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High-flying energy - WPI team builds device to harness wind power


WPI Team with kiteBy Jean Laquidara Hill TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
(Washington, D.C. - April 18, 2008)

Kite-flying students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute aren’t waiting until they graduate to start changing the world. A team of 11 juniors and seniors has formed the WPI Kite Power Team with associate professor David J. Olinger to provide nonpolluting power to parts of the world where grid-generated electricity is unavailable.

“The primary goal is to provide electricity to rural areas in developing nations where the grid can’t access. Electricity is desperately needed for people who don’t have the ability to provide electricity for themselves,” said Gabriel P. Baldwin of Brooks, Maine, a WPI senior and Kite Power Team member. “By providing a new form of cheap electricity, we can help raise the living standard of the world. “This is a small step toward producing a non-carbon-emitting energy system,” Mr. Baldwin said as he explained the team’s purpose.

Since last fall, the Kite Power Team has planned, designed and built a kite power demonstrator that produces electricity.

The contraption, which resembles a supersized catapult with electrical panels and battery attachments, will be unveiled this month at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. The kite has been tested and flown at a height of 100 feet in Rutland, and the team expects, in time, to get it to fly as high as 500 feet, according to Mr. Olinger. Because of space limitations and uncertain winds, the kite will not be flown at the demonstration in Washington; however, students will demonstrate the device by moving the arm to which the kite would be attached and providing electricity to multiple light bulbs, said Mr. Olinger.

A demonstration of Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Kite Power Team project, showing the mechanical control of the kite. The kite power device is designed to produce electricity from wind energy generated by a large kite tethered to the device's arm.

The kite power machine converts the up-and-down motion of a massive tethered kite into electrical energy, using a power converter mechanism and generator on the ground, according to WPI students. They will permanently install the kite power demonstrator at Heifer International’s Learning Center in Rutland some time between June and October, according to Mr. Olinger, who teaches mechanical engineering.

The next stop will be Namibia, Africa, where the team expects to provide electricity to a small settlement in 2010 with a 1-kilowatt power kite and wind measurement system. One kilowatt can power 25 40-watt light bulbs.

The WPI Kite Team and another WPI team whose project is capturing trace elements from the coal combustion process are among 58 college teams nationwide that were awarded grants to develop innovative designs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 Awards, a national student design competition for sustainability focusing on people, prosperity and the planet.

The teams will compete for the award at the fourth annual National Sustainable Design Expo April 20-22 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The top six will be awarded up to $75,000 each to further develop their innovations for the public good.

In a nutshell, the WPI Kite Team is converting wind energy into mechanical energy to be used as electrical energy in developing nations and rural areas. The wind power is harnessed by the rise and fall of a massive kite. As the 100-square-foot kite goes up and down, it moves a rocking arm on a large wooden structure. The electrical system converts the arm motion to electricity and stores it in the batteries.

“Using kites, instead of wind turbines, has the potential to give more people in the developing world access to wind power since kites are economical in lower-speed Class 2 wind regions, whereas turbines are not,” according to the WPI Kite Power Team. The kite power machine also avoids other concerns related to wind turbines such as bird kills and noise and visual pollution, according to the team.

Because of the structure’s size and the team’s intention of building one in a developing country, it worked with Heifer International Learning Center in Rutland this school year, where it tested the kite power system. The farm was chosen for its elevation, among other reasons. It is also in a Class 3 wind zone, where the wind speed is on average 14.5 to 15.7 mph, according to the project.

After fine-tuning the system and permanently installing it at Overlook Farm, the team plans to build one in Namibia, where WPI has a project center.

At a recent team meeting, students checked off items on their to-do list such as a fly wheel operations, copper couplers and reversing alpha values. They described kite power as theoretically simple, but complex to get up and running. Working with Mr. Olinger, the students consulted an innovator early in their planning process: The man who proposed kite power 30 years ago, Jitendre Goela of Rohm and Haas in Woburn, provided the team with some technical advice.

Still, a myriad of problem-solving tasks spill into social and sleep time, with students willing to sacrifice free time to ultimately provide electricity to some of the 2 billion people living without it throughout the world.

They describe kite power as more practical than windmills and other wind turbines because kites reach higher elevations, where the wind is faster and can produce more energy for conversion to electricity. For example, at a height of 30 meters, New England wind speeds range from less than 10.1 mph to more than 19 mph. But at a height of 100 meters, wind speeds range from less than 12.3 mph to more than 21.3 mph, said WPI. (One meter is equal to 39.37 inches, or a little more than 3 feet.)

Because the kites can be used to harness wind power at higher elevations, electricity could be produced in areas where the wind speed is too slow at 100 feet, but is fast enough at higher elevations to provide needed power, said Christopher M. Colschen, a senior WPI student from Ledyard, Conn. In the United States, federal regulations limit the maximum height of a kite to 152 meters or 500 feet, but most developing countries have few or no restrictions on kite height, said WPI.

The kite also costs less to produce than wind turbines that use “big, expensive blades,” Mr. Olinger said.

“I think another important thing about this project is just bringing attention to sustainable energy at a smaller level,” said Kite Team member Ryan P. Buckley, a senior from Rehoboth. He said people think about renewable energy on a grander scale, like powering a city, and shrug off the idea because of startup costs. This system, he said, is on a much smaller scale, so perhaps people will start thinking about renewable energy one house or one neighborhood or one business at a time.

“If we can power a household in a developing nation, people will see it can be done,” said Mr. Buckley.

Contact Jean Laquidara Hill by e-mail at jhill@telegram.com.

For more detail on this research project: Project Abstract

For more information about the P3 program and the Sustainable Design Expo: http://www.epa.gov/p3

Reprinted with permission from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp

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