Engineering students create clean-energy devices using inexpensive and recycled items.

By:    Date: 01-26-2016

ARTICLE BY MIRANDA BARRETT  |  PHOTOS BY SHANNON AUVIL

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College is intended to prepare young adults for the real world, but in Nitin Chopra’s Advanced Energy class, students are already affecting the real world from inside the classroom.

After participating in the UA Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility’s Faculty Fellows in Service Learning Program, Chopra, associate professor of engineering, launched a course in Spring 2014 in which UA students develop novel and low-cost alternative energy systems for use in everyday situations.

Students use discarded and inexpensive materials to generate clean electricity and thermal energy that could reduce pollution and be especially helpful in low-income homes and economically struggling communities.

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Using a TV panel, students apply solar energy to heat a copper plate. They expose the other side of the plate to freezing temperatures, and the gradient between the two sides creates electricity. ABOVE: From left, UA students Sam Schwarm, Allen Owen, Andy Kim and Kuldeep Kumar display a solar panel they built using $2 solar landscaping lights.

“The environment matters,” says Andy Kim, who worked on a solar-energy project and earned a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering in 2014. “The most common methods of generating electricity cause environmental pollution such as emitting carbon-monoxide gas from fossil fuels or producing radioactive waste in nuclear power plants. If scientists and engineers popularize alternative-energy sources, two major problems in the world can be resolved at one time.”

The service-learning course, MTE 491/591 Materials and Technologies for Advanced Energy, is intended for a broad range of engineering and science students and brings together concepts in materials science, chemistry, physics and other engineering fields to help students fundamentally understand current energy systems, demands and technologies as well as those on the horizon.

“It is known that alternative-energy routes are not cheap in terms of the current market,” Chopra says. “Thus, the only way a cheaper strategy can be achieved is by training students and reaching beyond educational boundaries by pushing students to think outside of the box.” The course also encourages information sharing in order to enable widespread, global use of renewable and alternative energy, he says.

During the Spring 2014 semester, Chopra’s class was split into two groups to work on different green-energy projects. One group focused on generating electricity from used television panels while the other focused on finding inexpensive ways to harvest solar energy using landscape-lighting products.

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Students use copper wire to connect solar panels from disassembled garden lights. They then attach the panels to a water-splitting system, which produces voltage that can charge batteries and provide real-time power.

Malli Bogala, a PhD student studying materials science engineering, worked with the television screen group, using fresnel lenses (the front lenses of rear-projection television sets) to concentrate solar energy onto a heated plate of copper. The other side of the copper was exposed to freezing temperatures, and the gradient between the two sides resulted in electricity. This power was used to rotate a small computer fan and light a small LED bulb.

Bogala says this simple and inexpensive source of energy could be used in many communities. “The model can easily be incorporated into the curriculum of high school students,” she says, “and, on a larger scale, the model displays the potential to power the poorer households of remote areas in Alabama.”

Kim’s group disassembled solar garden lights, isolating the solar panels and connecting them in a series with copper wire. The group then attached the panels to a water-splitting system, which sends electricity through water to break its chemical bonds, producing a small amount of power.

“This voltage can ideally be applied to charge batteries, and, with proper care, provide power in real time,” says Sam Schwarm, who graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering. Schwarm says the focus of the project was to apply readily available equipment and technologies to creating small yet effective energy sources people can make and use in their homes. “At its core, it is about the idea that the switch to renewable energy is something that needs to start at the individual level, as well as at a corporate one,” he says.

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A lens from a rear-projection TV focuses sunlight at temperatures of 392 F and converts it into enough energy to rotate a computer fan and light an LED bulb.

Chopra says both groups’ projects offer huge energy and cost-saving potential for disadvantaged families. “In rural communities, where electricity may be a problem in a real household, these projects are cheap and easy to assemble by laypersons as long as they have instructions and the materials,” he says. “Solar harvesting through silicon and TV recycling can lead to important activities like boiling water in a very needy household.”
The MTE 491/591 class meets three times a week, and students put in extra hours to achieve their best work. Prior to starting projects, student groups develop detailed project plans, supply lists and cost estimates and predict challenges they could encounter. “Each student has individual tasks such as testing the setup of the materials, cost analysis or collecting data,” Chopra says.

Chopra is developing partnerships to help transfer students’ ideas into widespread use. In Spring 2015, the class is collaborating with Inventure Renewables to develop cheap thermal energy that could be used in homes and other buildings.

Inventure Renewables uses biomass waste and low-cost materials to produce alternative energy and was founded in 2007 through a UA business-incubation program. The company graduated from the program in 2013 and moved to a 30,000-square-foot facility in downtown Tuscaloosa.

“This is quite exciting for me as an instructor because this gives my students an opportunity to see how their semester-long effort can be incorporated into real-life technology,” Chopra says. “Students will also be exposed to industrial standards and criteria in the context of alternative-energy devices and platforms.”

The partnership offers advantages for Inventure as well, says Rusty Sutterlin, a company founder and its chief science officer. “By utilizing UA students, we can conduct preliminary test projects to determine if we should prioritize research ideas into full projects,” he says. Both the course and Inventure Renewables are inspiring students to pursue alternative-energy solutions long term.

UA graduates make up more than 80 percent of Inventure Renewable’s workforce. “Today’s generation understands the importance of energy and that the future of energy is dependent upon new and innovative ideas to generate and store it,” Sutterlin says. “Approaches toward energy generation and conservation provide many opportunities for young researchers who have creative ideas and are not set in the old status quo. It is truly the work of young entrepreneurs.”

The focus of Schwarm’s graduate research is non-fossil-fuel energy sources. “More than anything, taking this class showed me that the technology and the resources necessary to replace fossil fuels with cleaner, more reliable sources already exist,” Schwarm says. “My view of how technology works in the world has changed; I now realize that everyone plays a part, not just researchers and major corporations.”

For more information about MTE 491/591 Materials and Technologies for Advanced Energy Systems/Applications, contact Nitin Chopra at nchopra@bama.ua.edu or 205-348-4153.