Sparks of creativity: Honors thesis project combined engineering, technology, music and Tesla

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June 9, 2021

Unique, fun, creative and different. That’s what two recent graduates of Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University were looking for in their honors thesis project. They found it in the work they did using Tesla coils and Bluetooth technology to create music.

Cree Hutcherson and Olivia Pinkowski each earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering with a focus on robotics with honors from Barrett last May. But before they could receive their degrees with honors, they had to complete a thesis or creative project.

While exploring engineering project ideas for their honors thesis, they came across Tesla coils, electrical circuits designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in the 1890s. 

“We were intrigued by the noise they (Tesla coils) produced and the large sparks that were emitted. We chose to pursue learning more about these systems since our program did not have a large focus on high voltage. While this was a learning experience, we did want to have fun and Cree had a background with music as did our thesis director, Dr. Shawn Jordan (associate professor of engineering in the ASU Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering),” Pinkowski explained. 

“This led us to the understanding that Tesla coils could produce music in their own way. We determined that creating a system that would play music in stereo and would provide an interesting show would be a unique and wonderful thesis project,” Hutcherson added. 

The result of their work can be seen in these YouTube videos:

ASU Marching Band Fight Song: https://youtu.be/P027QA59NOA

Simplified ASU Fight Song: https://youtu.be/wczhM8KozA8

We Will Rock You: https://youtu.be/Cl_NPi-HBlY

tesla coils

Hutcherson plans to attend graduate school at the ASU Polytechnic campus for a master’s degree in general engineering. Pinkowski is currently at ASU pursuing a master’s degree in robotic and autonomous systems. After completing her graduate degree, she plans to work as a system integration engineer. 

We asked Hutcherson and Pinkowski to describe how they did this unique project, explain the advantages of having undergraduate research experience, and give advice for students beginning their honors thesis. Here’s what they had to say. 

Describe your thesis project. What was its focus?

The purpose of this creative project was to create a stereo sound system in a unique medium. As a team, we decided to integrate a Tesla coil with a Bluetooth audio source. Tesla coils, a high frequency, high voltage system, can be configured to emit their electrical discharge in a manner that resembles playing tunes. Originally the idea was to split the audio into left and right, then to further segregate the signals to have a treble, mid, and base emitter for each side. Due to time, budget, and scope constraints, we decided to complete the project with only two coils, a left and right signal.

We decided to focus our project on the development and creation of a dual emitting interrupting circuit. This circuit is what we used to receive the Bluetooth signal, interpret and convert it, then distribute it to the two separate coils. This circuit development gave us experience with filtering circuits, handing an analog to digital conversion, software construction, and system integration. 

For this project, the team decided to use a solid-state coil kit. This kit was purchased from OneTesla and would help ensure everyone’s safety and the project’s success. The team developed its own interrupting or driving circuit through reverse-engineering the interrupter provided by OneTesla. Utilizing the left and right audio signal, it can drive the two Tesla coils in stereo to play the music. 

What are the implications of being able to program Tesla coils to play music?

This project could provide some large level entertainment value but in practice they are not very practical. With further development, the music heard coming out of the coil can be improved; however, there is a safety factor to consider while operating these devices. The system we produced can be scaled up to add a new element to a concert performance but, again, safety would have to be improved and accordingly adjusted. 

How challenging was it? 

As a whole, the project was uniquely challenging and due to its timing and the world climate, the challenge only increased. While there were some examples of singing tesla coils, we could not find any in which they played in stereo, nor could we find a system that would take a standard Bluetooth signal and create music with that. As with any engineering project, there were some complications during the fabrication process and there were some setbacks. A few of these problems included hardware malfunctions, incorrect ratings, and having the secondary coil discharge through itself and not through the breakout point like it was supposed to.  This would cause the coil to become temporarily inoperable until repairs were made.  

Are there any practical applications? 

There may be some practical applications in the entertainment industry but Tesla coils are notoriously finicky and troublesome. They consistently are inconsistent. Not to mention the safety involved with operating and observing the system. While the coils look amazing and cool, without the proper equipment they can be deadly. 

How do you feel about having to do a thesis? Is it beneficial? Why? What did you learn?

Cree:  At first, I was nervous about it, not knowing what my project was going to be or who I’d even want as my committee. Once Olivia and I solidified our concept, I was still a bit nervous but I felt more confident that I had a project I’d actually want to do and be proud of.

I think doing a thesis is beneficial. It is something that can be added to a resume and can help you stand out when applying for a job, as not many undergraduates defend a thesis. I learned quite a bit about the process for a major project like this and how to quickly adapt to situations, especially with all of the obstacles that accompanied the pandemic.

Olivia: I thought the thesis was a good way to interact with professors on a more one-on-one basis. It also provided a great way to receive a helping hand on one of my more involved projects. I like to be involved and remain busy in my spare time, as such I take on a lot of personal projects. The thesis just legitimized one such project. 

It also allowed me to confidently pursue a topic I knew little to nothing about. Due to its overall cost, I may not have pursued this project on my own but I believe it was well worth it. I was able to learn about communication protocols and I was introduced to high voltage systems. This project also gave me some insight into the project management side of many projects where timelines are important and so is communication. 

What advice do you have for students embarking on their theses? 

Cree: Start as early as you can. If you are ordering parts, order them as soon as you can, even if you do not use them in your final design. By ordering parts early, if anything happens, you have parts to work with and potentially come up with a back-up project. 

Communicating with your director often is also a great idea. This is so everyone is on the same page and can discuss other options with you if the initial project can no longer be completed.

Olivia: I would tell students to begin early and over-estimate everything. If you believe you can complete your research in a week, estimate two. It looks better to deliver early and be able to order and manufacture your project ahead of schedule. 

I know procrastination is common and usually you can get away with it, but you really should stay on top of your thesis. If you need it, have your director ask for weekly meetings or set a hard deadline. Finishing early makes the end of the year go by so much easier. 

Cree and Olivia: A thesis is a learning experience but it is designed so that you can pursue anything you would like. Make it something you're passionate about. 

There will always be a professor willing to work with you, be honest when you talk with them and you’ll be better off. 

Most importantly, have fun with your thesis. If you’re having fun then it doesn’t seem like you’re completing an insane amount of extra work. We had a lot of fun with our thesis and while ours came down to the wire, we still managed to put together an amazing project we are proud of. That’s really all you can hope for.

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