Faster Than the Wind

Faster than the Wind

Innovative Engineers turn on the power

Imagine a worldwide blackout that lasts several days. Electricity simply vanishes, causing power plants—coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric—to suspend operations. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, wave and tidal also refuse to work. Even electrochemical batteries and diesel-powered generators—vehicular, home and commercial—cease to function.

Think of life with no lights, no TV, no computers, no appliances, no AC or forced-air heat, no hot water, and no way to charge your smartphone or iPad. Plumbing will be a problem, too, with well and municipal water pumps down for duration. Food, gas, waste collection, law enforcement, telecommunications, the full scope of goods and services, will slink off the map as market, industrial and civic infrastructures begin to collapse. A million complications all linked to the power void will manifest and cause suffering, bewilderment, terror and chaos. Luckily, electricity as an operative physical phenomenon miraculously reappears one morning, and the outage browns out as an ugly but dismissible memory.

Now imagine that same power failure with no beginning and no end in sight. That’s what it’s like for 20 percent of the world’s population, or roughly 1.4 billion people who don’t have access to electricity, with the majority living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Another 2.5 billion rely on biomass, aka organic matter used as fuel, for cooking. They live in a lost world separated from a human timeline that puts less than 200 years between the first electric battery (1800), the first industrial electric motor (1837), the first nuclear power station (1954) and the first U.S. wind farm (1980). Innovative Engineers, a new student club at Dakota County Technical College, is working on a project to connect adopted communities to that timeline for the very first time.

“The Innovative Engineers chapter at DCTC has more than forty student members from seven programs of study,” said Ron Gruenes, an Electrical Construction and Maintenance Technology instructor who has taken a lead role as one of the club’s 11 faculty and staff advisors. “We are in the process of constructing a one-kilowatt wind turbine on the college’s Rosemount campus. Our goal is to use the knowledge and skills students and faculty develop from the project to install similar turbines in communities in Central America that are off the electrical grid.”

Mike Opp, dean of transportation and technical careers, helped get the Innovative Engineers club started at DCTC. He was astonished to learn that millions and millions of people around the world do not have access to a utility the vast majority of U.S. households take for granted. He went around to his technical program labs and classrooms and spoke to students about the opportunity to learn by doing and then apply the result of that learning to help people in need through service-learning projects.

“One of our former students, Alejandro De La Mora, co-founded the original Innovative Engineers club at the University of Minnesota,” Opp said. “That club has already installed a one-kilowatt wind turbine at La Hermita, a tiny village in Nicaragua. They came to us and pointed out how an Innovative Engineers chapter at DCTC would be a great fit. We’ve got the right programs—welding, civil engineering tech, lineworker, concrete, electrical and more. Our students jumped at the chance to build the turbine. They are looking forward to creating something that will make a real difference in the standard of living of an entire community.”

Speech Communication Instructor Georgina LorenczGeorgina Lorencz, a speech communication instructor at the college, is working with Opp to set up the service-learning project that will eventually take Innovative Engineers to another country. Originally from Ghana, a nation of 24 million people in West Africa, Lorencz has more than 16 years of experience establishing and managing study abroad programs, including her work with Winona State University, a DCTC sister institution in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. She also conducts professional cultural tours and safaris, having led groups to a host of foreign lands, including Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, Egypt, Senegal, Costa Rica and more. Her daughter, Nadia, a track and gymnastics phenom at Farmington High School, is set to follow in her mother’s footsteps by taking a trip to Accra, Ghana’s capital, in August 2012.

“Getting the opportunity to travel, study and work in other countries and experience diverse cultures firsthand is vitally important for young people,” Lorencz said. “They broaden their perspectives and become more adaptable as they learn how to function in different settings.”

Lorencz noted that future Innovative Engineers will be ambassadors for the college and the state of Minnesota. Their volunteer work will allow them to grow as individuals both personally and professionally while they make connections with people in other lands that will last a lifetime.

“Right now, we are exploring locations in Honduras and El Salvador,” Lorencz said. “We are even looking at ways to provide electrical power for orphanages. Each Innovative Engineer who decides to volunteer for the service-learning project will receive a pre-trip orientation that involves learning about the history, culture, people, and dos and don’ts of the country they will be working.”

The Innovative Engineers 1KW Turbine Project
Wind turbine pole and Sonotube form prior to pouring concrete

Students from several different instructional programs* are in the process of building and installing a 1KW wind turbine that will be located on the southwest sector of the college’s Rosemount campus near the Electrical Lineworker program area. The project is multidimensional with chapter members dividing up into subcommittees to focus on various aspects of research, design, development and fabrication. They are basically building the turbine from scratch, following blueprints from Homebrew Wind Power: A Hands-on Guide to Harnessing the Wind.

Winds of change

Mike Buck, an Electrical Construction and Maintenance Technology instructor and IE faculty advisor, worked with fellow instructors and advisors, Ron Gruenes and Bruce Hansberger, and their teams of students to construct key turbine components such as an epoxy stator, copper coil windings and a magnetic rotor.

“We are following the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed,” Buck said. “We’ve got the energy of the wind that moves the turbine blades, causing permanent magnets in the rotor to rotate past copper windings in the stator. The resulting magnetic field induces voltage in a conductor. Simply put, the energy of the wind isn’t lost. It’s just been turned into electricity.”

