A semester of sustainability

As TU continues to adopt new “green” energy policies that promote conservation and awareness, the Department of Mechanical Engineering has begun offering a course completely devoted to the study and business of energy sustainability.

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Todd Otanicar introduced the class three years ago to present students with the many energy options that are not based on fossil fuels.

 

sustainability class
Senior Jared Starkweather conducts a solar heat experiment.

“We try to make it more than just an overview class,” Otanicar said. “We focus on electricity generation vs. transportation fuels and cover solar, wind, nuclear, thermal, electric and hydro power.”

A small class size and casual learning environment encourage students to ask questions and participate in engaging discussions about energy trends. Otanicar said the goal is to teach students a fresh perspective on what they know about sustainable energy and provide a fundamental science and engineering understanding of the industry.

“We discuss what each method means, what its system looks like, the materials used and its advantages and disadvantages,” he said. “Then we’ll study the detailed science background of how it works.”

The course is the only one of its kind on TU’s campus to feature a hands-on technical aspect of sustainability. Students demonstrate technology and conduct experiments such as upcycling an old television lens by transforming it into a solar concentrator that absorbs sunlight.

“The class is another tool for their toolbox,” Otanicar said. “It teaches them the much broader social and environmental implications that we easily lose sight of as engineers.”

Students are challenged to consider economic and environmental constraints when determining cost factors and how alternative energy sources will affect the power grid. Otanicar’s lectures cover topics such as climate change and the economics of renewable energy. Students give presentations on the pros and cons of the Keystone Pipeline, fracking and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

“There are some good debates, and it’s a lot of fun to teach,” he said. “Students learn it’s not just about answering the question ‘can you make it work?’ but will people accept it?”

Last fall, mechanical engineering senior Brendan Phillips developed an interest in how energy is harvested through nuclear fission and fusion. He values what he learned along with the economic viability of sustainable energy in the future.

“If we take time to learn more about these subjects and research new methods, the technology will improve,” Phillips said. “We’ll get closer to becoming a society completely dependent on cheap, environmentally friendly sustainable energy.”