Answers in the Wind

Engineering students work with faculty to develop small-scale wind turbines that will power cell towers and expand communications throughout the world

Thanks to the innovative work of students and professors at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering, cell phone users all over the planet might one day be placing calls through cell towers powered by affordable – and green – miniature wind turbines.

“The goal is to supply all the power, forever, that a cell phone tower would need, independent of the grid,” says engineering professor Greg Mowry.

“It would provide electricity, particularly in places where there is no electrical grid, like the developing world,” adds professor John Abraham, who is co-leading the project with Mowry. “In many cases, they power cell phone towers with diesel generators that are expensive and very dirty. Our goal is to use clean energy solutions like this one to increase communications throughout the world.”

Abraham and Mowry are at the forefront of the innovative, interactive and impressive research making up the heart of the St. Thomas School of Engineering’s mission: To help local businesses, engage students and provide engineering solutions that help make the world a better place. And the school’s body of work – which includes well-chronicled research and projects on renewable energy solutions like biodiesel – is gaining a growing reputation nationally and internationally, along with attracting top students from across the United States.

“We strongly believe that you can’t walk out of here without getting your hands dirty on a challenging set of problems,” says Don Weinkauf, dean of the School of Engineering. “These are not cookbook or token ‘hands-on’ projects. These are real projects with true needs and the potential for significant impact on the technologies that our society benefits from every day.”

Engineering student Brian Plourde couldn’t agree more.

“The classes here have hands-on projects that are fun for the students while also teaching us real-world situations,” says Plourde, who finished his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in January 2010 and is enrolled in the school’s graduate program for mechanical engineering. “The professors expect students to be able to come in and have a positive impact on the project, while being independent enough to expand the students’ engineering skills.” Plourde, who grew up in Somerset, Wis., also considered Michigan Tech, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin before choosing St. Thomas. He said he had learned through comparing notes with friends and co-workers that “St. Thomas is more personal and problem-based than other engineering schools.

“It is a very personal program in that professors really tie you into their classes and projects by getting to know you and your specific interests,” he says. “Students also can count on professors to provide connections to industrial jobs or help with extracurricular projects that students choose to work on.”

Weinkauf says the School of Engineering prides itself on that type of interaction between faculty and students.

“What sets the St. Thomas School of Engineering apart from most is that, in addition to the technical depth and breadth, we have made room in the experience that fosters the qualities that make a complete person and a great engineer,” he says. “These are the qualities of an engineer that are advanced across the university in our philosophy, theology, ethics and foreign language classes, not just in ‘Thermodynamics’ or ‘Embedded Systems.’”

Plourde is among four St. Thomas students working on the miniature wind turbine-modeling project, which is being conducted through grants given by Windstrip LLC, an international wind turbine company interested in developing the technology.

“A typical day involves setting up a series of finite analysis test runs and meetings with both professors and industrial representatives who are involved with the project,” Plourde says. “I get involved with group brainstorming in both the aerodynamic and business sides of the project. It is a unique experience to work with an entrepreneur. It is a fast-paced atmosphere. And each run takes about four days of preparation and calculations, so there is little room for error.”

Mowry says the reason Windstrip turned to St. Thomas for this project was twofold. First, Mowry and Abraham’s previous energy, power and wind turbine work has become well known within the engineering community. Second – and perhaps most important – is that St. Thomas does not end up owning any of the intellectual property that comes as a result of the professors’ and students’ efforts.

“These are the types of projects where we are doing very innovative work for companies, but when the day is over those companies own the intellectual property,” he says. “John and I get acknowledged for our work, the school gets money to engage students, but the companies don’t have to worry about what John and I develop and losing the intellectual property rights. And the IP rights are essential for those businesses.”

In addition to the wind turbine modeling this year, Mowry has worked with students to develop the first portable biodiesel production system – called Generation One – which can fit in the back of a pickup truck.

“They all say the same thing about our graduates.  That our students hit the ground running and know that there is far more to being an engineer than a calculated solution."

The project’s goal was to help farmers and bring efficient, clean fuel to poor communities. The system, created by Mowry and his students converts plant and animal oils, as well as alcohol, into biodiesel. Because it is a small, mobile solution, Generation One may even be able to power St. Thomas shuttle buses by using alcohol and leftover oils or fat from the cafeteria.

Abraham also is very involved in other projects ranging from heat transfer, fluid mechanics and computational methods, to his work on projects with the Department of Energy at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and as a researcher on a National Science Foundation grant.

“In order to deal with energy supply and the environment, we need to increase our supply of clean energy,” Abraham says. “Wind and biofuels, in my mind, are the most promising in the long term. For instance, wind power has a great potential in Minnesota, and developing wind power would increase the job base here. It also provides a lot of money to farmers who typically receive around $5,000 per year for each wind turbine they have on their property.”

Weinkauf said the School of Engineering continues to thrive because it attracts top talent like Mowry and Abraham to its faculty.

“Every member of our faculty has a doctoral degree from the top engineering schools in the country,” he says. “There is no compromise in the talent that we have put together. Doctors Mowry and Abraham would thrive in any of the top programs in the country, but they have chosen St. Thomas for what we are and what we aren’t. The biggest winners from that choice, of course, are their students.”

Mowry and Abraham’s students also are benefitting from a chance to be on the front end of what could become a huge technological development for the cellular telephone industry. While many people are familiar with the gigantic, windmill-style turbines now becoming more and more visible on farms across the Midwest, the miniature turbines being worked on by Mowry, Abraham and their students could have an enormous impact on reducing the energy costs for cell phone towers – especially in developing countries.

With Americans ditching land lines in record numbers and relying exclusively on cell phones, the industry’s growing need for affordable, clean energy solutions means St. Thomas’ work on the miniature wind turbine project couldn’t have come at a better time.

Although costs to operate cell phone towers are proprietary, Mowry estimates there are several hundred thousand towers already in operation around the world, with another 100,000 added annually.

The new wind turbines would be used solely with cell phone towers, Mowry notes, because zoning laws and energy costs – a typical American home uses two to four times as much energy as a cell phone tower – limit the feasibility of their use elsewhere. Cell phone providers and companies would be the most likely businesses to purchase the end product of Mowry and Abraham’s research project.

Plourde says it is rewarding to know that he can combine his passion and education to help create potential solutions that better the world and help make communications more affordable around the world.

“Both Greg and John have been extremely helpful in guiding the project along and in making sure that I’m able to have the freedom to learn and troubleshoot problems,” he says. “It’s been a great experience.”

Weinkauf says employers also are having a great experience with University of St. Thomas graduates like Plourde.

“They all say the same thing about our graduates,” he says. “That our students hit the ground running and know that there is far more to being an engineer than a calculated solution. That’s what makes me proud of what we are doing, that we are developing a broad range of students with a perspective.”

Mowry adds that the School of Engineering’s ongoing success is leading to more and more cuttingedge projects, which he knows will challenge students while positioning them to land top jobs in the engineering world.

“It’s really a win-win situation for everyone,” he says.

About the author: John Nemo is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He can be reached online at


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