Off the grid

Chico State students meld real-world engineering with sustainable design

Greg Kallio plugs in to the solar chaging station at Chico State.

Greg Kallio plugs in to the solar chaging station at Chico State.

Photo by Tom Sundgren

The best education combines classroom learning with practical experience. Being able to test theories in real-world situations—especially in technical fields, such as mechanical engineering—is invaluable.

Salam Ali, who graduated from Chico State in May, knows this first-hand. As part of the university’s Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering Capstone Design Project class, she was able to put what she learned to practical use. Ali and four fellow students, with funding from the Associated Students Sustainability Fund, created what they say is the first thin-film solar-powered charging station in America. Used to charge electronic devices, the station is powered by a 600-watt solar photovoltaic array attached to the top of umbrellas in the outdoor seating area of the Bell Memorial Union terrace.

“This is where you show what you have learned,” Ali said of the class. “You have an entire year to solve a real-world problem.”

The aim of the Capstone class, which spans two semesters, is to give students a full engineering experience by working to solve real-world problems. Students are first provided a list of potential projects, from which they make their top choices. The professor then assigns groups based on individual preferences and skills.

Many Capstone projects are funded by the university. For instance, the School of Agriculture worked with a Capstone group to build a solar dehydrator to reduce the waste of unsold produce at the University Farm. Outside sponsors also present potential projects to the class. Two years ago, Capstone students created more efficient machinery to package nut butter made by Maisie Jane’s California Sunshine Products. And in 2013-14, students helped design a self-cleaning system for solar arrays for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Many, but not all, of the projects focus on sustainability.

One thing that sets the solar charging station apart from other Capstone projects is its visibility on the campus. It’s a very real representation of what Chico State students can—and do—accomplish.

“I think this project in particular deserves credit because it was student-designed and built for students. I think they can not only come and use it, but [also] admire what our students can do,” said Greg Kallio, professor of the Capstone class and adviser for the solar project. “It exhibits what our students can do and also provides a very useful function on campus.”

Kallio was involved in the project from the beginning, after legal studies major Trenten Bilodeaux pitched him the idea.

“Trenten knew I was teaching a solar energy class and he came to me one day saying, ‘Hey, we don’t have a way to charge things outside on campus.’ And he had heard about these solar charging stations,” said Kallio.

The two submitted a proposal for funding from the A.S. Sustainability Fund and were awarded $12,000 for the project. They ultimately needed $16,000 to complete it, with the additional $4,000 coming from the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management.

Part of the cost lay in the portability and compact nature of the thin-film photovoltaic panels used to power the station. Instead of rigid silicon panels—like the ones most commonly seen on rooftops—that can weigh up to 40 pounds, the team chose MiaSole panels, which weigh only 11.1 pounds each. There are three of them attached to the station’s umbrella, and each one gives off 220 watts.

The charging station has a timer limiting when the energy is accessible—Sunday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

A project like this can take some serious organizing and time management, which is part of why it was chosen for the Capstone class. Other than the hard technical labor, project manager Ali said the bigger battle with implementing the project was going back and forth with the university on all of the required approvals.

“We didn’t know we needed permits and any sort of permission. We assumed that because it got accepted and approved by the campus planning committee and it was a project funded by the campus that everything would be fine,” she said. “We were so wrong about that.”

Aside from the organizing setbacks, the charging station came out as planned.

“How it was designed, it definitely came out how we intended. There were a few minor cosmetic changes, but that was it,” Ali said. “The entire wiring, all of what we wanted it to do, what we wanted it to sustain, turned out perfectly.”

And Ali is doing well herself. Having graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering—and a major project under her belt—she’ll be starting a job as a flight test engineer with the Naval Air Welfare Center Weapons Division in China Lake next month.