Engineering professor makes small-scale tech that does big things


Prabal Dutta picks up a tiny sensor, no wider than a fingernail and about an inch long, then holds it next to a light until its embedded LED starts blinking blue.

“Energy is usually emitted in some other energy domain every time you use electricity,” Dutta explains.

His sensor, a small circuit board overlaid with a tiny solar panel, harvests the light and stores that energy in a tiny capacitor. The LED flashes proportionately to the amount of light being emitted, allowing the sensor to indirectly measure energy use of a single overhead light by observing how quickly the LED blinks.  

Dutta, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, hopes these energy-harvesting systems will contribute to the development of greener, smarter buildings.

Prabal Dutta’s work with small-scale technology put him on Popular Science’s 2014 Brilliant Ten list. (Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

“Knowing how energy is used in an environment allows you to make better decisions about what to invest in,” says Dutta. His sensors monitor inefficiency in specific devices, breaking down energy use for individual appliances.

“You get one bill at the end of the month from DTE, but it’s hard to know the load of your shower versus your computer,” says Dutta.

Dutta wants to give consumers (and engineers) that knowledge so that they can invest in reducing inefficiencies in the energy systems of homes and businesses.

Dutta also is interested in gathering data about human interactions.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, email the Record staff at

His lab has developed a small device — about the size of a dollar coin — that can be worn like a lapel pin. It collects data on interactions, including how far away two people are or what the humidity is like in the room. This development, which Dutta calls “a physical social network at an unprecedented scale,” could help boost understanding of how diseases are transmitted.

Dutta’s work with small-scale technology earned him distinction recently when Popular Science put him on its 2014 Brilliant Ten list.

The magazine says that the selected scientists are “already changing the world as we know it,” but the accolade hasn’t gone to Dutta’s head. In his lab on North Campus, he and his team of graduate students continue to work on inventing and perfecting embedded systems.

Other current projects of Dutta’s include miniscule air-quality sensors that allow for more accurate air-quality maps and a small Breathalyzer-like device to monitor smokers who are being incentivized to quit.

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

 As a high school student, I became so interested in robots that I would stay up late to build them. Unfortunately, that meant I was tired in class, and would sometimes fall asleep. My math teacher would gently nudge my feet to wake me up but my chemistry teacher was less forgiving. One day, she dropped a large metal rod next to my desk while I slept in class. Of course, I woke up, nearly fell out of my chair, and was mortified by the experience. It was certainly memorable but it also taught me a lesson — that sometimes following your passions is costly and painful, but ultimately it may be worth it.

What can’t you live without?

For me — an introvert — that happens to be quiet time. It’s something that always seems like it’s in too short a supply.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

I love hanging out in the lab with students. They’re always doing really interesting things, building cool stuff and willing to sharing what they’ve learned. Every time I walk into the lab, I learn something new.

What inspires you?

Discovering new things and sharing what I’ve learned with others.

What are you currently reading?

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. The book takes a deep look at two mental processes — one emotional and one rational — whose interplay govern our thinking and shape our judgments.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My thinking has been most significantly shaped and sharpened by my Ph.D. adviser, David Culler.


Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.