The Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) vehicles that are ubiquitous on the University Park campus currently plug into the power grid for a recharge. But someday they may be plugging into solar charging stations built and designed by USC Viterbi School of Engineering undergraduates.
A preview took place on Dec. 6, when 32 juniors and seniors in the “Alternative Energy Engineering” class set up an array of eight solar panels in brilliant sunshine, generating a 1,200-watt flow of energy into batteries and a waiting GEM vehicle.
To open the demonstration, the group diverted a small trickle of the energy flow into a boombox, which thumped out a rousing solar-powered rendition of “Here Comes the Sun.”
Professor Alice Parker of USC Viterbi’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering taught the class. Gordon Roesler, director for energy research at USC Viterbi’s Information Sciences Institute, provided assistance, along with associate professor Katherine Shing of the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.
The class project was to create a temporary solar installation that could capture enough energy to recharge the GEM cars. And the class did so.
The class also focused on solar energy because, Parker said, “it is a critically important area. And it is totally interdisciplinary. So interdisciplinary that you can’t make contributions without knowing about multiple areas.“
The parameters of the project evolved through a continuing conversation and evolution that involved multiple USC entities.
Initially, the idea was for the students to create a fixed solar charger attached to a campus building. But practical issues complicated that approach. For a variety of reasons brought up by nonacademic stakeholders (security, safety, regulatory issues and others), the class instead designed a portable station with movable panels that performed a demonstration charge.
Parker insisted that the class deal with these kinds of issues: “It is out of the lab,” she said. “The students have to make tradeoffs: The decisions are not easy or clear. That’s what engineering life is like, and they have to be exposed to it.”
Other practical issues also came into play. During the semester, the class heard from Michael Bass MS ’85, MBA ’99, project manager at eSolar, who offered perspectives on the nonengineering issues involved in alternative energy solutions along with an overview of solar thermal technologies, an alternative to the photovoltaic panels used by the class.
Parker noted that the class embodied the vision of USC Viterbi dean Yannis C. Yortsos: “It is interdisciplinary Engineering+,” she said. “It is work on one of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges; it is entrepreneurial, and it follows a vision of technology leading societal change.
“These are the students who will be leaders,” she added, “providing interdisciplinary solutions to real social problems.”
Parker was not the only professor delighted with the results.
“I’m following Alice’s lead,” Roesler said. “Give the students information, and get out of their way. They are bright, creative and inquisitive. Teaching the course and watching them build solar panels has been a tremendous amount of fun.”
Roesler and Parker were grateful to David Kang, an executive at CSI Electrical Contractors, who contributed advice and input throughout the class, including a visit the day before the demonstration, helping with issues of safety, adherence to commercial standards and other necessities.