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NM students shine in solar challenges

Engineering students at the University of New Mexico and Navajo Technical bizO-RobinsonAvila_Kevin_BizO_TechUniversity at Crownpoint won awards in June for innovation in solar-powered technology at two separate national competitions in Ohio and Washington, D.C.

A seven-member team from UNM built a solar-powered boat to participate in the 23rd annual Solar Splash competition in Dayton June 15-19. It’s the first time UNM has entered the race, which the American Society of Mechanical Engineers launched in 1994 to promote engineering education and an interest in solar innovation.

This year, 15 university teams from around the country entered the competition, 13 of whom completed boats in time to participate in five days of races and events. The activities showed off student innovation in boat design, as well as speed, maneuverability and endurance of vessels.

UNM, which joined four other first-time university teams, won recognition as rookie of the year. It won a best sportsmanship award for collegial interaction with other teams. It also took second place in the zigzagging “slalom event” that demonstrates boat maneuverability and fourth place overall.

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“Our team’s performance exceeded even my optimistic expectations,” said UNM mechanical engineering professor Peter Vorobieff, who advised the students. “They’re all straight-A graduating seniors who designed, built and tested the boat.”

The team, which included six mechanical engineering students and one from electrical engineering, built a 14-foot boat entirely powered by solar panels and solar-charged batteries. The students built their own solar array rather than using manufactured panels, something no other team did this year.

They soldered individual solar cells together and added electrical modifications to improve performance. The panels cover the entire top of the boat, leaving just enough room for one operator to sit and steer the vessel.

“We incorporated some electronic components to optimize the cells for shading,” said electrical engineering student Joshua Stewart. “If there’s shade, the system kills power to the whole solar array, so we imbedded electronic devices to limit how much gets shut down under shade. Now, only sections get shut down.”

Navajo Tech's Innovation Challenge Team contestants Ericka Begody, left Hansen Tapaha, Kirsch Davis and Chris Owens took first place for their solar medicine cooler.

Navajo Tech’s Innovation Challenge Team contestants Ericka Begody, left Hansen Tapaha, Kirsch Davis and Chris Owens took first place for their solar medicine cooler.

The panels generate 528 watts of electricity, or slightly less than one horsepower, Vorobieff said. When the sun is shining, the boat will move nonstop, but at a maximum of only about four to five miles an hour. If the solar-charged, on-board storage batteries are also turned on, the boat can zoom to about 16 miles an hour.

“Working on the boat gave me practical experience working with solar panels and the electronics that go with them,” Stewart said.

That hands-on learning is central to the annual competition, which promotes science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education. In fact, the UNM students got approval to turn the boat into their senior capstone project.

“It provides students with useful, practical engineering experience,” Vorobieff said. “Students also get better awareness and appreciation of solar power, which could be the energy of the future in New Mexico and elsewhere.”

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The team built its boat for well under $10,000, far less than other teams in the competition. Funding came from a range of sponsors, including a $5,000 grant from Sandia National Laboratories.

Sandia mechanical engineer Roy Hogan and electrical engineer Jason Neely encouraged the students to participate.

“It’s an opportunity for students to do real-world design, planning, testing and execution of a project by applying the skills they’re learning in the classroom,” Hogan said. “That’s why we do it, for the education. It promotes STEM and renewable energy at the same time.”

Like the UNM team, four electrical engineering students at Navajo Tech entered a national competition this year for students in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and in Tribal Colleges and Universities. The HBCU/TCU Making and Innovation Challenge, which until this year had focused only on historically black institutions, is organized by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the United Negro College Fund.

The Navajo Tech students won a first-place award on June 20 for a novel solar medicine cooler that they designed and built, said Peter Romine, an electrical engineering professor who coached the team.

Participants are encouraged to compete with innovative technologies that can address problems in local communities.

“Our team came up with the idea for a solar-powered medicine cooler because almost one-third of Navajo houses have no electricity,” Romine said. “If those homes have any medicine that needs refrigeration, it’s in jeopardy.”

The design uses a typical foam cooling box that the students reinforced with different materials to provide more insulation. They used off-the-shelf solar panels to provide electricity, which runs a fan in the side of the box to draw in cool air, plus an electric controller to monitor and display the temperature inside.

At the event’s “recognition day” in Washington, D.C., the students met a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who will now help the students commercialize their technology.

“He’s working with them to bring it to market,” Romine said. “They could basically target anyplace where it’s hot and people don’t have reliable access to electricity, whether it’s the African continent, the Mideast or desert areas in the U.S. and elsewhere. There could be a broad customer base.”

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