Campus News

Clean energy competition showcases students’ novel solutions

By DAVID J. HILL

Published May 3, 2018

A system that maximizes clean energy usage in the home by responding to the homeowner’s trends and patterns. An energy harvester that captures indoor ambient light to power wireless electronics. An innovative design for a wind turbine blade that’s more efficient and aerodynamic.

These amazing advancements in clean energy technology were among the winners at a pitch competition hosted April 23 by UB Sustainability. The event — “Transforming Our Tomorrow: A New Clean Energy Vision” — took place in Baird Recital Hall and was one of the signature events for Sustainability Month.

The competition, which was part of a larger effort to get students interested and engaged in the clean energy field, was open to college students across New York State — a team from Syracuse University and one from Rochester Institute of Technology participated. A panel of judges heard five pitches, then deliberated to choose the winner, which received $3,000. Second place took home $1,500 and third place won $750. A $200 bonus prize was awarded for the project that considered the social impacts of clean energy.

First place ($3,000) — Philip Odonkor, UB engineering student

Philip Odonkor, a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, won first place for an algorithm he designed to monitor and respond to a homeowner’s clean energy habits and usage.

Odonkor designed the algorithm in response to the vast amount of clean energy that is wasted. “Why are we seemingly great at harnessing clean energy, yet so terrible at using it?” he asked the audience.

Odonkor’s system identifies trends, patterns and correlations in energy data and uses that information to improve the performance of a home that uses renewable energy, such as solar panels. Odonkor tested the algorithm on a virtual home in Arizona. “The home wasted more clean energy than we thought was possible,” he said. “But, here’s the thing: Just like a baby learning how to walk, the algorithm started to pick up on the energy habits of the people living within the home. Once it got the hang of it, it started to do some truly amazing things.”

For example, he said, it began figuring out the energy demands of the home and linked that information with the weather forecast. “It was able to figure out the best times to generate and use solar energy,” Odonkor said, adding that excess energy produced was sold back to the grid, depending on the energy price at the time.

Second place ($1,500) — Ambient PV

Ambient PV is a project created by Rochester Institute of Technology students Dmitry Liapitch, James Sinka and Andrew Fleischer. Ambient PV makes photovoltaic energy harvesters that capture ambient light to power a variety of wireless devices, from cellphones to television remotes.

“Ambient PV was designed from the start to take advantage of indoor lighting from fluorescent and LED lights to extend battery life,” Liapitch said, adding that they can also use 3D printing to produce their material.

“Ambient PV reduces the need for batteries by reusing the ambient light around us using our recyclable photovoltaics. We believe that the future of wireless electronics won’t have to rely on batteries for power because they’ll be able to power themselves using innovative energy-harvesting technology like Ambient PV.”

Third place ($750) — Hamid Khakpour Nejadkhaki

As a mechanical engineering PhD candidate in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Nejadkhaki is interested in the emerging renewable energy source of windmills.

While wind energy has its plusses — it’s reduces carbon dioxide, saves on water consumption and creates jobs — it does have some drawbacks. Namely, Nejadkhaki noted, it needs to be cost competitive with other resources, and there’s the fact that many people object to having windmills in their neighborhood. In addition, it’s difficult to ship a 260-foot-long windmill blade.

To tackle some of these issues, Nejadkhaki and his colleagues in the Energy Systems Design Research Group developed an innovative design for a wind turbine blade, one that uses additive manufacturing to create a blade that is twisted instead of straight. Their design has been shown to increase efficiency. At the same time, it can be built at the wind turbine installation site, which reduces transportation costs.

Their design was created so that the wind turbine blades could be built at the installation site, which would solve the shipping problem. The blades would also be more aerodynamic and efficient than existing blades, Nejadkhaki said.

Social impact award ($200) — Kelley Mosher

In addition to the three place winners, judges awarded $200 for the project that considered the social impacts of clean energy. That award went to Kelley Mosher, a master’s of urban and regional planning candidate who called for transformative systems-based approaches to two main issues facing modern agriculture: energy consumption and farmland preservation.

Mosher grew up on a family-owned dairy farm in the Southern Tier. “I was a fourth-generation family farmer, and I am a first-generation climate warrior,” she said.

“We can leverage our farmers, the people who know how to craft and to create from the world’s resources. We can be efficient with those resources in ways that ensure future usability and economic scalability,” said Mosher.

She added that “New York State’s agricultural communities must be a central focus in the decision-making for our energy future.”

A duo of first-year architecture graduate students at Syracuse University pitched their idea for a freshwater pod that uses solar radiation to turn saltwater into fresh water.

Funding for this event was provided by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s Reforming the Energy Vision Campus Challenge.