Students Build Sustainable Model Home in NE Asia


Working off the grid in a remote area with few supplies, an ambitious (and resourceful) group of eight undergraduate and two graduate ENS students spent their summer 2008 vacation in China building eight engineering projects for rural villagers. This was the second summer that volunteers from the TU student group, Sustainable Energy for North East Asia (SENEA), traveled to Jilin province near the North Korean border to work on a project called the Sustainable Shepherd’s Residence (SSR). Six of the students are also members of the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC), which funded their transportation costs.

“It’s a chance to use what we know to help others, while continuing to learn in a way that’s not available in the classroom,” said Maria Holland, SENEA team leader and junior mechanical engineering major. “It’s an internship, research experience, study abroad and mission trip all in one.”

The SSR serves as a ‘model home’ of sustainable energy systems for the region, and many visitors from high positions in the Jilin province and from North Korea have visited and have scheduled visits to see the residence.

“The main purpose of the SSR is to show that modern systems can be built with locally available supplies and operated by local citizens,” said Jesse French, SENEA team sponsor and mechanical engineering doctoral student.

In 2007, the group had only eight days to assess the area and build a wind turbine from materials they could find in the region. But this year they planned for longer stays, anywhere from three weeks to three months. The extra time allowed them to implement a long list of projects, including two new wind turbines, a biogas generator, a solar oven, Compressed Earth Block (CEB) machine, an aquaponics system and a greenhouse.

“The scope of the project was larger this year, and we enlisted the help of local workers, teaching them how everything worked and how to maintain it when we’re gone,” said Holland.

In preparation for the trip, students practiced building models of their engineering projects in the McElroy Prototyping Lab in Keplinger Hall. But as they quickly learned, flexibility and resourcefulness became their most valued engineering skills.

“No book can teach you how to function in a real world situation like we had to do while in China,” said Blake Hylton. ”You can’t sit in a classroom and learn how to go down to a scrap yard, look at a pile of twisted pipes and rusty sheet metal, and visualize how to make it into something functional. That only comes from having been there and doing it yourself.”
Student-volunteers plan to return to the shepherd’s residence next summer where they will be continuing their existing projects and beginning new projects.

Research Projects

Repairs to wind turbine. The SENEA 2Ge (pronounced “two-gah,” meaning, “the second”) is a 500-watt horizontal-axis wind turbine that was erected during the 2007 trip. The group crafted new, stronger blades this year.

Biogas generator. The students built a biogas digester out of brick and concrete in a covered pit eight meters deep in the ground. They filled it with manure that will produce methane as it decomposes. The methane replaces propane as cooking fuel. The students also designed a toilet that solves two problems: it is an improvement over the family’s current outhouse and provides more fuel for the digester.

Greenhouse. SENEA members worked with another volunteer group in testing the structural properties of the steel box beams that were to be used for the greenhouse trusses and purlins.

Solar oven. The students built a passive solar oven, using solar energy without converting it into electricity and offsetting up to 4 kWh per day in energy usage. It was made out of brick and “cobb,” a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water.

Two new wind turbines. TU students implemented two different designs this year, both vertical-axis, spinning around an upright pole and producing 2 kW to help power the shepherd’s residence and pump water for the greenhouse and livestock. One turbine is an H-rotor, so called because its cross-section looks like an “H.” The other is a Darrieus turbine, which looks like an egg beater.

CEB press. TU students made a compressed earth block (CEB) machine from scrap steel, which churns out one load-bearing brick every 40 seconds. These CEBs will be used for future greenhouse construction, instead of buying bricks as they did this year.

Aquaponics system. An aquaponics system involves cultivating plants and fish in a symbiotic nutrient cycle where fish waste is absorbed by the plants. The SSR can now grow plants without using soil and benefit from the calorie-rich fish.