Student Heliostat Design Team Scores EPA Grant

SOCORRO, N.M. May 28, 2009 – A group of Mechanical Engineering undergraduate students received a National Student Design Competition award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The heliostat team submitted a report that was scored high enough to earn a competitive research grant of $9,415.

Team leader Kyle Chavez and fellow students Evan Sproul, Walker Sroges, Victoria De Oreo, Ian Luders, Joshua Christian, Derek Lucero and Kendra Valdez will use the grant to continue their research on the “Design and Fabrication of a Reduced Cost Heliostat.”
The grant is from the EPA’s grant program for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet.

This is a second award the mechanical engineering design team has received from the EPA. Two years ago the team (and its previous members) received a $10,000 grant.

The Heliostat Design Team is Kyle Chavez, Evan Sproul, Walker Sroges, Victoria De Oreo, Ian Luders, Joshua Christian, Derek Lucero and Kendra Valdez (not in order).

“We were a little surprised,” Chavez said. “We received a similar grant two years ago, which we used to build the prototype. Last year, we attempted to get the same grant, but we weren’t accepted. So, this year, we re-formatted our report.”

Chavez said the research report submitted for the competitive review was changed to focus on how advances in heliostat design could help make solar energy more efficient and cost-effective, with an eye toward the positive effects of solar energy on American society.

A heliostat is a solar-energy collector that follows the movement of the sun and reflects sunlight off a mirror on to a stationary target or receiver. An array of heliostats is thought to be one of the most efficient manners to collect solar energy and convert it to electricity.

However, the cost of design and operations are prohibitive. The Tech mechanical engineering team is on the hunt to devise a water-ballast system to mount the mirror, coupled with a GPS device to automate movement of each mirror mount. See the team's comprehensive report

“As far as proven technology, a heliostat has shown the capability to generate a lot of heat that can be turned into electricity,” Sproul said. “If the cost can be reduced, then it could be right up there with some of the most beneficial solar technologies.”

The team must meet strict accuracy and lifetime specifications created by Sandia National Labs and Tech. The team emphasizes hands-on learning experiences and cutting edge research. The team is working with scientists from Tech and Sandia while both getting valuable real-world experience and contributing to the reduction of the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

A recent prototype of the heliostat designed, fabricated and assembled by the New Mexico Tech senior design team in the mechanical engineering department.

The team has devised a “liquid-ballast” heliostat drive system, which reduces the cost of heliostat drive mechanics, utilizes an inexpensive mirror design, and eliminates an unnecessary support pedestal.

The New Mexico Tech design includes an A-frame housing, with an inner and outer ring. The rings allow the mirror to move in any direction.
Using an algorithm created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the team created a circuit board with GPS support. The circuit board will be able to automate the movement of the mirrors to track the sun across the sky.

By implementing this new design, the team will help to create a more economically viable and clean energy source that will benefit all energy consumers as well as the environment. To successfully complete the project, the team must create a heliostat that reduces the cost of production and operation by 30 percent.

The Heliostat Team is entering its third year as part of the Junior and Senior Design Clinics in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

The first EPA grant was used for development of circuit boards, sensors and the team’s initial prototype mount. With the new grant, Sproul and Chavez want to spend the bulk of the funds to have a professional machine shop build a second prototype mount that will refine and optimize the heliostat design.

“Some of the components need to be upgraded, but it’s almost done,” Chavez said. “So the majority of the grant will be put into continuing to develop a new prototype mount that will improve upon what we’ve already accomplished.”

Chavez and Sproul have successfully completed the Junior and Senior Design Clinic requirements; however, they are continuing to work with the team through the Advanced Design Clinic class. In the fall, they will lead the effort to integrate and test their customized control circuit board.

– NMT –