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Student inventors honored with Lemelson-MIT prize

Three inventions by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: a camera that is sharper than the human eye, an electric car transmission, and a fully automatic health-food restaurant.

The prize of up to $15,000 apiece honors undergraduate and graduate students’ inventions in health care, transportation, food and agriculture, and consumer devices.

The competition awarded a total of $90,000 to the makers of seven inventions. Inventors from 77 universities entered the competition, and MIT students placed in all but one category.

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The graduate student “Cure It!” prize for innovation in health care went to Stanford University graduate student Catalin Voss, who developed a Google Glass-enabled learning aid that helps those with autism decode human emotions.

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The undergraduate winners in the category were a team from Columbia University who invented a colored powder that when added to disinfectant helps health care workers keep track of where they’ve sanitized.

A Silicon Valley native and MIT PhD candidate, Achuta Kadambi, invented two camera systems that won in the “Use It!” category for inventions to improve consumer devices. His first invention uses inexpensive optics paired with complex algorithms to track light as it moves through space. This, Kadambi said, lets the system “unmix” scattered light and photograph objects that are invisible to the naked eye.

Kadambi said that one day his camera could help self-driving cars navigate in poor weather or let doctors distinguish cancerous cells from healthy surrounding tissue.

“We’re done innovating for normal cameras,” said Kadambi, whose second winning invention, a three-dimensional camera, uses polarized light to make high-resolution 3-D images. “At some point, we have to redefine what a photograph actually is.”

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The undergraduate winner in the “Use It!” category was a team from the University of Washington who invented SignAloud, a pair of sensor-laden gloves that instantly translate sign language into spoken words.

PhD candidate Dan Dorsch of MIT was a teenager when he took apart his first car, a 1990 BMW 325i, with his dad in his hometown outside of Minneapolis.

Many years later, Dorsch has invented an automatic transmission that shifts gears using two electric motors instead of the traditional clutch. Without the clutch, Dorsch said, the transmission is lightweight and small but powerful — optimal for high-performance hybrid vehicles.

Bolstered by funding from an automaker Dorsch said he could not name, his transmission won in the “Drive It!” category for transportation. It was the only category to name just one winner.

MIT mechanical engineering students Kale Rogers, Michael Farid, Braden Knight, and Luke Schlueter won the undergraduate prize in the “Eat It!” category for food and agriculture.

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They’ve devised a fully automatic restaurant, dubbed Spyce Kitchen. When a patron orders a meal, the 20- by 20-foot stand-alone unit dispenses ingredients through a refrigerated hopper and then transports them to one of four cooking modules. The modules cook and stir ingredients simultaneously then dispense the finished meal onto a plate, in a process that takes about five minutes. The cooking module cleans itself.

Currently, the students are seeking USDA and FDA certification for their labor-less food stand, which eliminates the cost of hiring cooks, an estimated 50 percent of the overhead for quick-service restaurants, according to a statement from the Lemelson-MIT Program.

Heather Hava was the graduate winner in the “Eat It!” category, from the University of Colorado Boulder. Through a partnership with NASA, she invented a self-contained vegetable grower designed to work in nutrient-scarce environments like disaster zones and outer space.

Amanda Burke can be reached at amanda.burke@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @charlie_acb.