April 23, 2011
College powers sustainable living ideas
Earth Day events cap SUNY Cortland
Sustainability Week on campus
Three small makeshift windmills sputtered to life on the SUNY Cortland campus Friday as gusts of wind blew throughout an Earth Day demonstration on wind power put on by Physics Club students.
SUNY Cortland Physics Department Chair Brice Smith explained the mechanics behind the movement of the blades, as students proudly documented their work on camera phones.
The display was part of a week-long effort on the part of students to raise awareness about sustainability initiatives, such as the importance of clean-burning fuels.
Smith pointed to the three windmills, made of PVC piping and balsa wood blades, saying students experimented with different designs throughout the day. Passers-by were encouraged to construct their own, following the models already built.
One sturdy windmill, about 2 1/2 feet tall, was a success, as its delicate blades constantly turned in the wind.
Senior Adrienne Teachout was the proud builder, saying she experimented with different blade lengths until she found the perfect size.
The turbine of each windmill, the top part where the blades fit, was attached to a small motor, which the club purchased at Radio Shack, that measured the voltage generated by the spinning blades.
Teachout’s windmill generated about half a volt of electricity while spinning quickly.
Smith explained that the shorter blades work better in higher winds, while the longer blades that have more flex work better in lower winds.
“Inside with a fan the longer blade works better because it catches more of the wind column,” Smith said.
One windmill, designed with paper plates as the blades, turned efficiently, catching the wind the blades cupped.
The success of the windmill depends also on the stability of the structure, and the club saw some windmills collapse, knocked over by gusts and needing to be reinforced with duct tape.
Although “the more wind, the better” is a general rule for windmills, too much wind is not good either, Smith said.
Windmills are built to withstand the peak wind speeds they will be operating under. At a certain point, however, it becomes uneconomical to design towers that are strong enough to withstand very high winds. Therefore, on residential or commercial windmills, Smith explained, each structure is built with a “cutoff point” at which the windmill stops functioning if the wind speed gets too high.
Set up next to the windmill display, the college’s environmental club had a natural gas drilling exhibit, complete with a kiddie pool full of dirty water. The exhibit was intended to show the risks associated with the “hydro-fracking” process, where chemically treated water is injected underground to extract gas.
Smith said the sustainability message is meant to be thought-provoking.
“The main thing is to introduce people to these technologies and get people to start thinking about alternative energy,” Smith said.
Smith said he thinks the pros of wind-generated power outweigh the cons, such as noise and potential environmental disruption.
“It has to be sited properly. You should not build one in a migratory bird path or next to somebody’s home,” Smith said, but added modern turbines are no louder than the noise of everyday home appliances, such as refrigerators.
For the students, constructing the windmills gave them satisfaction, regardless of the bigger questions about the industry.
Upon seeing his hard work pay off, having cut himself while coiling the motor’s wire, senior Sean Nolan declared his functioning windmill the “most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.”
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