A student-designed energy-monitoring device is making its way from an electrical engineering lab at Tennessee Tech University to the federal patent office.
The device tracks and records information about electricity use in 120-volt power outlets and communicates that data wirelessly to a laptop. The device, which is not the first of its kind, is less expensive than models on the market and is equipped with wireless communication technology.
“There are devices that are low-cost, but you have to read the consumption information off the device itself. We assume the customer is spoiled, so we want the information to appear on the TV, on a laptop, etc.,” said Ali Alouani, professor of electrical engineering at TTU. “This is the first project out of this course that’s ever gotten this far toward commercialization.”
The device was developed last year by TTU electrical engineering capstone design students, who have all gone on to jobs in their field.
“This is taking everything we’ve learned over the past three or four years and putting it all together,” said senior electrical engineering major Chad Crawford, of Crossville. “It has to be able to compete in the market with other existing products.”
But the work is not done. This year, students in the same class are working on a similar device that can handle 220-volt residential loads.
“We’re saying, ‘Did you realize how much money you’re wasting by having your air conditioner on all day?’,” said TTU senior Elizabeth Pense, of Hendersonville. “With 240 volts, there are a lot of rules and regulations to protect yourself. The same way your hand can’t handle being put in an electric socket, a lot of devices can’t handle it either.”
The student-designed devices are created to plug into an outlet, and an electrical appliance is plugged into the device, like a one-outlet transformer. One of the challenges is these types of devices are generally built so that an electrician has to install them. The time and money involved in electrician installations is a barrier that makes the average person less interested in buying the devices, according to Pense.
Additionally, some of the components needed to build monitoring devices are expensive and those costs are passed on to the consumer. The TTU students are working to design their devices using as few of the components as they can to reduce the cost.
Both projects are being developed in a partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory Measurement Science and Systems Engineering Division and the Building Technologies Research and Integration Center.
“The students provided a technical design with competitive economics,” said David Fugate, research and development engineer at ORNL.
TTU and ORNL have presented the prototype 120-volt power sensor to Sam Delay, of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Krish Gomatom, of the Electronic Power Research Institute, as part of a discussion about low-cost power metering needs for power utilities.
“TVA is also seeking load shape information for building systems in all market sectors: residential, commercial and industrial,” said Delay.
“Our mission is to inform the customers about the way they use energy,” said Alouani, who teaches the capstone course and advises students about their projects. “That way, you can look for the energy monster. You can look back at your use history and see what is using the most energy.”
The energy-monitoring device is one project among 14 that students are working to develop and build this semester. Most of the projects are developed in partnership with local industries. All are designed to meet a need or solve a societal problem.
“Our mission is to train these students and help the industry at the same time,” Alouani said. “A lot of our graduates use these capstone projects as part of their interviews. They already have the experience that a lot of graduates from other programs don't have.”