The residents of La Hermita, a small village in Nicaragua, have very little, especially when it comes to electricity.
But Innovative Engineers, a University of Minnesota student group, is looking to change that through wind power.
Alejandro De La Mora and Josh Durand, senior civil and mechanical engineering majors respectively, decided they wanted to build a wind turbine after reading a book about them. Soon after, they began the Innovative Engineers student group.
Last summer, Innovative Engineers brought the pieces of their first turbine to the Nicaraguan village. They laid the foundation and set up the tower. They plan to install the turbine — the part of the windmill that includes the blades and the generator — this summer, after some additional testing of identical turbines at the University.
"It’s something [the villagers] really need," Scott Morton, a mechanical engineering junior, said. The villagers of La Hermita currently use car batteries to power their lights and radios, he said.
"It takes a whole day of work for them to take the batteries into the nearest town to recharge them. It costs money, and they don’t have a lot of money," he said.
Once the turbine is finished, the villagers will be able to charge their batteries without leaving and without losing a day of work.
Durand said he estimates each battery will last about three weeks before needing to be recharged, which is longer than the current method of charging lasts. Using the wind turbine, the batteries will also be more powerful than they were before, Morton said.
All of the group members said they have learned a lot since the process started last year and plan to continue with the work they are already doing.
"All of our projects are about renewable energy," Morton said.
"If you have the ability to change the world … why not do it?"
The students got involved with the Nicaragua project last fall, working with electrical engineering professor Paul Imbertson.
"I had a project going on in Nicaragua, and I was looking for someone to pick up the reins, and they were the ones to do it," Imbertson said.
At first, the students spent most Saturdays in Imbertson’s basement building the turbine.
"It was my first time using a power tool," De La Mora said.
The group has grown exponentially since the basement days, and Imbertson found them an office.
"I had some space in Keller Hall for outreach work," Imbertson said. "The department said, ‘Do what you want with it,’ and these are the guys I want in there doing it."
The group installed one of two identical turbines on the St. Paul campus and ran tests last week. The students wanted to make sure the turbine worked well before they went to Nicaragua to finish the project.
While group members said they are still learning as they go along, the turbine has been running smoothly.
"So far, it’s been fantastic," group member Devin Vollmer said. "It spins faster than we imagined it would spin."
The group plans to head back to Nicaragua as soon as possible to finish the job.
In addition to the Nicaraguan turbine, the group is in the process of building a 10-kilowatt turbine that will be used for testing and research purposes.
The group plans to install the turbine on the campus of Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn., De La Mora said. They also have plans to start working on a small water-powered plant back in Nicaragua.
De La Mora said he believes the way Innovative Engineers has developed will change the way student groups are formed and function in the future. Imbertson, who is now the group’s adviser, said he agrees.
"What they’ve done is realize that it’s all up to them," he said. "They have not been afraid to jump in and do stuff, which is why they’ve been successful."
Innovative Engineers is in the process of starting other chapters on various university campuses across the country. De La Mora said schools like Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and DCTC have all expressed interest in forming their own chapters.
"If the idea took off here, I don’t see why it won’t somewhere else," Morton said. De La Mora said he agrees.
"If you have the ability to change the world and you want to do it, why not do it?"
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
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