Santa Clara University


Senior Design Project Brings Undergrads and Alums Together

Autonomous Solar Cleaner

Last fall, when senior mechanical engineering students Riley Coon, Bobby Lorenzen, Tyler Petersen, and Kyle Pistor were seeking a project they would enjoy working on together over the course of the year, taking it from the research phase through design, test, and finally building a proof of concept, they were not sure what they wanted to do, but they knew they wanted to work on something that would be useful and that would challenge them. Their advisor and chair of mechanical engineering, Tim Hight, presented a number of possibilities, but one caught their attention right away.

They chose to design a Solar Cleaner—a device that, when installed on solar arrays, can be operated remotely to keep panels clean, boosting efficiency by as much as 10% in dusty regions. The problem of keeping panels free of dust, for a low cost, was brought to Dr. Hight by Valence Energy, a company founded by a group of engineering undergrads who had worked together on the 2007 SCU Solar Decathlon team before graduating in 2008.

Valence Energy recently embarked on a project in India, designing the solar systems, monitoring, and power management for a 330-home neighborhood. “The challenges you encounter installing a system in India are different from those in the U.S.,” said James Bickford (BSME ’08), co-founder and Group Leader of Business Development for Valence. “Dust is a big issue, and so is cost.”

“Our biggest challenge,” said Kyle, “was coming up with a design that was cost effective. It’s easy to solve a problem with money, but our solution had to be inexpensive enough that the cost to install, operate, and maintain it is more than made up for in the energy savings it produces.”

“It took a while to choose a design,” said Riley. “We had about 20 different working ideas, and we learned a lot while going through the process of design and implementation.” Though they met with Dr. Hight regularly over the fall and winter quarters, they enjoyed the independence this project afforded for trial and error. “We appreciate the freedom Dr. Hight has given to us to make this project our own. Mostly, he would provide a sanity check for us, posing serious questions to get us to think things through,” said Tyler.

The result is a cleaning mechanism made from readily available materials that is durable and easy to maintain; “it will be good for 25 years with minor maintenance—the same as the panels themselves,” said Bobby.

As the quarter winds down, the team will test their system with different amounts of dust and will complete a cost analysis. “If it’s not saving money, it’s not doing its job; we’ll know we were successful if we pass the cost analysis,” they said.

For Valence Energy, success comes from building a synergistic relationship with the university. “We want to continue to challenge students with ideas for their senior design projects,” said Bickford. “We want to promote entrepreneurship and engineers’ understanding of business. We want to continue to recruit the best graduates out of SCU engineering for the next 15 years.”

More on the Senior Design Conference:

Valence Energy: