UT engineering students win international design competition

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Taylor Zhao

With an effort to change the world through cleaner energy resources, three engineering students won the Shell Ideas360 international design competition with their product Smart Panels, which offers a simple solution to the current issue of cost in solar energy technology.

By attaching a solar panel to coils built from memory alloys that contract when heated, the panel is able to pivot in the direction of the sun and track its movement throughout the sky. Since the product itself is powered by radiative heating, their design is more efficient and less costly than current tracking systems, said mechanical engineering senior Mandeep Patel in the team’s pitch video.

Patel said he started studying solar power technology in high school. Recently, given the help of his teammates, Patel was able to expand his idea into product development.

“Smart Panels was an idea I developed and patented,” Patel said.  “But it would’ve stayed as a prototype (on) paper without the contributions of my team members.”

Taylor Zhao, an electrical and computer engineering senior, and biomedical engineering senior Malvika Gupta worked with Patel to create the design.

Since it is readily available and simple to collect, Gupta said solar energy is a quintessential resource.

“There is a lot investment in solar energy happening in both developed and developing economies,” Gupta said. “Despite all of this, solar panels can sometimes seem inaccessible because of their high costs, so our goal was to make the ability to capture and utilize solar energy more attainable for everyone.”

Improving the efficiency of renewable energy resources, such as solar power, is a crucial step for a cleaner energy future, said Zhao.

“The population will continue to grow at an alarming rate and their need for energy will just grow exponentially as electronics become more ubiquitous throughout society,” Zhao said. “The way we power these systems have a huge impact on our environment and air. Finding a way to reduce the costs of renewable energy is essential to increasing its adoption in society.”

After additional testing, the team plans to search for regions that will benefit from the product and eventually start a company to make their design a larger reality.

With more than 750 entries from over 144 countries, Team Smart Panels won the overall competition as well as the Audience Choice Award, voted for by Shell Ideas360’s online community.

“I flew to London less than 24 hours after my graduation ceremony and commencement, and it meant a lot to me to be able to represent the University as a student for one last time,” Gupta said. “Participating in competitions like this really makes you appreciate the amount of support that the University has given us for this project and the strength of the engineering program as a whole.”