Utah State University computer scientist Nicholas ‘Nick’ Flann has long been inspired by the simple elegance of Victorian mechanical technology. He recalls childhood visits to steam engine demonstrations with his railway enthusiast father in his native England.
“I was fascinated with these machines,” Flann says. “They were very complex, yet designed with style and precision.”
Flann applied the same approach to the development of a solar tracker for energy and shade, for which he was recently awarded a patent by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Named “Sun Catcher,” the tracker is purely mechanical.
“I envisioned a device as simple and inexpensive as a piece of lawn furniture, yet versatile enough to address the challenge of following the sun over the seasons and during each day,” he says.
Sun Catcher combines these qualities to provide a platform on which to place a solar panel to generate energy for electricity and heating, as well as shade for cooling. Constructed from steel and aluminum tubes – similar in technology to an umbrella – the tracker follows the sun much as flowers pirouette in sunlight. Rather than using fixed, inaccessible, heavy panels on a roof or locked into an expensive, unmovable concrete base, Flann’s device is flexible, lightweight and modular.
“By enabling the panels to move with the sun over the course of the day allows them to gather as much energy as possible, including more valuable energy in the mornings and evenings, when demand is highest,” he says.
Flann’s brightly colored prototypes grace his front yard and resemble artistic kinetic sculptures more than workhorses. Yet Sun Catcher solves a major expense problem on current tracking technology, which typically requires two motors per tracker. Sun Catcher, in contrast, can run multiple sun trackers on one motor by using an ingenious cable pull system, similar to brakes on a bicycle.
“It has a tremendous economy of scale,” says Flann, associate professor in USU’s Department of Computer Science. “Imagine the cost savings of such a device for giant solar panel farms and other commercial installations.”
Flann’s vision also encompasses the needs of individual households and developing countries.
“I’m very motivated to increase accessibility to clean energy and to make clean energy a viable option for everyone on the planet,” he says. “The simplicity of this inexpensive solution makes it ideal for remote communities.”
Imagine, Flann says, being able to generate electricity to light, heat and cool your home, heat water, charge your electric bike or car – all from one simple device – independent of a utility company.
“It’s economic, it’s safe, it’s clean and it frees consumers from an unreliable or inaccessible energy grid,” he says.
“We’ve seen the consequences, both short and long-term, of fossil-fuel dependent energy sources, particularly when strained state and municipal resources are dealing with extreme cold and heat events or natural disasters,” Flann says. “This simple technological approach places clean energy in the hands of ordinary people, which helps us address climate change, but also gives people wealth and independence.”
Flann says many students have contributed to implementing prototypes of the devices described in Sun Catcher’s two patents. Since the devices are mechanical, students from Bridgerland Technical College’s welding and machining technology programs played an important part including Samantha Swasey, Kyle Mohlman, Kehler Aims, and Michael and Chris Lopez. USU mechanical engineering students Eric Eastham, and Victoria Kemeny assisted in developing CAD models. Additionally, four USU mechanical engineering senior project groups have worked on devices in pending patent applications.
Flann also sends special thanks go to Jo Marshall, a recent Sky View High School graduate, Maxwell Flann for computer automation, and Holly Flann for aesthetics.
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College of Science
Nicholas “Nick” Flann
Department of Computer Science