Solar Ease Wins Our Alt-Energy Contest
By Mike Drummond
Combining the power of the sun with wireless technology, five students from the University of Pittsburgh dared to conceive of a new way to deliver clean electricity.
This year the students developed their own take on “WiTricity” and built a prototype that could power devices wirelessly with solar energy.
This feat earned the team top honors in the Inventors Digest 2010 Collegiate Alt-Energy Challenge. The students collectively will receive $2,000 and other prizes.
A tip of the hat goes to lead sponsor LegalZoom, the nation’s leading online legal document service, offering patent, copyright and trademark filing services, as well as business-formation and will and trust forms.
The team calls its technology Solar Ease, but there’s nothing easy about rigging a solar panel to wirelessly beam usable electrical current.
“We noticed that installation of solar panels on a house requires a wired connection and you need to drill holes through walls,” says Xiaoyu Liu, 28, one of two electrical engineering majors who worked on the project. “Most homeowners don’t want to drill holes in walls.”
Patent-pending Solar Ease uses thin coils initially designed for medical applications. The coils generate a magnetic field, which captures power generated from solar or photovoltaic panels and delivers the juice to outlets or devices.
Liu envisions that the light and easy-to-install coils could be embedded in walls or ceilings, bathing entire rooms with enough power to run laptops, vacuums and other household appliances.
“Our dream would be to have every house fitted with a solar panel with our wireless coils to power appliances,” he adds, “and connected to the grid so homeowners could sell power back” to the utilities.
The technology faces major hurdles, however. Most significantly, Solar Ease coils are inefficient at converting solar power to usable AC power. In a phrase, a lot gets lost in the translation.
“We can power a light bulb,” says Liu, “but we can’t power a laptop. We still have to optimize the coils so we don’t lose so much power.”
University of Pittsburgh MBA student Allison Fromm, 34, was interested in combining her interest in finance with renewable energy. She found an ideal match with the Solar Ease team, which blended engineering, business and legal minds much like a “real world” startup.
Her role and that of colleague Soeb Contractor was to find commercialization possibilities. The pair toured solar facilities and met with venture capitalists, among others.
While she says she enjoyed her interaction in the lab and met a fascinating network of professionals, the cold reality is that Solar Ease could be years away from commercialization, if ever.
“Wireless transmission isn’t the most efficient way to ferry power,” she says, adding that she was disappointed to learn that the production of photovoltaic panels remains expensive and often entails using toxic chemicals.
Silicon, commonly used to make solar panels, is an element found in silica. But processing silica to produce silicon is a high-energy process. It takes one to two years for a conventional solar cell to generate as much energy as was used to make the silicon it contains.
Despite that sobering fact, Fromm is optimistic solar panels will evolve and improve, and Solar Ease wireless power transmission will find a place in the market.
“I’d like to see it used for standalone applications,” she says. “A TV mounted on a wall, or a home security system, and power them wirelessly.”
The Solar Ease team rounded out its business and engineering talents with the budding legal expertise of Austin White, 28.
His job included exploring licensing, trademark, technology transfer, disclosure risk and other intellectual property issues.
“We had to look at what we wanted to reveal” to technology companies, he says.
Because the discussions were broad based, the team did not use non-disclosure agreements.
“We touched on the surface and explained what we had and what we could do in an informal meeting,” White says. “It was more like having a dialog of what we could do and what was possible.”
Entrepreneurial companies tended to focus on power-transfer inefficiencies and bored in on trying to figure out how to use the technology to turn a profit. Not surprisingly, researchers and academics whom the team approached were excited about the theoretical potential of Solar Ease.
White says his role also entailed reading a lot of patents.
“Reading claims and trying to figure out the bounds of other patents was a daunting task,” he says. “But it also was exciting. You look at patents that … give you other ideas for new inventions.
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“It’s a whole different world reading patent applications as opposed to studying them in a classroom.”
Likewise, working with others in disparate disciplines was “a wake-up call to how things work, or how they should work, when approaching product development.”
His dream application would be to see Solar Ease used in mass transit or in some sort of transportation context.
Clearly, solar wireless power transmission faces efficiency and deployment hurdles and is not ready for prime time.
Why then, with the nearly 100 submissions in the alt-energy Web video challenge, did it win the grand prize from Inventors Digest?
For starters, the scope of its work, including building a working prototype, best embodied the spirit and wording of the contest criteria – the potential for low-cost, highly deployable clean energy.
The University of Pittsburgh team was willing to think big and bold for the betterment of humanity, the planet and, yes, commerce.
One of the maxims of this magazine is that product development is a team sport. Solar Ease, which brought together engineering, business and legal disciplines, is a great example of this practical approach.
Innovation belongs to the inspirational, the risk takers, the makers and the doers of things. The Solar Ease team members demonstrated all these things. So the prize belongs the them.
And the Winners Are …
A five-member team from the University of Pittsburgh won Inventors Digest’s 2010 Collegiate Alt-Energy Challenge.
Soeb Contractor – business & finance
Allison Fromm – business & finance
Steven Hackworth – engineer
Xiaoyu Liu – engineer
Austin White – legal
The faculty advisor was Mingui Sun
Catch the high-energy Solar Ease video at www.inventorsdigest.com/?p=3042
University Startups Conference 2010
The National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer hosts its annual international conference Dec. 1-3, in Washington, D.C.
The University Startups Conference is dedicated exclusively to creating and funding globally-competitive, venture-backable university startups. It brings together universities creating startups with VCs, angel investors, SBIR program managers and Fortune 500 technology scouts funding them. The conference also includes various government agencies working to improve the economy by increasing the quality and quantity of startups coming out of universities.
If you’re a college student or academic looking to commercialize your technology, this conference may be for you.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the November 2010 print edition.