Engineering Teams Students Explore Future Energy Technologies
July 18, 2013
“The best thing about this has been taking things we learned in class and actually applying it,” said Matthew McCann, captain of the energy team.
A team led by undergraduate students from the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science will be the sole representatives of the United States in an international energy competition that starts this week.
The International Future Energy Challenge, sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), encourages undergraduate students to pursue research that creates more efficient energy systems of the future.
Students in Dr. Babak Fahimi’s Renewable Energy and Vehicular Technology lab are tackling the challenge of creating a more-efficient system for turning sunlight into electricity. Current solar energy grids work by connecting multiple solar panels into one energy converter. In a typical configuration, if one solar panel goes out, then the whole system no longer works. This system uses a minority of the potential energy produced and is expensive to manufacture.
Students have designed a 1-to-1 system: one solar panel plugged into one converter.
Lisa Sturm, who graduated in May, is one of four UT Dallas students on the team. Two others are from Texas Christian University.
“It is more efficient because every single solar panel can be operated at its maximum power point rather than having to operate at a threshold for the entire system,” said Matthew McDonough, graduate advisor for the team.
The key to making the team's system at a lower cost and more efficient is replacing the silicon transistors that are typically used in energy converters with gallium nitrate transistors.
“Gallium nitrate is so new that there is not a lot of research on it or protocols about how to use it correctly,” said Matthew McCann, an electrical engineering senior and captain of the team.
The team’s proposal was sound enough to make it through earlier rounds of competition to be the only U.S. team to advance to the final competition, which starts July 18 at Ohio State University. The team's system will be tested in a variety of circumstances, including at different power levels and during an emulated blackout.
McCann, who was on the 2011 energy team that also made it to the finals, said his colleagues had to build the system from the ground up, making their understanding of the subject stronger.
“Because we’re doing it ourselves, we’re more knowledgeable about our system and were able to fix problems without having to ask other people to help,” he said.
Computer engineering senior Thomas Ballard (front) and graduate advisor Matthew McDonough, work in the REVT lab.
McCann said no matter the competition results, the energy team's system has implications beyond the competition.
“The best thing about this has been taking things we learned in class and actually applying it,” he said. “As we go into industry or our professional careers, this will greatly benefit us and future energy systems.”
But, winning would be nice as well.
“We’ve got a good chance to meet our goal and win,” McCann said. “It’s really going to come down to who worked the hardest.”
McDonough, the graduate advisor, testifies to his team’s hard work.
“Our students have worked very diligently on this project,” he said. “We have all the confidence in the world that we’ll have a good showing.”
In addition to McCann and McDonough, UT Dallas computer engineering senior Thomas Ballard and Lisa Sturm, who graduated in May, will represent the team at the final competition. The team also includes two students from Texas Christian University.