For Students, 'Small' Innovations Mean Big Strides For Energy Efficiency

For Students, 'Small' Innovations Mean Big Strides For Energy Efficiency

3:00pm Apr 26, 2016
Forsyth Tech Nanotech team
This Forsyth Tech Nanotech team is preparing to compete in the National Science Foundation's Community College Innovation Challenge. From left to right, Jack Landgraf, Shannon Coalson, Julian Houston, Phil York, Adam Afifi, and Edward Cruz-Ortiz.
Forsyth Tech Community College
  • nano-infused, clear-plastic solar cell

    The Forsyth Tech Nanotech team measures the power generated by their specialized, nano-infused, clear-plastic solar cell.

    Forsyth Technical Community College

  • nano-infused, clear-plastic solar cell

    The Forsyth Tech Nanotech team measures the power generated by their specialized, nano-infused, clear-plastic solar cell.

    Forsyth Technical Community College

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem. Follow Shawn on Twitter @SCIFitz.

Winston-Salem is known as “the City of Arts and Innovation,” and, from what I see through SciWorks Radio, this former tobacco town has innovation down to an art form. Take, for example, this team of young students from Forsyth Tech: Shannon Coalson, Edward Cruz-Ortiz, Jack Landgraf, Adam Afifi, and Julian Houston. As one of 10 finalists in the National Science Foundation's Community College Innovation Challenge, this team is developing cost-efficient energy sources through the use of nanotechnology.

For this program, I spoke with Shannon Coalson, Jack Landgraf, and Edward Cruz-Ortiz.

Shannon Coalson: "We are working on a transparent and flexible [solar] cell. We had to devise an innovative solution for the nexus of food, energy, and water. So we decided to take our solar cell and fabricate it onto a solar greenhouse, which utilizes nanotechnology. A solar-powered greenhouse is going to save owners money on power bills, and hopefully we can have it to where it’s passing more light through to the plants."

Jack Landgraf: "We’re attempting to use a thin plastic to do so. We’re trying to tailor our plastics to be similar to the plastics that are already being used so that it’s a competitive opportunity to the people who are already using a greenhouse. They could spend, maybe, a few extra dollars to get ours and also get some energy out of it."

Coalson: "Transparent and flexible cells are definitely not a new concept.  But these prototypes are only generating about 15%, and they’re also colored. So we’re trying to get a non-colored, slightly opaque cell."

After all, a greenhouse that doesn’t pass sunlight is just a glass shed.

I asked the team to tell us a little about nanotechnology:

Edward Cruz-Ortiz:  "Nanotechnology will revolutionize the future of technology. It’s going to boom our economy as well."

Coalson: "Nanotechnology uses a unit of measure that is one-billionth of a meter. If you want to try to visualize that’s a hundred times smaller than a human hair."

Landgraf: "Nanotechnology has progressed the computer age ridiculously. They're all using nanoscience to burn small grooves into the chip, and the smaller you can make those groves, the better chip you can make."

This team is innovating by taking existing technologies, understanding their limitations when applied to a solar powered greenhouse, and designing a new material to better suit the needs of the project.

Cruz-Ortiz: "We are using the raw materials, and we're producing it ourselves. Now where we got that idea from is doing the research and from the research we apply to our project."

Coalson: "And for one of the prototypes, we are using some samples that were sent to us. And with those samples, we are comparing to what we have gotten with our prototypes already, and trying to improve it by technologies that are already out there on the market."

"For our first prototype, we took a piece of binder protector plastic which is totally transparent, we put our photoactive material on it, which has nanoparticles in it. We hooked it up and pulled a current. And so that kind of proved to us theoretically that, 'hey, we need to pursue this photoactive material and these nanoparticles that we’re working with.' And, now that we've tested it, we’re wanting to raise the efficiency. We’re wanting to make it marketable."

This is a dedicated and passionate team of young scientists and innovators. And it seems that their professors are helping to inspire the art of innovation.

Cruz-Ortiz: "Forsyth Tech has opened so many doors for us. We’re trying to do work-based learning which allows us to put hands on stuff and create something. That's what motivates me."

Landgraf: "Our teacher says, 'now make it.' A lot of students that’ll be in school for eight years, they don't ever get to make nanomaterials. We’ve been in school for a year and a half, two years, and we've already [been able] to make multiple things. So then we make the solar cell, and our teacher [is] like 'you guys should totally apply for this competition; you guys could win.' And so we sent off this proposal and then we got an email about, like, three weeks ago, and it’s like, 'hey, guess what? You guys made top 10 finalists.'"

Coalson: "We have a little over 2 months until we go to this competition. So, we have to get our literature research, our prototype, the data analysis done. We have to put together a poster and a video, and then, after that, it's just going over our results, getting ourselves mentally prepared for this competition. It should be a lot of fun."

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of UFOmusic.com.

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