Heliostat Team Invited To EPA Design Expo

Washington, D.C. April 23, 2010 – Let the games begin!

New Mexico Tech’s heliostat research team is in Washington D.C. this weekend, competing for $75,000 of research funding.
The team of seven mechanical engineering undergraduates was selected as a finalist for the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s annual National Sustainable Design Expo on The Mall in the nation’s capital.

  The 2009-2010 heliostat team is (from left) Jason Hebert, Anselmo Gallegos, Kendra Valdez, Josh Christian, Marco Berry, Ian Luders and Saleem Soas. Photo by Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

The Tech heliostat design team had previously been awarded a Phase I grant through the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet, or P3, student design competition. That award was for $10,000. Now, the Tech students have their eyes set on a Phase II grant for $75,000.

This year’s team includes six New Mexicans and one student from Washington. The seniors are team leader Ian Luders (Albuquerque), Marco Berry (Belen), Kendra Valdez (Grants) and Josh Christian (Albuquerque). The juniors on the team are Jason Hebert (Seattle), Saleem Soas (Hobbs) and Anselmo Gallegos (Cuba, N.M.).

The team has designed a poster to display at the Design Expo and will have laptops with animation to illustrate both how their design works and how an array of heliostats focuses solar energy. Christian said he’s interested to see if they can get new ideas from other presenters at the Design Expo.

The Expo is three days long, with Friday closed for judging. The public is invited to view the projects Saturday and Sunday.

Luders said the team has encountered a few obstacles in design and construction, but is making steady progress toward building a new prototype. The first heliostat team at Tech relied on a proprietary liquid ballast system that automated the mirrors movement to track the sun across the sky. This year’s team has used a hybrid design. Valdez said the liquid ballast system supplies the mirror with elevation changes, while a screw jack system provides lateral movement.

The original heliostat mounting ring.
The heliostat mirror. File photos, courtesy of the heliostat team

Luders said three years’ of student research has provided many lessons. First and foremost, using only liquid ballast was too costly, he said. The original liquid ballast design also consumed more energy than it produced, Luders said.

“The point of the project is having a reduced-cost heliostat,” he said. “The hybrid design allows us to control cost. We wanted to keep the liquid ballast system because it was conceived at Tech and is unique to New Mexico Tech.”

Senior Design Clinic instructor Dr. Warren Ostergren said he’s impressed with the heliostat team’s design and their motivation.

“They are taking the design to the next level of sophistication,” he said. “The changes they’ve implemented make their heliostat more production worthy.”

The student team is part of the Junior and Senior Design Clinic in the Mechanical Engineering Department. The team members collectively said they are both nervous and excited to present their research. The students have put hundreds of hours of work into this project. Luders and Christian have been on the team for two four semesters. Valdez and Berry are completing their third semester on the team.

Ostergren meets with the team weekly to review and critique the finer points of design and to encourage them to anticipate obstacles. However, he said he hasn’t had to provide much other guidance. 

“They’re functioning independently,” he said. “They are making contacts with experts in different areas where they need support. Even in reporting to the EPA, they’ve been doing that on their own initiative. They are self-motivated. As the team advisor, it makes my responsibilities easier.”

Ostergren said Phase II funding would be a significant achievement for the Tech heliostat team. The additional funding would allow the team to make serious advances in solar energy. However, he said a design project doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of a typical winner of the P3 Phase II award.

“It is a stretch for them to get additional funding,” he said. “Lots of the projects funded by the EPA have more of a social consequence rather than a design consequence – like bringing purified water to a remote region. This is an intense design project, which is different than other projects the EPA is funding.”

Nevertheless, Luders said he thinks the team has a fighting chance at being selected for a Phase II award. If the team is awarded with Phase II funding, they plan to build six heliostat mounts in succession, each one improving on the previous design. With six synchronized mirrors, they could construct a small-scale array of solar energy collectors.

“That would be so cool if we got Phase II,” he said. “I think I’d beg to stay for grad school if we got it.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech