NMT Undergraduate Team Secures $10,000 EPA Grant, Oct. 13, 2006

Wade Ogg, demonstrating operation of helioscope prototype.

by Valerie Kimble

Right: Team member Wade Ogg demonstrates operation of helioscope prototype.

SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 13, 2006 – A team of New Mexico Tech undergraduates is designing a mirror-based system to help generate energy, a highly sophisticated upgrade to the traditional magnifying glass-and-sunlight experiment.

Now, the team is building a prototype system, thanks to a recent $10,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a proposal the students themselves wrote.

Dr. Warren Ostergren, an associate professor with the research university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and the team’s faculty advisor, said the students worked on the grant proposal outside of class, and called it “a unique experience for an undergraduate team.”

“They’ve got big plans,” he said.

Indeed they do. The New Mexico Tech team of undergraduate students will compete against other collegiate teams at a national “People, Prosperity and the Planet” – EPA/P3 – competition in Washington, D.C. in May 2007, with travel funds included in the grant.

New Mexico Tech students Theresita Martinez and Robert Slingsby returned to the heliostat team this semester as seniors. Non-returning team members Wade Ogg and Joe Waligora graduated from the university last May, and Collin Horvat has completed all his senior design classes at Tech.

New team members are Tech undergraduates Timothy Barnes, Prithwish Das, Matthew Green, David Peterson and Katelyn Williams.

The project grew out of the department’s Junior/Senior Design Class, a core requirement for all mechanical engineering majors at New Mexico Tech. The team is officially known as the “Heliostat Design Clinic Team.” A heliostat is defined as a device where a mirror is used to reflect a beam of sunlight in a fixed direction.

Slingsby described the team’s device as “a bunch of mirrors in an array that reflect light to a specific point.”

Its purpose is to create electric energy by focusing the sunlight on a central receiver where the collected heat is used to power electrical generation equipment. A key challenge for the team is to design a system that is cost-effective, he said.

Current heliostats cost approximately $12,000 per 100-square-meters of mirror system. The New Mexico Tech team has set an initial goal of reducing this industry standard cost by one-third.

If successful in meeting this goal, the students believe heliostats will be able to compete with natural gas and wind as a clean source of energy.

Goals of the project are that the natural energy system be easy to maintain and that it be maintenance-efficient. All parts can be replaced within one hour, and the system should be able to operate up to 25 years with minimal maintenance.

“A previous prototype was made out of fiberglass, empty Gatorade bottles and other stuff,” said Slingsby, a graduate of St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe, and this year’s team leader. He added, with a smile, “We had a very small budget.”

The Tech team’s prototype has no by-products, Slingsby said: “Our only resource is solar energy.”

“What’s very nice is that this team is so well-funded,” Ostergren said. “We’ve had quite a bit of luck in attracting industry sponsors, which allows the teams a lot more freedom and creativity,” he said, explaining that the other 10 teams within the Mechanical Engineering Department also had outside funding.

“We don’t want competition among teams,” said Ostergren. “Our students help each other – the competition is between us and other schools,” he said.

New Mexico Tech also provided seed money for the team to get started. The team then used that funding to build their prototype and to acquire the more significant federal government grant.

Those are not the only donations the team has received. Slingsby said the team secured a donation of mirror facets for their projects from a private company. Three of the team members met members of the company at a workshop this past summer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

“They were willing to give us up to $10,000 in mirrors, up to 10 feet in diameter,” Slingsby said.

Slingsby, former team member Ogg, and Ostergren attended the July workshop at the request of Sandia, based on fundamental work on the heliostat project last spring in conjunction with engineers at Sandia.

The team’s project goals for the heliostat are:

  • Ability to focus at winds up to 35 mph;
  • Ability to withstand winds up to 90 mph;
  • Need for minimal maintenance and ease of maintainance;
  • Cost of under $80 per square meter of glass to build and install;
  • Structure cost of under $56 per square meter of glass to build and install; and
  • Design for the drive, support structure and electronics.

With additional funding, the team can expand the project’s scope and include students in both Tech’s electrical and materials engineering programs.

Martinez plans to go on to graduate school after graduation next May, and then to find work in a biomechanical field. Slingsby also plans to attend grad school, but first wants to tour Europe, Asia and possibly South America for a year or so.

In the meantime, the students are part of a team working to shed light – and focus light – in the ongoing search for affordable energy.