Innovative Grad Retrofits Motorcycle and Develops App for Ethanol Plants

Bringing home a brand-new Harley Davidson to modify is a little nerve-racking, but that’s what Alex Shaw did to fulfill his dream.

“From a young age I realized I couldn’t ride a traditional motorcycle,” said Shaw who is graduating with an agricultural systems technology and industrial technology bachelor’s degree.

The nerves in Shaw’s right hand were damaged during birth and since motorcycles are built with the throttle on the right, he’s never been able to ride one. Shaw searched worldwide for motorcycles with left-handed throttles and found none, so he decided to build his own.

“I learn by taking things apart,” Shaw said. “I took my old four-wheeler apart and I could see how the throttle was made and how simple it would be to make.”

He started designing the left-handed throttle during his senior year in high school. He put one on his four-wheel vehicle and in 2015 bought a new Harley Davidson to retrofit.

“I took it home and that same day I was tearing it apart and putting this throttle on,” Shaw said. “It wasn’t hard – it was just nerve-racking.”

Shaw says he’s lucky because his father’s shop in Oneida, Illinois, is like a candy store for anyone wanting to build anything.

“I go home and I can build anything I want,” Shaw said. “It’s not a matter of if I can build it – it’s a matter of if I have time to build it.”

He’s so enthusiastic about designing and constructing mechanical parts that he bought the computer numeric controlled mill the agricultural and biosystems engineering department was replacing. He said it was a challenge to move the 10,000 lb. machine to his parent’s farm.

“It’s the reverse of a 3D printer. Instead of adding material, you take a block of material and cut away until you have the part that you want,” Shaw said. “I learned on this machine and as soon as it was delivered I started making parts.”

He’s not taking any time off after graduation and will immediately begin working on his master’s degree with Matthew Darr, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

It’s a logical move, since Shaw has worked with Darr’s group for three years analyzing data surrounding delivery of feedstock to cellulosic ethanol plants. Darr said the group analyzes data to reduce costs and increase innovations at the biorefineries.

“He’s the epitome of who our students. He blends today’s agriculture practices with the latest in technology,” Darr said. “He’s also a phenomenal team player and highly skilled contributor.”

Darr compared the traffic in a cellulosic feedstock supply chain to managing airplane traffic at an airport. The plant has 200 to 300 tractors a day supplying feedstock during harvest and the logistics of the supply chain can add or subtract from profits.

To help manage supply chain traffic, Shaw developed an app called StoverLive, which allows users to get live data and manage deliveries and even manage harvest timing.

“His innovations and hard work have led to cost reductions in the current Midwest cellulosic supply chain,” Darr said.

Shaw said he came to Iowa State thinking he’d major in computer science. He encourages others to not worry about changing majors because he changed majors a couple of times before he found his niche.

“I’d never heard of ag systems technology and the industrial technology programs in high school and now I couldn’t imagine going with any other major,” Shaw said.