Converting the most abundant source of renewable energy – the sun – into electricity is relatively costly for wide-scale use.
In an effort to make solar energy more efficient and cheaper to use, a group of UC Merced researchers have taken matters into their own hands.
Under the guidance of UC Merced professor and California Advanced Solar Technologies Institute director Roland Winston, engineering students developed the Hybrid Solar Natural Daylight System. The prototype brings concentrated sunlight into a building and then integrates it into a LED lighting system at a fraction of the cost of electricity. Similar to a hybrid vehicle, the system can switch over to provide electrical light when needed.
"Our research contains some of the most up-to-date technology in non-imaging optics," said Kevin Rico, a senior management major who has been involved with the project since spring 2007. "Working next to world-class faculty and staff has encouraged me to strive for possibilities I did not have before. A management student having access to an engineering lab of our caliber is unheard of at other campuses."
This semester, UC Merced's Service Learning Engineering and Service Learning Management and Innovation teams have taken natural daylighting one step further, trying to make the technology ready for mass consumption.
The teams are taking the prototype from the laboratory and developing a business plan and market commercialization model to make the technology available to consumers.
"Our hope is to put this technology into the public eye and give them a sense of potential applications," said Yang Li, a senior who has served as cost-benefit analysis leader for the project. "We can show them how the technology works and impart the ancillary benefits of using sunlight as a light source."
According to Li, the system's benefits are two-fold. In addition to the cost-savings of using less energy during the day and prolonging the useful lifetime of existing artificial light, using natural daylight can lead to healthier work environments, increase in productivity and increase in sales. The overwhelming results from worker surveys, retail sales preferences and student performance research indicate that people prefer to work, shop and learn in spaces illuminated with natural daylight.
The business and market commercialization plan was developed by engineering and management students using an interdisciplinary and collaborative team approach.
"This approach has allowed students to experience the entire entrepreneurial process," said S A Davis, lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. "They have taken a technology with significant market potential from the engineering laboratory through proof of concept."
Numerous vertical markets have been identified, with museums being
at the top of the list due to their need to protect artifacts from
ultraviolet light and heat from electric light sources.
The students are testing the system at the California State Mineral and Mining Museum in Mariposa and will continue to update it for a period of three to six months. During that time, the teams will work with Diane Howerton, regional director for UC Merced's Small Business Development Center Regional Network, to seek grant funding for the commercialization of the Hybrid Solar Natural Daylight technology.
"We believe that the initial proof of concept at the California State Mineral and Mining Museum will answer the questions, ‘Can the technology work, and can it be accepted by consumers,' Davis said.