Science of Energy Seminar is Open to All Majors
By Katharine Webster
A new honors seminar, The Science of Energy, is inspiring students from a wide range of majors to get involved in research into renewable energy, in Haiti and on campus.
Brendon Aylaian is an honors business management major who took the class with Physics Prof. Robert Giles over the summer.
Now, he’s putting his business skills to good use on a project for the university’s Haiti Development Studies Center, which was founded and is directed by Giles: installing a small solar farm, or “micro-grid,” in the tiny, rural community of Simone, which currently has no electricity. Aylaian is trying to figure out needs and costs – including how much the community can afford to pay to maintain the system.
“There are a lot of people in the world who don’t have access to even the most basic levels of electricity, or if they do, it’s extremely erratic,” Aylaian says. “Being part of a team that is focused on delivering energy to people who don’t have it just seems like a really good thing to do.”
Giles created the class to help students understand the costs and benefits of different energy sources and policies in the context of global warming. Offered for the first time in spring 2020 and again over the summer, the course has proved so popular that Giles plans to teach it every year.
Several students have asked Giles how they can get involved in renewable energy research initiatives. Those projects will become their honors and other capstone research.
Aylaian is working with Giles and two other students – Anne Souza and Joshua Walsh – on solar projects as research interns with the Haiti Development Studies Center. All three students hope to travel with Giles to Haiti as soon as possible to work more closely with community members.
Souza, a physics major, is helping with a science of energy course Giles is offering remotely at a teaching college in Les Cayes, Haiti, a city not far from Simone. Souza, a senior who plans to teach science or math after graduation, teaches weekly, online labs in electronics, including how to make basic repairs to a solar panel.
Walsh, an honors environmental engineering major with a minor in energy engineering, is working on three projects for a nonprofit children’s center in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Walsh took Giles’ other popular honors seminar, Science and Technology for an Impoverished World, last spring, and liked it so much that he signed up for The Science of Energy course this semester.
“We’re learning about different sources of energy – fossil, biomass, solar, hydro and nuclear – and we’re going through and analyzing the viability of each source,” he says. “The holy grail of renewable energy right now is figuring out how to store solar energy efficiently.”
Midway through spring semester, as Walsh was starting to do research for his final project, he visited Giles during office hours. That visit turned into a hands-on opportunity to learn more about solar energy and clean water engineering.
Giles told Walsh that the Haiti Development Studies Center had agreed to undertake a project for a nonprofit children’s center in the Lizon neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. He asked Walsh to design a large drinking water filtration system that Recovery and Wellness (RAW) Haiti could use for its own needs – and to sustain its health and mentoring programs by selling the extra potable water to people in the community.
Walsh says his first design, for the class, was “horrible” because it relied on a UV lamp costing $100 that would have to be replaced every year and shipped from the United States.
“One of the major aspects of Prof. Giles’ class is the sustainability of a project. If it’s too complicated or expensive, then eventually it will break down and not be used,” he says.
But after the class was over, Walsh kept working. Over the summer, he designed a roof-mounted, slow sand filtration system that can clean 700 or more gallons of water a day. He also agreed to take the lead on designing two related projects for RAW Haiti: a solar hot water heater and a small solar power system to run the center’s water pump, a refrigerator for medicines and food, and a couple of cellphones or computers.
Mechanical Engineering Chair Christopher Niezrecki is facilitating a donation of 15 solar panels for that project and 50 more for the solar farm in Simone, bringing the costs down.
Meanwhile, honors physics major Michele Woodland had just begun working with Giles, writing MatLab problems for a radar class he teaches to Raytheon employees, when she began taking The Science of Energy last spring.
Giles invited her to work on renewable energy research in his lab – using radar to scan commercial windmill blades for invisible flaws in the fiberglass filaments – and she accepted enthusiastically.
“Windmills are super expensive to install, and lots of times the blades fracture within a day of the windmill starting up,” she says. “We want to work with manufacturers to find those flaws before that happens.”
The research will become her honors capstone – and could influence the direction she pursues while earning a Ph.D. in astrophysics, she says.
“This is super interesting to me, so now I’m considering radio astronomy,” she says.