For many, getting one’s first car is a life-changing moment; whether it’s for the freedom and mobility it provides, the artistic opportunity to decorate and customize it to reflect its owner, or just the cool factor of owning one’s own car. For PhD student Aaron Essex, it provided even more – it helped him discover his passion for engineering, and inspired him to pursue a career in the automotive industry.
“When I was younger, I liked to break things open to see how they worked,” he recalls, laughing, “I just couldn’t put them back together to get them working again. Eventually my dad gave me an old rustbucket, and he told me that if I could get it running it would be my first car. I spent two summers on it and replaced pretty much everything in it that required a power source, and finally it started up. I caught the bug for fixing and repairing things there, and have had it ever since.”
Today the self-described tinkerer is pouring his passion for engineering into his research in mechatronics at Northeastern. A multidisciplinary research field, mechatronics taps into multiple engineering fields – primarily electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering – to develop complex mechanical systems, most often computer-controlled. “My research is mostly in human-safe robots, as well as medical and soft robotics,” he explains, “I’m currently working on a waterproof motor of sorts that can be used in deep-diving exercises.”
When he isn’t working on his lab’s projects, he devotes his research time to his own passion: automotive engines and the complex mechanical systems that power them. His particular focus, the motor drive, is resonsible for governing variables like the torque and speed of the motor, as well as its efficiency. “My lab is very accommodating with me in allowing me to pursue motor drive research,” says Essex, “The more experience I get with motor drives and MEMS (micro-electromechanical system) operations machines, the better.”
Looking ahead beyond his PhD research, Essex plans to work in the automotive industry, where his ambition is to help improve the efficiency of electric cars. “Internal combustion engines are my first love, and I dreamed of making them efficient as possible,” he says, “But I’ve realized that the time is coming when we will be phasing them out.”
But rather than be discouraged, he’s excited for the opportunities presented by electric motors. “My experience has been that electric cars have more torque and a better 0 to 60 than internal combustion engines, because the internal combustion engine is inherently flawed – much of the power it generates is converted straight to heat, so you are only getting a small part of the energy that engine is actually producing. If you can minimize that by redesigning the motor, you can get a lot more of that power going straight to the wheels.”