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Two teams of student engineers from Santa Clara University will head to Washington D.C. this month, packing project designs that could change the way people around the world use energy.
The travelers are bound for the National Sustainable Design Expo, an annual showcase of cutting-edge technologies developed by college students and their faculty advisors. The Expo takes place on the National Mall from April 21–23. It features a judged competition called P3—short for People, Prosperity, and the Planet—which is sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
SCU students, along with peers from some 40 other colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, will vie for bragging rights and a $90,000 grant award to help them advance their design, implement it in the field, and move it into the marketplace. Already, each of the contending teams earned an initial grant of $15,000 to jumpstart their work.
“The competition will be a time for us to relax, mingle with the social entrepreneurs of tomorrow, and show off the work we’ve completed,” said Michael Sizemore, SCU senior and project leader for one of the school’s two entries. “After the challenges we’ve experienced and the work we’ve done to get to the place we are now, the competition is going to be a breeze.”
Among those challenges was the sudden, tragic death last fall of the team’s advisor, a young assistant professor with a passion for fuel cell technology. Daniel Strickland’s enthusiasm and knowledge inspired Sizemore and four other seniors to form a team and develop a new type of fuel cell—one capable of a continuous, sustainable energy supply that could meet the demands of rural communities in developing nations where reliable energy grids are lacking.
When Strickland died in an auto accident, his students were devastated and the fate of their unfinished work was uncertain. According to Ross Pimentel, a student who helped develop the project’s electrical design, the team “pulled through … and decided to continue to work on the project to show everyone that Strickland’s idea of replacing batteries with reversible fuel cells is possible. This project has not only shown the skills and knowledge we all gained from class, but also our strength and willingness to see the project to its end.”
Sizemore spoke of the satisfaction in completing and testing “a never-before-tried technology.” He said the team “collaborated with companies around the world, to make a brand new clean energy system designed solely by us.” Strickland, he said, “gave us the opportunity to innovate and we took it.”
Following Strickland’s death, Shoba Krishnan, an associate professor of electrical engineering at SCU, stepped into the role of faculty advisor for the fuel cell team. A strong proponent of applying classroom theory to real-world, community solutions, she sees several advantages in student design competitions such as P3.
“These events help students put in perspective what they’ve learned in class,” she explained. “In order to achieve their goal, they must have teamwork, organization, time management, and project planning skills, as well as a strong work ethic.”
She said the Expo experience will give students a small taste of what to expect in the workplace. “They’ll be judged by a certain set of rules, a clear standard of quality; it isn’t just about engineering—there is a lot of interdisciplinary learning going on.”
SCU’s second entry in the P3 competition is led by faculty advisor Hohyun Lee, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Like Krishnan, he finds value in student design contests. In order for his students to complete their project, he noted, “They must enhance their understanding of renewable energy and mechanical engineering disciplines, and throughout the competition, they will develop their communication skills, as well as their breadth of technology.”
At the Expo, Lee’s five-member team of senior students will present a high efficiency solar absorber/exchanger that can bring low-cost energy to residences that have limited space for solar collectors.
“The key element of this project is to develop an economically viable solar absorber, combined with heat exchanger, that has fewer parts and takes up less space,” explained Lee. According to team members, solar energy is currently abundant and easily accessible, but high costs and low yields are stumbling blocks for many homeowners. The SCU students have designed a system that is one-third the size of an equivalent photovoltaic system, at half the total cost.
Like the fuel cell team, Lee’s group has been working on its project since last August. The advisor believes the experience of learning together as they develop an essential product is an important lesson in itself. “This early exposure to research, and to its social benefit, will prepare them to become true engineers,” he said.