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John Whalen - Traveling Light

When you’re reaching for the sky, it helps to cut a little weight.

John Whalen, a second-year Electronic Engineering Technology student, earned a $1,000 scholarship for his research on “Comparative Weight Reduction in Airframe Conductor Insulation” from the Ohio Space Grant Consortium. He presented his paper at the organization’s 2015 Student Research Symposium held at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland on April 10.  

His research was about a very mundane solution to a weighty problem: He recommended a lighter type of insulation for the wiring on aircraft and spacecraft. A piece of wire insulation doesn’t weigh much, but multiplied by thousands of feet of wiring in an aircraft, Whalen’s recommendation could shave 73 pounds off the weight of a 747 airliner. The lower weight could save $1 million in fuel costs over the life of the aircraft.

Whalen’s recommendation could pay off for space travel, too. It currently costs about $10,000 per pound to send a payload into space. And the insulation Whalen proposed using isn’t any experimental material, either. It’s already been approved for aeronautic use.

“The simplest solution is usually the one they go with,” Whalen said.

Besides the money, Whalen said the award is getting him noticed. He’s been invited to apply for several prestigious internships, including with the NASA Glenn center itself.

Whalen, 30, is taking his second run at a college degree. He started at a four-year university right after high school, but left to start a construction business with friends. But he always yearned to finish his education.

“I was raised to know the value of education,” Whalen said. “I like to learn something new every day.”

Whalen entered Columbus State’s Electronic Engineering Technologies program in 2013. Students in that program learn to design, build and troubleshoot all kinds of electric and electronic equipment. That makes them key players in Advanced Manufacturing.

Students train on a number of state-of-art technologies – Whalen’s current favorite is “programmable gate arrays,” which are a type of programmable microchip. While traditional microchips must be fabricated specially for each device, programmable gate arrays can be reconfigured for new jobs on the fly.

“It’s a really cool program that you don’t find just anywhere,” Whalen said.

After finishing his associate degree in Electronic Engineering, Whalen plans to transfer to a four-year college and complete a bachelor’s degree. But even as he gets deeper into engineering theory, he’ll retain the mindset of a community college grad.

At the community college level, students learn how engineering decisions affect an organization’s bottom line. And as he just demonstrated, shaving a few grams here and there can have a big impact.