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Students take control of energy sustainability with alternative energy symposium


Kim Gudeman

With the energy crunch of the last few years, most experts agree that renewable resources are the industry’s long-term future.

Wind turbines will play an important role in energy sustainability in the future.
Wind turbines will play an important role in energy sustainability in the future.
Wind turbines will play an important role in energy sustainability in the future.

But creating cost-effective solutions isn’t as simple as installing a solar panel or wind turbine. Proponents face many technological challenges – from determining the optimal speed of a wind turbine to connecting alternative energy to the power grid.

A group of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students has organized a symposium for industry and academia to tackle some of these problems. The Symposium on Control & Modeling of Alternative Energy Systems will be held April 2-3 at the University of Illinois’ Coordinated Science Laboratory.

“I think we’re all personally passionate about this topic and see this as a great way for us to use our engineering skills to help address these problems,” said Neera Jain, a Ph.D. student in mechanical science and engineering.

Speakers will discuss how to: • generate more power from renewable and alternative energy sources; • efficiently store and transport energy over long distances; • improve energy consumption by designing efficient motors, engines and buildings.

The conference will focus on challenges in control, a branch of engineering that looks at how systems behave.

“Even when you don’t know some crucial parameters, the algorithm still works for the most relevant cases,” she said.

With wind energy, for example, it is important that the turbine’s blades rotate at a certain speed. If the blades rotate too quickly, the mechanical structure can be damaged; if they rotate too slowly, they may not produce enough power. Control theory allows engineers to determine appropriate inputs, such as the angle of the blades, in order to obtain optimal productivity.

“We’re not designing things in an isolated way anymore,” said Shreyas Sundaram, a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering. “We not only have to consider how to build an efficient wind turbine, but how to hook it into the power grid, which hooks up to your house and car. Everything’s connected.”

The symposium will deal with such topics as green buildings, renewable grid integration, smart power grids, wind kites and much more.

Other organizers include Yoav Sharon, a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering; Kira Barton, a Ph.D student in mechanical science and engineering; and Silvia Mastellone, an Illinois graduate in industrial and enterprise systems engineering now working at Switzerland-based ABB Corporate Research.

“Our lives are so dependent on energy,” Mastellone said. “It’s exciting for me to be able to focus my ideas and my efforts on something I believe will be a gift to our future.”