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Undergraduate researcher launches wind-powered energy project on campus

Senior mechanical engineering student Simbarashe Nyika (left), with his adviser Gary Solbrekken

Senior mechanical engineering student Simbarashe Nyika (left), with his adviser Gary Solbrekken, transformed a wind turbine into a 400-watt energy unit for his undergraduate research project.

A quick view of Engineering Building North from Sixth Street  will show you a small wind turbine on the building’s roof — in place since July 5 — the first of its kind on the MU campus. But this seemingly simple metal pole with propellers signifies more than meets the eye. For senior mechanical engineering student Simbarashe Nyika and mentor Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Gary Solbrekken, it is the start of wind-powered energy research at the College of Engineering.

Nyika spent the summer transforming the wind turbine into a 400-watt energy unit for his undergraduate research project. He said the transition from turbine to wind powered tower involved two steps — data acquisition and building the structure itself.

“Much of the preliminary work involved calculations to estimate the force of wind on the blades and determining how strong the structure should be,” Nyika said.

After proposing the project to the MU Student Sustainability Initiative Fund — generated by a $1 fee for each student — and sharing the goals of his research, Nyika received funds from the organization.

Engineering Building North was chosen as the location because it is relatively clear, with limited smokestacks and trees that would block wind.

Deciding on a 10-foot pole, Nyika then spent about three weeks in the College of Engineering machine shop fabricating the unit. The higher the pole, the faster the wind speed, and the more challenging and expensive the design.

Given previous renewable energy research at MU in the solar and thermal realms, the turbine represented a new avenue to understanding electricity generation on campus.

“There has been a big push for net zero energy buildings. Buildings use big chunks of energy and if you can generate some of the power the building uses back into its own energy you save money and resources,” Nyika said.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings, both commercial and residential, used 39.7% of energy in the U.S. in 2009, and 73% of electricity.

“Wind hasn’t been looked at extensively and we want to examine its applications on a smaller scale,” said Solbrekken. “How can you integrate this tool into a building?”

While the wind-powered turbine produces heat into a dummy load — not feeding energy back into the building — it is allowing for study and a better understanding of its potential.

“We have a lot of useful data for future projects and classes,” Solbrekken said.

Nyika, who graduated from high school in Zimbabwe and then came to MU, will graduate in December.

“I’m very interested in energy management,” Nyika said. He hopes to build power plants in the future.

As for the wind-powered turbine, Solbrekken says it will be used in multiple future projects. He plans to use some of the data collected in his aerodynamics course next semester.

“You can take it apart and modify it, that could be a potential project for another student,” he said.