Schools compete in 2003 international Future Energy Challenge


By Angela Dickson

Oct. 24, 2002 -- The proposals have been evaluated, the schools have been selected, and the 2003 Future Energy Challenge is now under way.

Nineteen college and university teams from recognized engineering programs around the country and the world have embarked on the task of developing low-cost products with broad potential for the future as a result of breakthrough engineering design innovations. The teams are vying for a share of the prizes that now total at least $125,000 to be awarded at the end of this year's competition.

The Future Energy Challenge is an international student competition for innovation, conservation and effective use of electrical energy. It is a result of collaborative efforts among the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the National Association of State Energy Officials, the Department of Energy (Office of Fossil Energy), and the Department of Defense (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineering Research and Development Center, Construction Engineering Research Laboratory), and is the first large-scale power electronics student design competition.

Other sponsors include Fuel Cell Technologies, Ontario, Canada; Advanced Energy, Raleigh, North Carolina; and the Grainger Center for Electric Machinery and Electromechanics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The competition's objective is to introduce engineering design innovations that can reduce residential electricity consumption from utility sources, or that lead to the best use of relatively scarce electrical energy in homes in developing nations.

"Only those with the kind of power electronic genius that one sees about once every ten years can win this challenge," claimed Prof. Jason Lai, the 2001 Future Energy Challenge chairman.

Student teams submitted proposals in one of two topic areas. The first involved development of a low-cost DC-AC converter for a fuel cell system. Teams were asked to design elegant, manufacturable systems that would reduce the costs of commercial interface systems to $40 per kilowatt or less.

The cheaper systems would thereby accelerate the deployment of distributed fuel cell power generation systems in homes and buildings. In addition, the teams will have to build and test a full prototype of the design that offers the potential for a practical, cost-effective hardware system.

The second topic area sought innovations in motors and motor drive systems that could cut losses and costs for home appliance use, or that could replace "universal motor" brush machines in residential appliances. The schools with the most cost-effective design that meets or exceeds the competition's aggressive cost targets and provides a fully functional prototype for either of these topics will be awarded a large prize.

In the inaugural energy challenge in 2001, a team from Texas A&M University successfully designed and demonstrated a prototype for a 10-kilowatt inverter with the potential to be manufactured for less than one-half the cost of today's commercial products.

For the 2003 competition, a further 20 percent cost reduction has been proposed, which will meet the stringent cost target for the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance, a fuel cell program aimed at generating a solid-state fuel cell module that can be produced at a cost of less than $400 per kilowatt.

These electrochemical fuel cell systems generate high-quality electricity that is virtually pollution and noise free. The expanded use of low-cost fuel cells to produce power and heat can also cut the emissions of carbon dioxide and create an alternative to costly utility grid infrastructure construction.

Small motors consume a very large fraction of the power required by the residential market. Three-phase motors and motor drives operating from single-phase power could be used to reduce in-rush currents caused when an appliance motor starts. This would also enhance motor efficiency across a wide range load.

Target hardware cost for this improvement is $40 for a combination motor/motor controller that can operate from a single-phase residential source. The combination should also deliver a rated shaft load of 500 watts at 1,500 revolutions per minute (RPM), exhibit a useful speed control range of at least 150 to 5,000 RPM, and provide power efficiency of at least 70 percent for loads ranging from 50 to 500 watts at a specified speed.

Originally driven by the need to make inverter technology competitive and attractive for U.S. industry, the Future Energy Challenge offers a broader impact on the education of undergraduate and graduate students. The challenge brings excitement to the classroom by integrating hands-on research into the educational process.

The participants learn a great deal about power electronics design and gain valuable practical expertise. The result will be the pool of high-quality, well-trained engineers and scientists available to help provide solutions to the world's energy issues.

Fourteen teams competed in the 2001 Future Energy Challenge, which successfully concluded in August 2001. The 2003 challenge has grown to nineteen teams and has gained an international scope, with more schools expected in future competitions.

Competing schools will be judged on the basis of design quality, a formal engineering report, cost and cost analysis, prototype quality and operational results. A Future Energy Challenge workshop will be held in February, in conjunction with the 2003 IEEE Applied Power Electronics Conference. The final competition will be held in May.

For more information on the 2003 International Future Energy Challenge, visit the website at http://www.energychallenge.org.

Angela Dickson is a Public Affairs Specialist with the Engineer Research and Development Center's Construction Engineering Research Laboratory of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Champaign, Ill.

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