By day, Nathan Ball is a mechanical-engineering graduate student working to improve needle-free injection technology. In his free time, he’s an inventing superhero who cohosts a reality show on PBS. In February, the 23-year-old won this year’s $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness.
Batman’s best tool, in Ball’s opinion, is the grappling hook that allows him to scale tall buildings quickly. In real life, such a tool could prove invaluable. A fast firefighter weighed down with gear takes six minutes to reach a building’s 30th floor by stairs, and it’s a tiring trip. Ball and a group of MIT students have started a company to make a climbing device that uses a rope-handling mechanism he conceived. Once a rope is set in place, the tool can carry a person with heavy equipment up a building from the ground to the 30th floor in 30 seconds.
The Atlas Powered Rope Ascender can carry more than 250 pounds at a top speed of 10 feet per second. Atlas Devices, the student-run company behind the ascender, has a contract with the U.S. Army to manufacture it. The Atlas can’t shoot a rope up to the top of a building, but Ball says the army already uses grappling hooks to set ropes that soldiers must climb by hand.
For Ball, Atlas Devices is an extracurricular activity. For his master’s thesis, he is working in Ian Hunter’s bioinstrumentation lab to improve needle-free injectors. Eliminating needles could reduce the spread of blood-borne pathogens like HIV during mass inoculations. However, needle-free injection is painful, and the guns it uses are bulky and expensive. Ball and Hunter have made a smaller handheld injector that causes less pain because its pressure can be modulated. The next step for the device is trials in livestock.
At the Lemelson prize ceremony, Ball thanked his parents for letting him burn the kitchen during rocket-fuel experiments, test a high-voltage Tesla coil in the same room as a Steinway grand, and flood the garden during childhood tunnel-building projects.
Ball is currently working to return the favor by nurturing young students’ inventiveness and mechanical skills. Design Squad, the PBS television show that he cohosts, aired its first episode in February.