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June 6, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 14

On the campus

Power in a box: Students’ wind turbine wins EPA grant; next stop is Africa

By Lillian Li ’13


On April 20, two professors and nine students from Princeton’s EPICS (Engineering Projects In Community Service) class drove to Washington, D.C., to meet up with a large steel shipping box that had arrived on a flatbed trailer. 

The container held Princeton’s entry in the P3 National Sustainable Design Expo, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. Dubbed Power in a Box, the turbine has solar panels and a triangular-based, telescoping 40-foot tower, on top of which rests a fan with three blades. 

The project had its origins in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when a group of Princeton ­faculty members began designing power and water sources that could be transported in a standard shipping ­container. 

The EPICS team was formed in the fall of 2010 and devoted three semesters to creating a design for a wind turbine with solar panels that could fit in a 20-foot-long box and be erected by human power alone. 

The students who enrolled in the class this spring focused their efforts on building from the blueprints. “We had a misconception that the majority of the work was done,” said Angelo Campus ’15. “This was quickly followed by the brutal realization that things go wrong and plans have to change.” 

With the deadline for the EPA Expo looming, the team had only ­two-and-a-half months to build a working model. Stress levels rose when a turbine cable snapped just days before the expo. Although the cable was fixed without difficulty, “it seemed pretty dire at the time,” said Ryan Fauber ’15. 

The team made the deadline, and many of the students said that the most memorable moment was when they first saw the turbine raised. “We’d had designs and sketches for ages, but to actually look up and see the raised tower in all its 40-foot glory, and think, ‘Wow, we made that’ — that was really something,” said Ben Chang ’14. 

While the Saturday of the competition weekend was sunny, Sunday was stormy. But the turbine — which can generate a kilowatt of power — worked at full capacity both days. The team was drenched by the pouring rain, but fortunately, colds were not all that the students brought back to Princeton: The EPA judges awarded Power in a Box a $90,000 grant.

Next up for the EPICS team is construction of a full-scale model and a partnership with the African nonprofit access: energy, which is working to bring low-cost energy sources to rural Kenya.

EPICS adviser Catherine Peters, professor of civil and environmental engineering, never doubted the chances for the 40-foot entry in the contest. “I knew if they finished, they would be successful — it was the biggest thing that was brought to the competition!”

AuthorLillian Li ’13. PHOTO: HABIN CHUNG ’12
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