CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of engineering students from Oregon State University, inspired by a late professor’s rudimentary sketches, has designed a working prototype of a hot water heating system powered solely by the wind.
The students believe the technology, which uses magnets, a copper plate and plenty of ingenuity, has the potential to birth a new company and ultimately make an impact on the way the world heats water, especially in developing countries.
Using a handful of old sketches drawn up by Alan Wallace, an OSU professor of electrical engineering who was at the forefront of the university’s wave energy research until his death last spring, the five-student team designed and built the prototype. It’s about the size of a phone booth and topped with a wind turbine made from a 50-gallon steel drum.
Team leaders Paul Vigansky and Jacques Chiron are confident that a new company and product line will eventually emerge from this technology.
“I have no doubt about that,” Vigansky said. “No doubt at all.”
The prototype was the team’s senior design project, a year-long, hands-on engineering course at OSU that all senior engineering students must participate in, choosing an idea or basic design and developing it to the prototype stage. Despite having no funding, the students say the concept has now been proven to work, and several team members considered spinning off a nonprofit company that would bring the technology to developing countries.
Unlike conventional methods of heating water that require electricity or natural gas, this technology is completely sustainable, the students say. The wind turbine, connected to a shaft, can be mounted on a rooftop or other location with sufficient wind to spin the turbine, which rotates an array of magnets attached to a metal plate at the other end of the shaft. The magnets spin in close proximity to a copper plate, which becomes hot due to magnetic resistance. The heat is transferred from the copper plate to water being pumped through coiled copper tubing that is mounted against the back of the copper plate.
The turbine could also be positioned in a stream where moving water would turn the array of magnets, the students said. And once the water is hot, the wind turbine could be used to generate electricity, or the hot water could provide additional passive heating such as radiant heat for a home.
Chiron, who was born and raised in France and just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, believes that renewable energy is “the only way to go,” and said his interest in it was piqued by OSU’s level of renewable energy research, especially in the areas of wave energy research and biodiesel. His biodiesel-fueled Volkswagen Jetta, the exterior of which he covered with a layer of green Astroturf, was featured in the August 2005 issue of National Geographic in the cover story about oil.
“That’s why I got into engineering in the first place, to work with renewable energy,” Chiron said.
Vigansky agreed that there are many young people interested in renewable energy who want to apply appropriate technology to help meet the world’s energy demand using sustainable sources. “There are a lot of us,” he said. “And our numbers are growing.”
Vigansky said he hopes to explore the potential of taking the water heater prototype to the next level. Although the team performed a search for existing patents before starting the project to see if there were any designs they could use as a reference, they didn’t learn until after they had completed their prototype that a patent application for a similar design had been filed in 2001.
“We wanted to go after the patent for this technology and give it to the world in honor of Dr. Wallace,” said Vigansky, who is hopeful that the existing patent application will only speed bringing the technology to market.
“These students are a living example of how innovation can lead to prosperity – prosperity in the broadest sense of the word,” said Ron Adams, dean of engineering at OSU. “I’m very proud of our students and what they’re doing for the world through innovative engineering.”
Both Chiron and Vigansky are quick to credit Alan Wallace’s genius and generosity.
“Dr. Wallace was very passionate about his work and always willing to talk,” Vigansky said. “There wasn’t anything you could ask him about that he didn’t know the answer to.”
Wallace, whose research in linear generators is used in monorail tracks, electric cars, and high speed trains, served as the team’s faculty mentor until his declining health made that role impossible.
“We hope he knows that we are carrying on his legacy,” Chiron said. “He was quite a guy. I know he was big influence on me and a lot of other people, too.”