Senior project sheds new light on the RIT campus

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A. Sue Weisler

Jeff Hoover, left, Jessie Gmeinder and Chris Chaput, fifth-year mechanical engineering majors in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, are part of a 10-person team that designed a wind-turbine-powered walkway light as a multidisciplinary senior-design project. The light, turbine and control box were permanently installed near F Lot and Cross Campus Drive last month.

It’s a green light, but it doesn’t signal “go.” That’s because it’s “green” environmentally, not in hue.

To most passersby, the wind-powered walkway light—the only one of its kind on campus—and its telltale “flutter-effect” sound have gone largely unnoticed, guesses Jessie Gmeinder, a fifth-year mechanical engineering major in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering and member of a team of RIT students that designed and, last month, installed the illuminator as part of a senior-design project.

But being in the limelight wasn’t the students’ aim. Rather, their project—one of seven in a new sustainable design and product-development track for multidisciplinary senior design—focused on exploring the capabilities and limitations of sustainable technologies on the RIT campus and determining their feasibility for widespread use.

Air supply

Gmeinder, the chief engineer on the 10-person team of mechanical engineering and industrial and systems engineering students, and Jeff Hoover, a fifth-year mechanical engineering major, recently showed off the walkway light on an atypically balmy April afternoon. As if on cue, a gusty wind kicked up, causing the carbon-fiber-composite-reinforced blades of an AIR-X wind turbine atop a lamppost to rotate into a blur. The resulting flutter—no louder than the engines of most passing automobiles on Cross Campus Drive—was barely discernible.

Pedestrians using a pathway adjacent to F Lot probably notice the large control box mounted near the bottom of the post more so than the whir of the 46-inch diameter rotors mounted 17 feet above their heads. Behind the padlocked door of the control box are an ammeter, analog and digital voltmeters, and two 12-volt deep-cycle batteries that are connected “in parallel”—both accepting power generated by the wind turbine and supplying power to the 20-watt light-emitting diode (commonly termed LED) lamp. Or, as Gmeinder explains, “The turbine talks to the batteries and the batteries talk to the light.” (The enthusiastic Gmeinder is as comfortable talking ‘tech’ as she is at explaining what it means in layman’s terms.)

The 13-pound, 400-watt-output wind turbine—made of aircraft-quality aluminum alloy castings—can generate power from as little as a breeze of seven miles per hour or from wind gusts of up to 30 mph. (At speeds higher than 30 mph, an electric brake stops the blades to prevent overcharging the battery and over-revving that could damage the blades and bearings, and to keep electrical components safe from a current spike.) A photocell—a device that detects daylight—turns on the light after dark (just like most streetlights).

None of it would be possible without a sturdy lamppost and concrete base—both provided, at no cost to students, by RIT Facilities Management Services, which assumes guardianship of the light after students graduate this month. Additionally, James Watters, RIT senior vice president for finance and administration, approved project funding of $3,500. (The project is currently under budget, Gmeinder notes with a sense of satisfaction. )

RIT is looking at numerous ways to reduce the university’s reliance on power from carbon-producing sources, Watters told the senior-design team at a May 4 presentation. “This is a terrific project,” he remarked.

A bright future

An active student at RIT, Gmeinder has served as president of the student section of the Society of Women Engineers and chair of the RIT student section of the Rochester chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. As a tour guide for the Department of Mechanical Engineering, she also serves as an unofficial ambassador for RIT.

“I love RIT—I think it’s a great school,” she says, adding that she believes she received her money’s worth through opportunities to explore varied technologies, the personal attention she received from her professors, and RIT’s co-op program, facilities and dedicated faculty members who know their students by name. “It’s not so big that you get lost.”

On campus tours for prospective and accepted students, some of who may be seeing RIT’s bricks for the first time, she relishes saying, “We don’t have marble columns in our library, but we do have all the latest software on our computers.”

After earning her B.S./M.E. this month, Gmeinder will waste no time getting to work. On June 4, she begins in a position in upstream technology with the Corporate Engineering Technologies Lab of Procter & Gamble Co., in Cincinnati.

Rochester’s natural resources

Wind is typically aplenty in the Rochester area, which also boasts another natural resource in abundance: Genesee River water. Because of the nearby campus asset, the team is also exploring the feasibility of another sustainable technology, a heating and cooling system for Riverknoll Apartments utilizing geothermal heat pumps and Genesee River water (in essence, brown river water would be converted to green energy).

“This system will cost more initially but the yearly electricity costs will be significantly less compared with conventional air conditioning,” predicts Kevin Costantini, a fifth-year industrial engineering major.

While that part of the project is on the drawing board, the wind turbine-powered walkway light is a reality. Will more wind turbines be sprouting on campus lampposts—and possibly even on some posts on your street? After completing a 30-year life-cycle analysis, the verdict is in: Due to the high cost of fixtures and batteries, it’s still cheaper to buy electricity.

But the conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean that wind turbine-powered lights aren’t in our future. Gmeinder says that a single turbine and proper battery setup could possibly power multiple street or walkway lamps, and mass production would lower the cost per unit—making this a “green” idea that’s ripe for future development.

In a recent random sample of passersby, more than three-quarters of those polled replied that they liked the wind-powered walkway light, while not a single respondent had an unfavorable opinion of it.