Shwetak Patel, a University of Washington professor, has won a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur "genius" grant.

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In Shwetak Patel’s vision of your home, an unobtrusive sensor will tell you how much your faucet is leaking and how much it costs to keep that unused power cord plugged in the wall.

A sensor will alert your insurer if your refrigerator’s ice maker springs a leak when you’re on vacation. A sensor will tell, just to make sure, whether your elderly grandparent still living alone is flipping on the lights.

It’s more than theory. Patel, a University of Washington professor, has crafted such innovate breakthroughs in home-energy sensors that, on Tuesday, he will be awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “genius” grant.

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At 29, Patel already has been a UW assistant professor for three years; has launched and sold a startup company; was named one of the state’s innovators of the year; and has won a prestigious Microsoft research fellowship.

For fun, he converts gasoline automobiles to electrical power.

The so-called genius fellowship — awarded to 22 innovators in music, medicine, journalism, history and other fields — comes with a no-strings, $500,000 grant intended to spur more creativity. No one can nominate themselves, and the selection process is a closely guarded secret.

“It was a shocker,” Patel said Monday, on his way back from a conference in China. “I had no idea this was in the works.”

Patel, who holds a joint appointment in computer science and electrical engineering, is an Alabama native who breezed through undergraduate work at Georgia Institute of Technology in fewer than three years.

He said he wrote his first computer-software program in third grade and had his first soldering iron in fourth grade. While volunteering for Habitat for Humanity as a teenager, Patel became frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to do more work, said Hank Levy, chair of the UW Computer Science Department.

So Patel became licensed as a plumber and electrician.

“Some people are just born with the curiosity and the ability to invent new things,” Levy said. “And he works very, very hard.”

“Voltage noise”

At Georgia Tech, Patel was researching how to monitor the health and safety of elderly people living at home. Realizing that wiring a home with cameras was too expensive and invasive, Patel came up with a unique solution.

He figured out how to disaggregate the “voltage noise” of a home’s electrical system to determine if specific devices or light bulbs were on. Each device, when turned on, sings a specific electric tune, and Patel developed algorithms to be sensitive ears.

Instead of a home festooned with cameras to monitor Grandma, Patel developed a single sensor that plugs into an outlet, and decided the technology could be applied to home-energy conservation as well.

Instead of a once-every-two-month lump statement of energy consumption, Patel’s sensor gives a homeowner “a readout that tells you exactly what’s going on with each device, each light bulb, and so the feedback can make you smarter about your usage,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates professor in the computer-science department. “The goal is to make it so dirt simple that any consumer can use it.”

After Patel and his wife, Julie Kientz, also a UW professor, were hired in 2008, Patel applied the same concepts to water usage — with a diagram detecting the sonic resonance of each faucet — and natural gas.

He also has worked with insurers to develop a moisture and carbon-monoxide sensor, using a home’s electrical wiring as an antennae, to reduce power consumption.

“[Patel] is just unbelievably creative,” Lazowska said. “He thinks about this stuff a mile a minute. And he’s totally the nicest guy in the world.”

Last year, Belkin International bought a startup, Zensi, that Patel co-founded with other UW professors, and plans to begin marketing the sensors this fall. The university will be featured on the packaging, Levy said.

Patel said the grant money will allow him “to take a step back and just think about a problem,” he said.

One of his new interests is low-cost electric vehicles, or cheaper gas-to-electric car conversions. He’s been tinkering on his Chevrolet Camaro in his spare time.

Patel is the 15th UW faculty member to win a MacArthur fellowship. Seattleites James Longley, a filmmaker, and Heather McHugh, a poet, won in 2009.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605


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