Last year, when Boeing Corporation was looking for some help designing a new piece of hardware to help solar panels track the sun, they went back to school—to CECS, to be precise—where five graduate students worked with two professors, Bruno Osorno, in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Stewart Prince, in Mechanical Engineering, to tackle the project.
The team, which included one mechanical engineer and four electrical engineers, was charged with developing a concept and performing a cost analysis for a dual-axis solar tracker that met constraints imposed by the company and would cost less than existing commercial trackers. While the mechanical engineer, Josh Baltaxe, worked on the mechanical component, the electrical engineers, Amandeep Kalra, Ronak Chauhan, Vishwas Bhosale and Naga Penmetsa, brought different areas of expertise to the project, including control systems, power systems, digital and communications and FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays).
The students worked all summer to design their own microcontroller and algorithm capable of tracking the sun with a very cost-effective set of materials. They completed their work in September and presented the results to Boeing in November 2009. “The students gave the presentation, and Boeing was very pleased with it,” says Osorno.
The team undertook the project in the context of a design clinic, an arrangement in which corporations contract with the university to have faculty and students work on problems they are encountering and produce deliverables in a short period of time.
The same group is hoping to take the project to the next stage: actually building the tracker.
The project is one of a series of partnerships that Boeing has developed with CSUN. The company is currently in the process of installing a 100 kW solar energy system in the northern part of the campus, using the same high-concentration photovoltaic arrays that figured in the students’ project. The array will be field-tested for five years, generating power for the university and further opportunities for student and faculty research.