WILMINGTON — A few years from now, if new cars sold in the United States can warn drivers and passengers that carbon monoxide levels are creeping dangerously high, consumers will have a group of fifth- and sixth-graders from St. Mary Magdalen School to thank.
The students designed a carbon monoxide detection system for automobiles after learning that more than 140 people in the U.S. die each year when they are poisoned by the gas, which is odorless and colorless. If the exhaust is blocked – by snow or dirt, or if a car is left running in an enclosed garage for an extended period of time, the carbon monoxide will back up into the cabin of the car, where it eventually becomes fatal.
The project was part of the Lego League, a national competition in which students must design a solution to a common problem. Part of the competition includes creating a robot to perform tasks.
St. Mary Magdalen’s team, which calls itself the Robo Dogs, won for most innovative solution at qualifying and regional tournaments, just missing advancing to the national competition in St. Louis. The recognition, along with the possibility of the technology becoming a reality, has motivated the Robo Dogs.
“It’s kind of really exciting because we can actually save a lot of people’s lives with this,” Annie Shea said.
Annie’s teammates are Dylan Bemis, Mateo Kuntz, Jack Kohn, Joe Flynn, Robert Bonner, Matthew Deckers, Ben Shea, Connor Nagle and Sara Stoupe.
Carbon monoxide detection was not their first idea. They were going to address hurricanes before realizing that they were competing in the same region as New Jersey.
“Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey really hard, and we figured every single one of (the teams from New Jersey) was going to do hurricanes,” team member Jack Kohn said. “So we took that off the list.”
Turning to blizzards, the team found an article about the dangers posed by carbon monoxide by Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatrician at the University of Massachusetts and health care writer. Sanghavi wrote it after four people in New England died in their cars after a snowstorm. They had left their cars running to stay warm, but snow had covered the tailpipes, sending the deadly gas back into the vehicles.
According to a 2007 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 147 people die each year from accidental CO poisoning in cars, Sanghavi wrote.
The Robo Dogs had their topic.
“We were very excited to pursue this idea. It’s such a big problem,” Dylan Bemis said. “We knew if we found an effective solution, we would be able to save a lot of lives.”
Dylan said the team contacted Sanghavi, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.,-based think tank the Brookings Institution, for his opinion and guidance and has been in touch with him throughout the season.
Millions of CO home-detection kits are distributed each year, but there is nothing for cars, said Mateo. “We decided to try to fix that problem.”
The Robo Dogs’ plan would place a sensor in the tailpipe and another in the cabin of the vehicle, Robert said. The information on CO levels would be displayed on the vehicle’s dashboard screen. As the levels of the gas increase, alarms would sound.
“At 35 parts per million, the sensors start to warn you to get out of your car or to put down the window. At 90 … that’s where you could feel really bad symptoms, and you’d have to get out of the car,” Robert said.
According to Mateo, drivers and passengers likely would not be suffering too much at 35 parts per million, but by 50 they probably would. Among the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are nausea, dizziness and headaches.
The original idea was to have the car shut off automatically when the level reached 90 parts per million, but the chief engineer at General Motors advised them that this would not be a good idea as it had the potential to send occupants into windshields or worse.
“So we decided to have it blink red lights and make really, really loud noises,” he said.
A master mechanic at Pep Boys explained how the exhaust system works and told the Robo Dogs it would cost $75-100 to make this detection system mandatory, so the cost is not prohibitive. The team also is trying to reach Delaware Sen. Chris Coons to get some “legislative awareness of the problem and hopefully our solution as well,” Dylan said.
The team is moving forward with its idea, but it took a practical step first. It is making sure no one steals the thought.
“We’re actually trying to fill out a patent for our carbon-monoxide sensor,” Matthew said. “One of our teammates, Sara, her mom is helping us. She made something before, and she got the papers to get it patented.”
The team’s work so impressed Sanghavi that he wrote a blog post for the Brookings Institution. He wrote, “Wouldn’t it be great if a manufacturer or public health authority could address the problem? We know at least one group of young people stands ready to help.”