

Mechanical engineering professor Mohammed Naraghi, Ph.D., and associate professor of the electrical and computer engineering department, Mahmoud Amin, Ph.D., supervised the student group.

Naraghi first heard about the competition several years ago. Initially, he was not working on a project related to data centers. However, after looking at the presentations from other schools, Naraghi visited the Chase Manhattan Bank data center, to get an in-depth understanding of data centers and their size.

“Many of our students and even faculty don’t know about the enormous size of these data centers, and the capability,” Naraghi said.

Naraghi added that these data centers often hold important information and are not visible. 

“We are so dependent on online shopping, communication through online, lectures through online, banking from online, you know, Facebook, all these organizations have huge data centers and they are not visible…the reason they are not visible is because they are called critical mission,” Naraghi said. “What happens if, for example, somebody sabotages a data center, a bank, you know Chase Manhattan Bank, they have used data centers, because financial information is there.”

Mahmoud Amin, Ph.D., is an associate professor of the electrical and computer engineering department at Manhattan College and supervised the student group. MANHATTAN.EDU / COURTESY

Mohammed Naraghi, Ph.D., is a Mechanical Engineering professor at Manhattan College and supervised the group. MANHATTAN.EDU / COURTESY

Naraghi began working on the data center project from a mechanical engineering perspective and eventually sought interdisciplinary collaboration from Mahmoud Amin, Ph.D., to add his electrical and computer engineering background to the project.

“From the mechanical engineering, the efforts were more focused on how to design a new innovative and efficient cooling design from the mechanical aspect,” Amin said. “ What we try to add from the electrical engineering is the control aspect to make the system more smart, in terms of the monitoring and controlling of the operation of the data center cooling system.” 

With their assistance, the student group representing the college developed the idea to have cooling data centers with a liquid-cooling system that integrated wireless communication using a smartphone app.

Andrew Benz further explained the concept as well as the team effort that was required for the project’s success. 

“That was a team effort. Our team focused on an advanced liquid-cooling system with bluetooth integration onto a smartphone app for advanced monitoring and user input that directly made contact with the processing units in order to more efficiently extract heat. By measuring the heat being generated, we could change the amount of coolant flowing through the system, in order to more efficiently use energy,” Benz said.

Marvel Palatty explained why the team chose this particular topic for their project as well as the importance of their winning topic. 

“Cooling is a critical factor in data center operation because power consumption accounts for 70-80% of operational costs and is expected to increase each year. Creating an engineering solution to such an important real world problem felt like a great challenge and interesting endeavor for our team,” Palatty said. 

Although the college has participated in the challenge in previous years, the 2020 University Challenge participants were met with the additional challenge of going from participating in a live, STEM competition to a completely virtual program. 

Dulce Ruiz admitted that presenting their topic virtually posed difficulties, but was grateful for the learning experience as it has greatly benefitted her in the workplace. 

“It was definitely different since it was my first time presenting online. It took lots of practice since we had to have one person control the presentation while we all presented. However, now with my job I give multiple online presentations, so it all worked out because I had good practice,” Ruiz said. 

Despite the challenge of having to work remotely and present their topic virtually, the team’s efforts were successful and all their hard work rightfully paid off. Students who participated in the 2020 Virtual University Challenge were awarded $250 each and additionally each participating school was awarded $5,000. Binghamton University and Rutgers University also presented.

“Being awarded by 7×24 Exchange for all the work we put in and the challenges we faced during the year was really rewarding. It makes us feel as if the organization really appreciated our efforts to bring an innovative solution to life,” Palatty said.

Naraghi and Amin are currently working with a new group of students, electrical engineering majors Jemar Ortega ‘21 and Patrick Skwiot ‘21 and mechanical engineering majors Owen Brooks ‘21 and Brendon Julie ‘21 to continue their work involving data centers. They are mainly working with the students virtually.

“This year, we are actually continuing the same project, because we weren’t able to build it so this year we plan to build it. For electrical, it is relatively easy because students can take it home, really, the mechanical involves pipes, connecting things, pump, so it’s not easy to build it at home, we need a project room where the student with tools to do it, so we are looking into that to see how we can do that,” Naraghi said. 

Naraghi hopes to get more funding for student projects in the future involving data centers. Having worked on this project for several years, he stressed the importance of working with people from different fields.“Electrical engineers, civil engineers, chemical engineers, they do different aspects of a project. So you have to be able to function in a multidisciplinary team and that is really important, to be able to work together,” Naraghi said.