Students tackle energy challenges to aid relief efforts

wind turbine

When typhoons, hurricanes and earthquakes wreak havoc on communities, the efforts of humanitarian and relief workers often are hampered by logistical challenges. Electricity can be scarce and generators tough to acquire, limiting water pumping and purification, sterilization of medical implements and recharging of communication devices.

A team of Northern Arizona University undergraduate students hopes to improve the resources available during emergency responses. Two dozen students from multiple disciplines have joined forces to create a lightweight, portable wind turbine that is capable of powering small electronics and designed for on-demand deployment.

The turbine will be presented and tested during the U.S. Department of Energy’s Collegiate Wind Competition May 5-7 in Las Vegas. Ten teams were selected through a competitive process and challenged with designing and creating a wind turbine, analyzing market drivers and formulating a solid business plan. The final products will be showcased during the industry’s largest annual meeting, the American Wind Energy Association conference.

The challenge is providing students with insight into alternative energy and business acumen, and tackling a real world problem has ignited their interests and commitment.

David Willy, instructor of mechanical engineering at NAU, is one of the team’s faculty advisers. He teaches thermodynamics, engineering design, renewable energy and fluid mechanics, with research interests in wind turbine aerodynamics and renewable energy integration.

“This project is definitely going to help students in their careers because it really takes the education off the page,” Willy said. “Until you build it, test it, you’re not getting all of the knowledge you possibly could, and that’s really where the advantage of a project like this takes you.”

Thirteen mechanical engineering majors and six electrical engineering majors are designing and testing the turbine, while environmental policy, business, political science and marketing majors are formulating a plan fit to pitch to industry leaders.

Karin Wadsack, project director for NAU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Solutions, is managing the team’s participation in and preparation for the Collegiate Wind Competition.

“Working together with students from different academic backgrounds with different professional interests is invaluable experience for these students on this team,” Wadsack said. “NAU’s participation in this competition is providing them with an enhanced educational experience that is better preparing them for life beyond graduation.”

Teams will be judged based on how their turbine performs in a wind tunnel, the content of their business plan and an oral presentation on the current challenges and opportunities in the wind industry.