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Sept. 28, 2021

Shanelle Foster: Creating innovative and green electric motor designs

Each year, the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, awards grants to “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” The following story is part of a series highlighting Michigan State University’s recipients of NSF’s 2021 CAREER grant awards.

This Spartan engineer is using 3D printing and some inspiration from nature to design electric motors that are breaking design boundaries and are good for the environment 

Designing innovative electric motors for automotives, power tools or toys hasn’t translated into the capacity to efficiently manufacture them. Michigan State University researcher Shanelle Foster wants to change that with new 3D-printing technology guided by careful observations from some of nature’s most deft engineers  web-spinning spiders.

“My research will disrupt conventional motor design paradigms and allow motor designers to ‘reimagine’ electric motors,” says Foster, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering. “There is little understanding of how 3D-printing technologies can enhance the design of electric motors.”

With the support of a 2021 National Science Foundation Career award, Foster’s research will use 3D printing to develop new strategies to improve the performance and manufacturing of electric motors. The result will be the first realized production of customized, novel, low-cost, reliable and highly efficient 3D-printed motor designs.

Foster will exploit the flexibility of 3D printing to conceive of ingenious electric motor designs by adopting aspects used by spiders when making webs.

“Spiders use silks with different properties in the construction of their web,” Foster says. “The silks are strategically deposited based on the desired function.”

A silk that is more elastic might be used to create the center of the web while stronger and thicker silk could be used to hold the web in place. 3D printers can deposit more or less material to create an optimal motor design that is flexible and strong where it needs to be.

Along with designing motors that can be used for various applications, Foster’s goal is to create motor designs that are good for the environment.

“The use of electric motors and generators are prevalent in all of the economic sectors that contribute to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” Foster says. “Electric motors indirectly represent more than 25% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy production. Improvements in the efficiency and power density of electric motor-driven systems can reduce the amount and type of pollutants we emit into our environment.”

Nature encourages diversity, and Foster explains how this has inspired her work to break down barriers that cause gender and racial disparity in engineering and to support the next generation of engineers.

“Driven by my passion for an inclusive K-12 pipeline for engineering and the next-generation workforce, I have a proven track record of partnering with the units within MSU’s College of Engineering to promote excitement and interest for the field of energy conversion, specifically to demographics that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM,” she says.

MSU provides Foster with a place to help future engineers while staying on top of the current research in the field and the opportunity to expand upon it.

“MSU has a wide range of additive manufacturing technologies and expertise available in the engineering departments,” Foster says. “My well-established collaboration with these experts will help me stay abreast of fast-paced advancements in 3D printing and materials.”


By: Emilie Lorditch, Kelsie Lane and Deon Foster