WNY college students are crafting the next big things in clean energy

“It all started with a funny observation,” Philip Odonkor said. "There are hundreds of apps for optimizing energy use on smart phones. But our homes, which use significantly more energy, can’t turn the lights off by themselves.

“So I asked, what if we had an energy saver app, but for our home? This seemingly simple idea has since matured into the focus of my Ph.D. work,” said Odonkor, who is studying in the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Odonkor is not alone in his quest to create the next big sustainability-focused solution. Students at colleges and universities across Western New York are working feverishly on innovative clean energy projects.

An algorithm that monitors a home’s clean energy usage

Odonkor’s algorithm is designed to monitor and respond to a homeowner’s clean energy habits and usage. His system identifies trends, patterns, and correlations in energy data, and then uses that information to improve the performance of a home that uses renewable energy, such as solar panels.

The project has been steadily gaining momentum over the past year. In the spring, Odonkor won two competitions at UB: 3MT, which challenged graduate students to distill and present the essence of their research to nonexperts in three minutes; and Transforming Our Tomorrow, a clean energy pitch competition for which he received $3,000.

In addition, the project has received funding from both the National Science Foundation and UB’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, whose faculty are collaborating with Odonkor.

They will be presenting some of their findings at the International Design Engineering Technical Conference later this year in Quebec. Odonkor was also selected to speak at TEDxBuffalo in October, where he hopes to “excite the audience about the role artificial intelligence will have in transforming our interactions with our homes.”

Odonkor gave the algorithm a trial run on a virtual home in Arizona. “The home wasted more clean energy than we thought was possible,” he said during his UB pitch competition presentation. “But, here’s the thing: Just like a baby learning how to walk, the algorithm started to pick up on the energy habits of the people living within the home. Once it got the hang of it, it started to do some truly amazing things.”

For example, he said, it began figuring out the energy demands of the home and linked that information with the weather forecast. Then, it determined the best times for producing and using solar energy. Excess energy was then sold back into the grid.

Odonkor said he’s encouraged that millions of people are producing clean energy in their homes. But, he adds, a new challenge looms: “How do we grant access to clean energy for everyone, not just the rich who can afford to have solar panels installed on their roofs? The next step for our algorithm is to enable collaborative clean energy sharing among multiple buildings,” Odonkor said.

So, instead of having a solar panel on every roof, multiple homes can share solar panels and battery storage among themselves. Toward that end, Odonkor and his team hope to develop an algorithm that can learn and leverage each home’s energy habits, with an eye toward creating control strategies that orchestrate how clean energy is generated, used, and stored.

“This is the future we hope to build with this algorithm, one where clean energy is accessible to everyone, in an intelligent way,” he said.

Alfred University student researches resilient community

More student-driven innovation is taking place about 90 minutes southeast of Buffalo, at Alfred University in New York’s Southern Tier, a region whose many wind turbines produce a sizable chunk of wind power in the state.

Behrouz Azimian, a graduate engineering major at Alfred, is researching how to make the surrounding area—including Alfred University, Alfred State College and the Village of Alfred—a more resilient community through wind, solar, and biomass resources.

Azimian recently presented a paper at a meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in which he and his co-authors utilized game theory to attract electricity customers.

Xingwu Wang, a professor in Alfred University’s Inamori School of Engineering who is a co-author on the paper, said Azimian’s resilient community research is particularly exciting. What’s more, Wang said, it’s students like Azimian who are going to develop the next breakthrough in clean energy.

Wang spoke at the 21st Congressional Renewable Energy Efficiency EXPO in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, where he told audience members that education is imperative, especially because many utility companies are anticipating a wave of retirements.

A new crop of tech-savvy power engineers is needed, Wang said, adding that cloud computing will become a key player in the clean energy sector in the coming years, as macrogrids will make it possible to allocate energy from one part of a country, or even a continent, to the other.

“We can move the electrical power from one side to the other, whenever, wherever it may be needed. That tells us there’s a need for research at the cloud-based computing (level),” Wang said at the EXPO. “How are you going to use cloud-based computing to move the electricity through the existing infrastructure or future infrastructure, to do it very smartly, to do it very efficiently, so you have the energy movement without any power loss?”

A more efficient wind turbine blade

Another Ph.D. candidate in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is attracting attention for his design for a more efficient wind turbine blade.

Hamid Khakpour Nejadkhaki and his colleagues in the Energy Systems Design Research Group came up with a wind turbine blade design that uses additive manufacturing to create a twisted blade instead of the traditional straight blade, thus making it more aerodynamic and efficient.

Nejadkhaki’s design also solves a significant problem associated with many wind turbines: the fact that the blades are extremely heavy and long—some as much as 260 feet—which makes them costly to ship. Nejadkhaki’s design makes it possible to build the blade at the wind turbine installation site.

The project garnered Nejadkhaki third place in UB’s Transforming Our Tomorrow clean energy pitch competition that took place in the spring. He and his colleagues have submitted a patent for their design.

Read more articles by David J. Hill.

A native of Hamburg, N.Y., David J. Hill lives in Buffalo and works in University Communications at UB. During his free time, he enjoys playing recreational kickball, sipping cold beverages on a waterfront patio, and spending time with his two adorable nieces.
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