“One of the biggest challenges we faced was working with rare earth magnets. They are incredibly powerful and can snatch tools right out of your hands.”
—Chad Brown, 23, Frederic, Wis. | Electrical Construction and Maintenance Technology

The project coalesces

Welding Technology instructors, Tim Felch and Josh Heibel, each fielded student teams covering different aspects of the project that required precision torching and welding. Felch’s students worked on the hinged base and pole; Heibel’s handled the tail frame.

“This project is coming together like pieces of a puzzle,” Felch said. “My students learned about teamwork and how to adapt to a flexible timeline.”

“My students liked the idea of fabricating a usable product,” Heibel added. “Real-world projects, especially service-learning, provide benefits for everyone involved.”

“We used AutoCad to draw out the design for about a dozen pieces needed for the project. I used a CNC (computer numerical control) plasma cutter to cut the pieces out of quarter-inch steel plate. We are definitely looking forward to getting the turbine up and running.”
—Alex Nelson, 23, Apple Valley, Minn. | Welding Technology

Blade: Trinity

“Finding just the right wood to make the three blades for the turbine was not an easy job,” said Alan Hancock, a Civil Engineering Technology instructor and IE advisor. “The grain needed to be perfectly aligned for each piece of two-by-eight lumber. Each blade had to be cut with absolute precision with the weight for all exactly the same.”

AutoCad Civil 3D was used to incorporate a design that allows the blades to catch the wind and pick up speed. “The blades actually spin faster than the wind,” Hancock said.

Wood Finishing Technology Instructor Mitch Kohanek brought in one of his best students to craft the blades. The student, Tanner Murchison, operates a shop in New Prague, Minn., where he builds and repairs guitars and also refurbishes furniture. He worked every day after school on the blades, becoming a one-man assembly line. Final sanding of the blades, which are made from fir, will be accomplished by Hancock’s CET students.

“Working on the blades taught me how wind turbines function. I was able to use my woodworking knowledge on a great project requiring a very high degree of precision.”
—Tanner Murchison, 21, New Prague, Minn. | Wood Finishing Technology

CET marks the spot

Civil Engineering Technology students took on the task of finding just the right location for the wind turbine. They had to consider a range of factors, including safety, accessibility, nearby obstacles, traffic patterns, campus operational requirements, weather and topography. They created a topographical map and conferred with other IE subcommittees to settle on the ideal coordinates.

“We learned a lot about project management as we went through the process of building the turbine. The needs of each group involved in the project had to be integrated into the whole. All of us enjoy working on a project with a real-world application.”
Kevin Thomsen, 32, Eagan, Minn. | Civil Engineering Technology

Up and online

Electrical Lineworker Instructor Steve Addy also serves as an IE faculty advisor. His students have been involved in the installation of the turbine. “We’ve been working with Paul Geisler and his Concrete and Masonry students,” Addy said. “We provided and transported the pole, and bored the hole using the auger on our digger derrick.”

Geisler’s students set rebar in the Sonotube form, poured concrete in the form, and poured the support slab for the turbine’s pole. The plan is to get the turbine up and spinning before summer. Work on harnessing and managing the turbine’s generated power will continue during fall semester. Onsite at the host community abroad, the wind turbine will function for the most part as a charging station.

“I’ve  worked in the wind energy industry at LM Wind Power in Grand Forks. The turbine project at DCTC has been a great experience.”
—Kyle Varnson, 22, Grand Forks, N.D | Electrical Lineworker

“Our goal is to master building and installing turbines while learning how to best utilize their power,” Geisler said. “We then want to bring the project to communities that have no access to electrical power. Our students are happy to be part a real-life project like this. They will not only travel on location to set up a turbine, but will also show people how to use, maintain and repair it. The idea of helping out a community without electricity is just phenomenal.”

Wind turbine update

Innovative Engineers assembled May 8, 2012, to raise the turbine and get its blades spinning. Club members and faculty advisors from the various committees celebrated when the operation came together without a hitch.

* Nanoscience Technology, Biomedical Equipment Technology and Energy Technical Specialist programs also participate in Innovative Engineers at DCTC.

Innovative Engineers started at the U of M

Former DCTC student and Blue Knights soccer star, Alejandro De La Mora, co-founded Innovative Engineers at the University of Minnesota. De La Mora received the U of M 2011 President’s Student Leadership and Service Award and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. He went on to work for Schlumberger, the world’s leading supplier of technology, information and project management solutions to the oil and gas industry, in Horseheads, N.Y. To learn more, read “Energy to Learn” in Real Magazine or on YouBlue.

DCTC belongs to important wind energy consortium

Dakota County Technical College is a founding member of the Eolos Wind Energy Research Consortium. Led by the University of Minnesota, the consortium held a public commissioning of the U of M Eolos Wind Energy Research Station at UMore Park. The research station was the result of an $8 million U.S. Department of Energy grant. The station’s centerpiece new 2.5 MW wind turbine is located just southeast of the college’s Rosemount campus. To learn more, read “Eolos Celebrates Commissioning of Wind Research Field Station” on the U of M website or visit the Eolos website.

DCTC Innovative Engineers 1KW Wind Turbine Project Gallery

For more information about Innovative Engineers at DCTC, contact:
  • Mike Opp
    Dean of Transportation Careers and Technical Careers
  • Ron Gruenes
    Electrical Construction and Maintenance Technology Instructor