NAU Students Develop Wind Turbine to Mitigate Energy Challenges during Disaster Relief Efforts

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Kenny Saxer, a team engineering student, works on the turbine. Photo: Robert Valenzuela.

NAU engineering, business, and environmental sciences undergraduates have collaborated on designing, building, and testing a wind turbine. The turbine was developed to meet the goals of their customized, market-data-derived business plan, which is focused on mitigating energy challenges during disaster relief efforts. In May 2014 they will present their project at the inaugural U.S. Department of Energy's Collegiate Wind Competition during the American Wind Energy Association conference.

When typhoons, hurricanes and earthquakes wreak havoc on communities, the efforts of humanitarian and relief workers often are hampered by logistical challenges. Electricity can be scarce and generators tough to acquire, limiting water pumping and purification, sterilization of medical implements and recharging of communication devices.

A team of Northern Arizona University undergraduates hopes to improve the resources available during emergency responses. Two dozen students from various disciplines have joined forces to create a lightweight, portable wind turbine that is capable of powering small electronics and is designed for on-demand deployment.

The turbine will be evaluated during the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Collegiate Wind Competition May 5-7, 2014,  in Las Vegas. DOE selected 10 teams through a competitive process and challenged them not only to create a wind turbine but also to base it on a solid business plan built around market drivers. The students are required to design everything from the blades to the turbine’s electrical components.  “A real-life design project is very, very different from sitting down and doing homework problems,” notes team member Jonathan Pepper, an electrical engineering major.

During the competition, teams will be judged by industry and policy experts based on (1) how their turbine performs in a wind tunnel, (2) the content of their business plan, and (3) an oral presentation describing the current challenges and opportunities in the wind industry.

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"The most exciting aspect of this project, in my opinion, is to create a system that really works. The opportunity to make use of all the engineering skills I've learned over the last few years has been an exciting prospect, because it really gives a physicality to my major as a whole," says team member Charlie Burge, a mechanical engineering student.

David Willy, instructor of mechanical engineering at NAU and one of the team’s faculty advisers, couldn’t agree more. “This project is definitely going to help students in their careers because it really takes the education off the page,” Willy explains. And as team Nathan Croswell, a mechanical engineering student, points out: “All the leadership and design work is applicable to larger challenges.”

Karin Wadsack, project director for NAU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Solutions, is the team manager, and she is helping students prepare for the Collegiate Wind Competition. "Working together with students from different academic backgrounds with different professional interests is invaluable experience for these students on this team.  . . .  it is better preparing them for life beyond graduation,” she says.

Team Member Lukas Loehr, a business management major, says he has appreciated learning things about alternative energy and how to start a business, but the possible end result of the project eclipses both of these benefits. “The most exciting part of this project is the fact that we are creating a product that can potentially help someone in need," Loehr says.

In addition to being managed by NAU faculty, the team is supported by more than a dozen individuals and organizations in the Flagstaff community.