Tech Tracks for Solar Energy

"Tim RamboThe focal point of the satellite is painted black, but when it's pointed directly at the sun, you can't even look at it, it's so bright," says physics major Tim Rambo, '09, of a satellite dish developed specifically to gather solar energy. "I'm told that the energy it collects is so intense, if you put your arm through the beam, it could cut your arm off."

Forget 400 channels or even HDTV: the exciting future of satellite dish technology is in the sustainability and environmental energy fields. Albion College physics professor Aaron Miller and Rambo are working with a dish manufacturer to develop a dish system that may significantly change the solar energy field.

This summer, Rambo is working with Albion-based Patriot Industries on a tracking prototype project begun by Miller in 2007. Rambo explains that a solar-collecting dish, unlike common flat-panel cells, needs to always point directly at the sun in order to work at full capacity.

Rambo adjusts the GPS monitor, mounted to a pole outside the window.Rambo adjusts the GPS monitor, mounted to a pole outside the window.Rambo is currently fine-tuning a microprocessor that can calculate the exact position of the sun, using constant reports from a global positioning system (GPS) device. The processor then signals a motor that adjusts the satellite's position. The goal of keeping the satellite within a 1/10 of a degree orientation to the sun means the satellite must make approximately 900 adjustments each day during daylight hours.

"I'm enjoying it, but it's also really frustrating," says Rambo, of the project, which he says dovetailed nicely into his Albion coursework. "I had a class this semester in software development, which is essentially a simulation of a work environment in computer science," he recalls. "We didn't know what we were doing all the time and there was a lot of confusion, but it turns out, that's really how it is. And nothing ever gets done as fast as you think it will."

Rambo hopes at the end of the summer, his and Miller's prototype tracking system will be ready for Patriot to evaluate with the collection dish, which may be up to 12 meters in diameter.

"I've gotten a lot out of this project, even being only half way done," Rambo notes. "I am programming and interfacing multiple devices, which is a very useful skill. Another very good thing about this project is that I will be designing my own experiments to determine and verify the efficiency of my device, a good experience for any aspiring physicist/computer scientist/engineer!

"It's a different feeling being set adrift to fend for yourself in a work environment, especially compared to Albion College, where you know everyone, and they are more than happy to help," Rambo comments. "Being forced to plow through all of the details on my own has given me a good deal of satisfaction and experiences that I would not have gained through my normal education. I look forward to drawing upon all of my accumulated knowledge of physics math and computer science to get there."