Collier Fais, a mechanical engineering student, measures the perimeter of the algae tanks to ensure that his final product will work perfectly inside them. Photo by Rebecca Miller
With a focus on microscopic, bright-green algae as a fuel source, Ohio University senior mechanical engineering student Collier Fais’s research in green energy is more literal than most.
Under the guidance of Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering David Bayless and Professor Bob Williams in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, who are developing technology to turn algae into biodiesel fuel, Fais is helping to design a robot to harvest the algae from man-made ponds where it can be grown on a much larger scale.
Turning algae into energy is a process that starts with cultivation and harvesting at a man-made pond. The algae is currently harvested in a process called dewatering, which uses a lot of energy to pump water out of the pond and filter out the algae.
With a robot suspended on cables above the pond and controlled through a pulley system, the system Fais is helping build would use a filtration device that scoops the algae out of the water, and it’s a completely new type of application for robotics.
“The robot would eliminate the need for individual pumping systems all together,” Fais explained. “This could ultimately lead toward a greater accessibility to renewable energy sources such as algae-based biofuel.”
A controller for the cable-suspended robot, or CSR, is already being developed by Assistant Professor of Engineering Technology and Management Jesus Pagan, although the robot itself is still in the design phase.
The harvesting system consists of four tall pylons, one at each corner of a man-made algae pond, and each is equipped with a motorized winch. The winches control movement of the scooping device, suspended over the pond between the pylons on cables, by quickly spooling and unspooling the cables through low-friction pulleys on the top of each pylon.
“A typical day in the lab involves a lot of 3-D modeling based on general design parameters that I’ve gathered,” said Fais, who spends about 10 hours in the lab each week. “I hope to start constructing a prototype in the coming weeks.”
Together, the team expects to complete design, construction and testing of a working CSR prototype in 2014. The project is supported by Russ Vision Funds, which support “beyond the classroom” research experience for student competitions, research and travel.
Fais plans to subject the prototype to various loading scenarios and wind disturbances to test the stability of the system.
For Fais, this lab experience in robotics has confirmed his long-term interest in mechanical engineering research, with a focus on focus on robotic design and control, including graduate school. He already feels prepared.
“I love that even as an undergrad, I have been given the opportunity to create and learn through a meaningful, hands-on experience,” he said.
Williams said Collier’s work is a great start for developing a future project for graduate school.
“His results by May 2014 will yield a hardware system that will be used for obtaining external research funds to pursue the full-sized system in algae harvesting,” he said. “This was an opportunity to get an excellent student involved early in research. This is a win-win-win situation.”