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MN Made: Live On Student Innovation!

Updated: May 23

My journey with Live On MN started out as a personal one. I was committed to one day becoming compost after reading Lisa Well's To be a field of poppies. As I began exploring how to make this happen, I quickly realized there was a broader opportunity to explore how NOR could be made available to ALL Minnesotans.

In short, this has meant...

  • Helping to coordinate legilsative action (Minnesota Legislature passed NOR on May 19th thanks to great efforts by the NOR Minnesota collaborative, WOOHOO!!! Check this flashback to our early testimony if interested)

  • Learning how the process and business of NOR works (you may have seen posts on my journey to Washington and Terracon Takeaways)

  • And actually exploring the possibilities of developing our own approach to NOR right here in Minnesota

This post is all about the latter - the possibilities of being MN Made! Over the course of the spring semester, I had the pleasure of working with a dynamic team of Mechanical Engineering students at the University of Minnesota that not only designed a functional scale model of an Natural Organic Reduction vessel... they won Best Physical Prototype Project at UMN's Founders Day!

Read on to learn about our early collaborative efforts to develop a MN Made NOR vessel!


The Proposal

Last fall I submitted a proposal to the University of Minnesota's Mechanical Engineering 4054 Capstone Design Project course. Through this senior design course, Teams of four to six undergraduate Mechanical Engineering students work on a design project sponsored by a local company, entrepreneur (that's me!) or a University of Minnesota research lab.

A proposal doesn't necessarily result in a project. Students have to opt in and, like every conversation, pitch, or proposal that I have had around this topic, I am never quite certain what the response is going to be.

They bit! Five wonderful students had dozens of projects in front of them and they opted in!!

The primary objective of the course was for students to apply their in-class learnings to a real-world, open ended design project and deliver a completed design and prototype. That. They. Did.

The Team

So I didn't just get any old crew of ME students to work on a project... I was blessed with 5 brilliantly skilled, curiously inquisitive, research driven, empathetic, practical project managing, code developing, prototype fabricating, future employees of the year (go get 'em graduates!)

The students worked with me early to understand and scope the project, connected with folks in the field and in community, provided formal and informal updates along the way, and design, build, and deliver!

Cheers to the ME 4054 Live On Minnesota Team: Ann Nguyen, Conner Glaser, Hung Dinh, Jacob Schmidt, and Jenna Westlake... and a special shout to our technical advisor, Ben Guengerich, Lab Manager of the College of Science and Engineering's Anderson Labs.

The Challenge

Informed by traditional aerobic composting methods, developing approaches to Natural Organic Reduction, and existing processes and technologies used for livestock mortality composting, the team was tasked with designing a natural organic reduction vessel.

The project would have to take into account size and shape, function (e.g. durability, insulation, rotation, ease of cleaning, key data capture and monitoring, etc.), efficiency, dignity (e.g. look, feel, process), and potential replicability.

Our first meeting was January 23rd and their design showcase (and ticket to graduation, among other things of course) was April 23rd... a four month sprint!

The Outcome

They made it! The students developed and presented their scale model at the design showcase. "Overall, people were fascinated by our project. I had a group of women come up to me and say our project was the first one they wanted to see" said Ann Nguyen. While "most people were surprised by the topic. Once I explained what human composting was, they thought it was really cool."

The cylindrical shell was designed to support a variety of body types alongside the required natural materials. It is equipped with a sliding tray to ease the process of laying in. A system of supports, rods, and wheels hold the vessel safely in place while a core wheel and motor allow for safe rotations of the vessel to support the ideal environment. The rotations are prompted by data on temperature, moisture content, and oxygen levels that are continuously monitored by a series of sensors throughout the vessel.

Apart from the physical prototype, the Team took ownership of the content and the concept. Talking openly about the design, as well as, the topic of death and existing body disposition methods with audiences of fellow students, faculty members, community members, and experts in the field. These students are the real deal... what was I doing at 22?!

The student team went on to present their prototype at Founders Day, a showcase of student entrepreneurship and innovation from across the University of Minnesota and won Best Physical Division Prototype! Check out the other amazing projects students were presenting at Founders Day.

While this is just the first go at a MN Made vessel, I am truly astonished by the tangible skills and work ethic of the student team and all that was accomplished through the ME 4054 course. If you're interested in putting a project forth, check the client site or reach out with questions.

What's Next?

The student team developed specs for a fully operating model to align with and incorporate the learnings from their prototype. Live On Minnesota is looking to carry these efforts forward, refining the prototype, and building a few working models to test in advance of Minnesota's proposed implementation date of July 1, 2025.

Interested in supporting this process? Keep an eye out for upcoming co-creation sessions or reach out to us directly at

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