Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Collegiate Wind Competition 2017!

The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory host an annual Collegiate Wind Competition, in which undergraduate university teams design and build a small (~10W) wind turbine to given specifications. In even years, it's collocated with the American Wind Energy Association's annual conference, and the competition is much larger, involving more money, and a team of business and marketing students who develop a business plan for the turbine. In odd years, the competition is "technical" only, and it takes place at NREL's National Wind Technology Center.

And the team is only engineers. There is no "open call" for competitors; the competition consists only of teams from the prior year. Historically, UAF has performed much better on the engineering side, and not so great with the business and marketing side of things, so I was excited for the opportunity to serve as faculty advisor to a team of only technical students. They worked very hard in the weeks leading up to the competition, often putting in 50+ hours per week, on top of their regular coursework.

The other competing teams generally are from much larger universities with very large wind education programs. In fact, many of them build the turbine competition around a particular class, so the participating students get course credit for the time put in. UAF, in contrast, does not at present have the resources to host the team as a class. They do use the turbine design and build for their senior capstone projects, but the competition requirements for the report and presentation are different from the course requirements for the same, so the students end up putting in excess work and time.

UAF's turbine is typically very conservative in design. The students, either deliberately or subconsciously, reflect their surroundings of a harsh environment with very little fault tolerance. Alaska typically is not the first location to test a new design of anything, be it a wind turbine, car, pair of mittens, chain saw, or flashlight. We want a product to be "tried and true" in less harsh conditions first; then we will add the additional challenges of ultracold weather and austere conditions.

Thus: The UAF turbine typically has three blades and a horizontal axis, and points upwind. In the "technical only" years, the Competition rules allow the team to utilize the prior year's turbine, but add whatever is required by the new "surprise" rules that they add every year. This year, the basic turbine was rated to 10 Watts, had to fit within a certain spatial envelope, and had to meet other mechanical and electrical requirements. The "surprise" was that the turbine needed to be able to yaw into the direction of the wind.

The UAF team opted to redesign the entire turbine, except for the blades, from scratch, eliminating serious flaws from the 2016 design. It was a tough labor of love: the UAF team was working until literally the last hour before heading to the airport at 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight to Denver.

When we arrived, we were assigned as a working space, the office of an NREL employee who was on vacation. Last-minute tweaks continued:

The competition consisted of a test in the wind tunnel:

Photo credit for this photo: EERE

(The control system and brilliant electrical team made the power output match the competition specification at each wind regime, 100%. They got 40/40 for that! They did not do as well with the yaw mechanism, which was the only one of the teams to have "actively controlled" yaw instead of just a huge wind vane. The competition wind regime ended up involving a tornado, which the active yaw could not cope well with. Oh well. They did, however, get qualitative points from the judges for having an active yaw.)

And a formal presentation:

(That went surprisingly well. Even the nerdiest of the nerds were poised, well-paced, articulate, and well-modulated.)

And a private Q and A session with the judges:

(That went very well. The judges heaped on compliments and were disappointed when time had run out!)

They won third place! Beating every other team except Penn State and Kansas State, which both have dedicated wind programs, huge teams, and huge backing. The lean and nimble UAF team beat every other comparable team!

They also won an award at a surprise competition... an NREL representative asked to see each team's rule book, presumably to see how dog-eared and post-it-tabbed they were. UAF won a special award for having theirs in a binder with all of their drawings, design specs, and notes. :) DL would have been so proud of the electrical packaging, particularly in comparison with the other teams... All of the other teams either had a plastic cover which hid all of the guts, or had their electrical circuitry and wiring in a mess of spaghetti. One team had a breadboard and was using probes (!!). UAF alone had the electricals uncovered, and yet nicely and safely packaged. :)



mdr said...

YAY to you, DL and the team too. I read a few times and I think I understand more about the competition details. I am VERY proud of you. I am sure these students will get far in their career in the future.

mdr said...

In reality, big name school does not always produce best product.

bt said...

Congrats to your team! Awesome.