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A Boost for Solar Power

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    Connor Hanrahan (right), conducted research for his physics capstone project in Alaska last summer with Bill O'Brien, associate professor of physics (left) and Southwestern graduate Matt Heavner.

Student, professor and Southwestern graduate participate in joint research project in Alaska

Solar power isn’t something you would expect to find in Alaska, where some cities can be cloudy 280 days a year.  But for scientists trying to conduct research in remote areas of Alaska, there aren’t many other ways to power the instruments they need.  

A Southwestern student, professor and graduate recently teamed up on a research project that might help make more power available to researchers working in these remote areas.  

The project began when Bill O’Brien, associate professor of physics, noticed that the yachting community was using a new type of device to boost the output of electricity from solar panels.  

Charge controllers are devices about the size of a deck of cards that make sure batteries connected to solar panels don’t get overcharged or over discharged. While a new generation of charge controllers with more advanced functions are being used by some industries, they have not been used in remote areas because no information was available on their reliability under harsh conditions.  

“If a charge controller doesn’t work, researchers might lose weeks worth of data,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien has a former student who conducts research in one of the harshest environments there is – the Juneau Icefield in Alaska.  

Matt Heavner, a 1993 Southwestern graduate who earned a Ph.D. in geophysics, is involved with the Southeast Alaska Monitoring Network for Science, Telecommunications, Education and Research (SEAMONSTER ) – a NASA-funded project that is using a web of “smart” sensors to collect a variety of data on the icefield.  

O’Brien visited Heavner in Alaska during his sabbatical in fall 2008 to discuss the possibility of testing a new type of charge controller on the icefield. The companies that manufacture the new charge controllers claim they can boost the efficiency of solar panels by 30 percent, and O’Brien wanted to see if this was true.

The project continued in the summer of 2009 when O’Brien returned to Alaska with senior physics major Connor Hanrahan, who took up the research for his capstone project.  

“Without Matt, it is unlikely that we would have found such a neat research project, and even if we had, we would not have felt at home in Alaska,” Hanrahan said.  

Hanrahan said Heavner got him in a helicopter the second day he was in Alaska to fly up to one of the sensor-web sites on top of Lemon-Creek Glacier. Later in the summer, Heavner took him up to Haines, Alaska, to ride with his team in the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay. He also had him and O’Brien, along with others from the SEAMONSTER project, over to his house for home-brewed beers and burgers.  

“It was great to work with a Southwestern alumnus, “Hanrahan said. “There was a common respect based on the understanding that we were both scholars here.”  

Unexpected circumstances prevented Hanrahan and O’Brien from completing their research in Alaska, so they finished it with solar panels placed on top of the Fondren Science Building last fall. They found that new charge controller delivered 10-25 percent more power. It was especially more effective in cloudy weather, which should bode well for use in Alaska.

“Twenty five percent more power during the year would be a significant increase,” Hanrahan said.

Hanrahan and O’Brien presented their research at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last December. Since then, O’Brien said researchers in Alaska have bought one of the new controllers to test.  

“The work that Connor and Bill did up here is of huge help to Alaskan researchers and polar/glacier researchers,” Heavner said. “Many Alaskans live ‘off the grid’ and make use of alternative energy sources. I’ve encouraged Connor and Bill to share their results with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.”

Heavner said the project helped “a great deal” with a glacier research project that a University of Alaska undergraduate just completed.