Generally, cars are categorized among the contributors to the world’s dwindling energy supply.
But, using a $10,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Kansas University students are pursuing ways vehicles can become a key component in building a more energy-efficient world. The KU EcoHawks are working on a concept that would turn vehicles into miniature roving power plants.
The EcoHawks, a group of KU engineering students that focuses on building sustainable technology for vehicles and energy infrastructure, have already built solar panels and remote-control cars that operate on high-efficiency batteries.
“This is kind of a logical extension, saying, ‘Well, we’ve got solar panels, we’ve got RC cars, we’ve got batteries. Let’s see if we can make our own smart grid and demonstrate the concepts,’” said Chris Depcik, the KU assistant professor of mechanical engineering who submitted the project to the EPA.
The most significant technological advancement to the energy industry in decades, the smart grid merges telecommunication with the country’s energy power grid.
The EcoHawks plan to use the EPA grant to build a small-scale smart grid system that could transfer the solar energy from the solar panel to the electric grid. The smart grid also will be designed to draw from the energy stored in the remote-control car’s battery packs.
That technology would come in handy on hot summer days when energy demand is at its peak. To help offset the electricity being used to power air conditioners and other electronics, the solar panel energy and the energy from the car’s battery pack could be transferred to the electrical power grid.
In the evening, when the weather has cooled and the demand for energy has dropped, the car’s battery packs would be recharged with energy from the power plant.
On a large scale, the concept would make it so power plants wouldn’t have to operate at maximum capacity, a move that would reduce the need for new power plants.
“It will save consumers’ costs, it will save issues at the power plant with respect to brownouts and blackouts and, ideally, the consumer can make money off this because they look at their vehicle as a power plant,” Depcik said.
Next spring, Depcik and his students are expected to travel to Washington, D.C., to present their project, which has a chance of receiving an additional $75,000 from the EPA.
That funding would be used to renovate the EcoHawk’s research area into a model of smart grid architecture and to transfer the smart grid technology to their refitted 1974 Beetle, which runs on biodiesel and has a solar energy filling station.