College Students & the Generation of New Energy

INV March_coverRailBy Mike Drummond

Dell, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all have one thing in common. Each was started by college students.

You arguably could throw in Apple. But founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, while college age-ish when they first met in 1968, didn’t meet on campus.

Nonetheless, there’s something about dorm life, youth, junk food and technology that fuels new industries and companies.

As part of our yearlong salute to collegiate innovation and entrepreneurship, Inventors Digest has partnered with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance to showcase the 2010 March Madness for the Mind exhibit in San Francisco, March 26-27.

The NCIIA helps commercialize collegiate innovations. Up to 15 NCIIA “E-Teams” will be exhibiting at March Madness for the Mind this year.

The event at San Francisco’s Exploratorium also will serve as the launch of our sponsorship drive for the 2010 Collegiate Alt-Energy Innovation Contest. The winners will be announced during National Inventors Month in August, which this magazine co-founded in 1995.

College and college-bound students who develop low-cost alternative energy solutions will have a shot at cash and other prizes. Entrants will be required to post their innovations via a video of no more than two minutes on our sister site at Edison Nation. The deadline is June 1, 2010. We’ll be announcing details at the event and on

Why are we focusing on low-cost alternative energy?

At least 1.6 billion people – a quarter of all human beings on the planet – live without electricity.

Consider these facts from the World Bank:

  • In developing countries, about 2.5 billion people rely on wood, charcoal, animal dung and the like to meet their energy needs for cooking.
  • Indoor air pollution from the use of these types of fuels claims the lives of 1.5 million people each year, more than half of them children under the age of 5. That’s 4,000 deaths a day, more than total deaths from malaria.
  • Lack of access to electricity or power contributes to malnutrition, disease, poverty, and as the stats above show, deaths.

It’s a vicious cycle, and one that can be alleviated – we believe – through innovation and creative use of low-cost technology.

To set the stage for March Madness for the Mind and the Inventors Digest 2010 Collegiate Alt-Energy Innovation Contest, we’ve assembled a partial list of previous NCIIA E-Teams that have earned grants in the alt-energy space.

Solar Ease

SolarEaseUniversity of Pittsburgh

Grant awarded in 2009 for $20,000

High installation costs and extensive physical requirements – mounting brackets, breakers, ground connections – have kept solar energy from being widely adopted in many parts of the world.

To reduce costs and labor associated with switching to solar power, Solar Ease is developing a method to transmit solar energy wirelessly from outdoor solar panels to an indoor storage unit.

Building on a novel wireless technology called WiTricity, which is capable of transmitting energy through walls without direct cable connections, Solar Ease is in the process of creating a proof-of-concept prototype, researching target markets and applications for the technology, and moving toward commercialization by writing a business plan and securing intellectual property.

NexGEN SolarPads

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Grant awarded in 2008 for $19,000

While solar power is affordable, solar power systems required to harness the sun’s energy are expensive and have prevented many households from switching to an alternative energy source.

Additionally, the panels required to harvest sustainable solar power are themselves not sustainable – they require a large amount of energy to manufacture, and the materials are non-recyclable.

SolarPads are inexpensive, recyclable photovoltaic panels that address both these issues.  The design uses compound parabolic concentrators to widen the panels’ range and increase their concentration ratio, which means that fewer photovoltaic cells need to be used, lowering the cost.

SolarPads also use an inflatable wedge system that allows the panels to rotate to a position closest to the sun. Overall, the team is aiming for a panel that is 90 percent cheaper than similar solar panels.

ecoMOD Home Energy and Environmental Monitoring System

ecomodUniversity of Virginia

Grant awarded in 2008 for $15,000

ecoMOD is an ongoing green building project at the University of Virginia where architecture and engineering students construct affordable, modular homes that use up to 50 percent less energy than similar houses. To date, ecoMOD has built five houses, funded by a variety of non-profits, corporations and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The team is now developing a low-cost, wireless home-energy monitoring system that provides real-time feedback on energy use, and has the capability to adjust thermostat and ventilation settings based on whether the residents are home. It also enables peak load shedding of selected appliances based on price signals from the utility.

Solar Lighting Systems for Remote Rural Communities

solarLightingCooper Union

Grant awarded in 2008 for $18,500

This team is developing affordable, solar powered lantern kits that can be combined with locally available materials – even recycled household items, such as coffee cans – to create safe, efficient lighting solutions for remote rural communities in northern Ghana.

These kits may be sold by local entrepreneurs. Students in this team have traveled to Ghana and are still perfecting their lanterns and charging stations.

STG International

stgMassachusetts Institute of Technology

Grant awarded in 2007 for $20,000

STG International is developing an inexpensive solar generator for powering off-grid communities in the developing world. The team’s device meets a range of commercial and residential energy needs – heating, cooling and electricity – unlike standard photovoltaic panels, which only produce electricity.

Using common, inexpensive auto parts and plumbing supplies, the generator works by using sun-tracking parabolic mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a pipe containing liquid antifreeze.

The refrigerant is heated and vaporized through a heat exchanger, driving a turbine-alternator assembly to generate electricity. Wasted heat is captured by a condenser and used to heat water. Altogether, the system costs about $3,000 and produces enough energy to power an off-grid school, health clinic or community center in the developing world.


SMIT–Solar Ivy

solarIvyPratt Institute

Grand awarded in 2006 for $14,700

Solar Ivy’s GROW is a hybrid solar and wind system designed to resemble ivy vines.  GROW panels consist of flexible photovoltaic foil “leaves” and piezoelectric generators.  The foil produces solar energy, and the motion of the leaves activates the piezoelectric generators to generate wind energy.

The Solar Ivy team was the first to come out of Pratt Institute’s Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology (SMIT) group, and has partnered with a solar foil manufacturer, DayStar Technologies and a piezoelectric manufacturer, Face International.

Solar Ivy intends for GROW to be an aesthetically pleasing alternative to traditional solar panels and wind turbines, and intends for the panels to be available in both commercial and residential markets in the developed and developing worlds.



iconservepaPennsylvania State University

Grant awarded in 2005 for $15,750

i-conserve is an energy conservation solution for small businesses and homes to address the lack of inexpensive, easy-to-use energy monitoring products. The system consists of a wireless sensor network of modules (outlets), a base station that acts as the network’s information hub, and software that modifies energy settings to maximize efficiency, as well as providing tips to system users.

The i-conserve base station, a USB ZigBee dongle, allows a computer to communicate with the ZigBee mesh network. ZigBee is a new advancement in wireless sensor network technology that represents a reduction in cost and power consumption.



greasecarHampshire College

Grant awarded in 1995 for $14,225

What started as an E-Team called Bio-logic Fuel System, Greasecar developed a kit that enables conventional diesel engines to run on unrefined waste vegetable oils.

Biofuels such as these have come into the spotlight over concerns regarding fossil fuel availability, pollution, costs of pollution control and other environmental issues.

Greasecar now has 15 employees and annual sales of more than $1.2 mill