Direct sunlight

Students create self-powered, moving solar panel that produces clean and efficient energy

November 30, 2016

The sun’s daily arc across the sky generally draws little notice. A clean-energy-minded group of engineering students at CU Denver, however, has devised a rotating solar panel system that spends the day doing just that – tracking the sun.

The team of students created a dual-axis moving solar panel for the upcoming Engineer Senior Design Competition in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS). It will be among the projects displayed for public – and a judging panel – viewing from 9 a.m. to noon on Dec. 16 in North Classroom.

engineering project CU Denver
A student team created this dual-axis solar panel unit that will be entered in the Engineer Senior Design Competition on Dec. 16.

“We’re excited,” said team member Laura Lucas, an electrical engineering major who graduates this December. “We chose this project because it’s an achievable goal to do in a year. Our big selling point is the clean-energy aspect, and it totally works off of its own solar power. If we get our programming right, any user can use the system without doing anything.”

Other members of the team are Christian Zubia, Joshua Jenkins and Yongyee Yang.

Follows direct sunlight

Motors on the top and base (31 inches in diameter) of the solar panel give the unit the ability to move in alignment with direct sunlight throughout the day. Lucas said her team built a photo-condenser diode, embedded with four light-sensor quadrants, that receives the rays. When struck by sunshine, the diode’s computer software analyzes the light and automatically tilts the panel in the direction of the strongest rays.

solar unit created by CU Denver students
The solar panel system is built to tilt and follow the arc of the sun in order to collect maximum sunlight each day.

The system uses a 50-watt solar panel, which can output about 26 watts of energy for a consumer – such as a homeowner – for every day it’s used. “The unit will automatically charge all the electronic devices used to power it and then deliver an energy surplus that can be used in the home or elsewhere,” Lucas said. The unit has a built-in voltage regulator that transforms the collected energy into useable energy.

‘Energy is a huge topic’

The unit also features GPS software for the inevitable cloudy days. The GPS system acts as a backup, taking over operations to align the solar panel with available sunlight.

The team expects the rotating solar panel to cost a consumer about $400 per unit. Given how efficiently it can gather and distribute energy, it’s a product that offers the potential to pay for itself many times over.

“We just wanted a project that would incorporate clean energy, and this is super-cool,” Lucas said. “Energy is a huge topic right now.”