A solar tree develops in an industrial design workshop at the University of Connecticut, the inspired result of over a year of collaboration by a multidisciplinary team of faculty and students.
The 12-foot aluminum tree will be used as a research and educational tool, while providing a place for students to stop and literally recharge.
Solar trees have been around for years and typically consist of a pipe-shaped steel base supporting rectangular overhead panels. The UConn team, however, came up with a design that artfully mimics a real tree. Several thin branches start from the base and branch upwards to support nine large leaf shapes that will hold the solar panels.
The completed installation will include three curved benches at the base of the tree for visitors to sit down and plug into one of the tree’s outlets.
“It is an aesthetic object as much as a technical object,” said Christoper Sancomb, assistant professor in the industrial design program at the School of Fine Arts and one of the organizers of the project.
The solar tree is the brainchild of Dr Jasna Jankovic, Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and who is part of the Clean Energy Engineering Center and the faculty of the Institute of Materials Science. Jankovic said she started discussing the idea with colleagues about two years ago.
The concept immediately intrigued Dr. Cynthia Jones, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
“I told him that it had always been a fantasy of mine to build a power plant and change aspects, like the shape and positioning of the leaves, to see how it affected the total electrical gain over the day,” Jones said. In other words, the electrical installation could be used to better understand photosynthesis.
Jankovich teamed up with Sancomb to request a UConn STEAM Innovation Grant to make the project a reality. The grants program encourages innovative collaborations between the arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.
They also assembled a multidisciplinary team of faculty including Jones, Dr. Sung Yeul Park, associate professor of electrical engineering, and Dr. Stacy Maddern, assistant professor of urban and community studies. The rest of the crew is made up of ten students, including two high school students.
“We all deliberately looked for an opportunity to work with people outside of our fields,” Sancomb said. “It helps to learn from each other, it sparks new ideas. “
As they began to plan the tree, the group began by asking, what would separate this solar tree from the others? They talked about creating a public sculpture that people could plug into, a meeting place that would also provide shade and seating. They saw the tree as an opportunity to educate people about solar energy, perhaps with a solar-powered kiosk with an interactive presentation on the tree.
They wanted to make it as “green” as possible. They therefore decided to use recyclable aluminum and ruled out the use of any plastic.
And, they wanted to make it portable. So although the tree weighs around 600 pounds, it is easily taken apart. The benches will contain ballast to anchor the tree to the ground in its temporary locations.
Sancomb, who has extensive experience in creating museum exhibits, oversees the construction of the tree. The metal parts of the tree have been assembled, but it is waiting for the wiring, the fixing of the solar panels, the paint, the benches and the batteries to store the energy necessary for the night lighting.
The nine flexible 50-watt solar panels (and two extras), along with two batteries, were donated by Renogy, a California manufacturer of DIY renewable energy products designed for a variety of applications.
During this time, the students of the team begin to work on a variety of “micro-projects”. For example, Pablo Zarama, 20, a materials science and engineering graduate, said he’s creating sensors that he hopes will measure optimal angles for sheet panels to maximize generation.
Vuk Jankovic, 18, a psychology graduate, said he would use the tree as the object of a study on different learning styles. Subjects will see a presentation on the tree in the classroom, remotely or through virtual reality technology. Jankovic will then test the subjects to see how well they have retained the knowledge.
And Dar Jankovic, 16, said he wanted to test whether using concave-shaped sheets with a smaller solar panel on one end and a mirror to reflect sunlight on the other would maximize efficiency.
“We want to expand on several projects,” said Jasna Jankovic. “We will continue to encourage students and teachers to come up with their own projects. “
It turns out that this tree is not suitable for the type of research Jones was interested in.
“The leaves ended up being bigger than I initially thought,” she said. “We could still do some of this work if we built a second tree that could be smaller and more flexible to adjust things for experimental purposes. “
And it is certainly possible. This tree was meant to be a prototype to test a number of factors, Jankovic said, and “we’ll be asking the National Science Foundation or some other funding agency for a bigger grant to develop this project further.” Sancomb estimates the cost of replicating the prototype tree between $ 6,000 and $ 10,000; he will not have a more precise figure until the project is finished.
The team hope to complete the tree this summer so they can make their campus debut this fall. But before that happened, Sancomb said they had another challenge: come up with a deterrent system to prevent students from climbing it.