When the email from the Queensland Maroons rugby team hit his Inbox, Dr. Jaime Grunlan thought it was another in a long line of spam so he treated it as such. When he received it a second time he decided to open it and see why someone more than 9,000 miles away would be contacting him.
“It looked like a phishing email,” the Texas A&M University mechanical engineering professor said. “I asked for more information so that I knew it was real. It was a contact from the rugby team in Australia, which is basically the National Football League of Australia.”
The email was legitimate and what the eight-time rugby champions were looking for was someone to help them develop a technology that would allow their players to power sensors contained in their jersey.
The idea behind the sensors is to monitor a player’s hydration or the level of G-force they experience when taking a hit, a key component in determining if a player may have suffered a concussion.
“The NFL, college, everybody is worried about concussions,” Grunlan said. “Rugby has less protection. Right now they have sensors in their jersey that monitor those things but they are powered by a battery pack. It is intrusive and players do not like it.”
The Maroons started working with Queensland University of Technology, a research university in Brisbane, Australia. When team officials decided to inquire about furthering the sensor technology, they asked researchers at Queensland whom they should contact.
The overwhelming response from the researchers, despite none of them ever working with the university, was Texas A&M.
“They asked Queensland University if money was no object and we were to work with anyone in the world to make this happen who should it be,” Grunlan said. “They said Texas A&M University.”
That led them to contact Grunlan, who has conducted research in polymer composites. Grunlan has also enlisted the expertise of fellow mechanical engineering professor Choongho Yu, who conducts research in energy harvesting and cooling as well as thermoelctrics.
According to Grunlan, the sensors they are working to develop are polymer or plastic-based thermoelectric materials that can be applied as coatings to fabrics.
“When the body heats up when working out, as long as there is a temperature gradient, it can drive electricity,” Grunlan said. “That electricity could power sensors built into a jersey of an athlete and supply power to transmit information to a computer. That can tell you about a person’s hydration level or the G-force they experienced from a hit.”
Representatives from the rugby team traveled to College Station last fall where they were able to experience an Aggie football game from the sidelines and tour the newest athletic facilities at Kyle Field.
The main objective of the journey, however, was to meet with Grunlan and Yu to discuss the project.
“If we can make shirts that power the sensors we have solved their biggest problem,” Grunlan said. “I hope this is the just the tip of the iceberg.”