An inexpensive, modular solar-energy technology that could be used to heat water and generate electricity won $12,500 and took first place in both the Schoofs Prize for Creativity and Tong Prototype Prize competitions, held Feb. 9 and 10 during Innovation Days on the UW-Madison College of Engineering campus.
In a package about the size of a small computer desk, the winning system uses a flat Fresnel lens to collect the sun’s energy and focus it onto a copper block. Then a unique spray system removes the energy from the copper block and converts it into steam, says inventor Angie Franzke, an engineering mechanics and astronautics senior from Omro, Wisconsin. The steam either heats water for household use or powers a turbine to generate electricity.
Current solar-collection systems use mirrors configured in either a parabolic trough or dish shape to collect and reflect solar energy, says Franzke. In contrast, her invention uses a thin, flat Fresnel lens to refract energy onto a small area, increasing the device’s efficiency. In addition, Franzke’s spray system, which was inspired by technology developed by Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Tim Shedd, removes heat in one less step than the current method.
With my limited knowledge of engineering, I can mainly say “Increased efficiency… cool!” It is good to see renewable energy technologies appearing in competitions like this, and students focusing their own energies on such innovations.