A wing of the University of Detroit Mercy Engineering Building is well on its way to becoming a living laboratory, thanks to a generous grant from DTE Energy — and a hardworking group of sophomore Engineering students.
Wiley Dressell, Kaegan Kumnick, Michael Brill and Brynne Gustafson are finalists in a statewide E-Challenge Competition sponsored by DTE and the Engineering Society of Detroit that focuses on energy efficiency technologies. According to the E-Challenge Competition rules, the final student teams are tasked with demonstrating market-ready advanced energy solutions with validated energy savings. To accomplish this, finalists are awarded up to $250,000 in grant money.
The Detroit Mercy project aims to bring “smart” technology to HVAC systems, allowing users to customize climate control in a house or other building on a room-by-room basis, based on factors like occupancy or budget. Sensors, for example, would recognize whether a room was occupied and adjust the temperature accordingly. Additionally, live feedback regarding the cost impact of changing a room’s temperature by a degree or two could help consumers decide whether they should layer up (or down) or adjust the thermostat.
“Right now, the technology doesn’t exist in a package that’s priced right,” explained Nassif Rayess, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering and the group’s co-faculty advisor; he is joined in the role by Mark Shumack, professor and chair of Mechanical Engineering, who also serves as the team’s principal member.
The goal of the students’ work is to develop the necessary technology in an affordable way that can be plugged into existing HVAC systems.
But to do so, they need a workspace that will allow them to test and adjust their ideas. In short: They need a lab.
They are adapting existing physical space in the Engineering Building — the second floor east wing, to be specific — to meet their needs by upgrading and instrumenting the heating and air conditioning infrastructure.
These renovations are budgeted to cost close to $122,000 and are covered by the competition grant. After the contest is complete, the lab will remain in place for future students.
“It’s for anybody who has an idea for energy efficiency,” said Rayess. “It gives them a place to test it out.”
The idea for the project started in Rayess’ 1080 Engineering course more than a year ago. After hearing about the competition, Rayess probed his students for ideas, and Dressell came up with this one. Kumnick was his partner on the assignment and Brill was also in the class. They also recruited Gustafson. Dressell and Kumnick are majoring in Robotics and Mechatronic Systems Engineering, Brill and Gustafson, in Mechanical Engineering.
In total, 13 teams entered the competition statewide, with just three, one each from Detroit Mercy, Michigan State University and Oakland University, advancing to the second round. The teams have until August to complete their projects, but began giving presentations about their work in May at the Michigan Energy Efficiency Conference and Exhibition.
Each member of the winning team is eligible to receive a $20,000 scholarship.
But for Dressell, Kumnick, Gustafson and Brill, their interest in participating goes far beyond the scholarship.
“The scholarship money is icing on the cake,” said Kumnick.
To be able to work on such a large project, especially as sophomores, has been a great experience for the team.
“I’m so stoked,” said Dressell. “This is such a cool experience so early in our careers.”
In fact, it’s so early in their academic careers that the team has yet to take some of the relevant courses like thermodynamics. That means they’re learning as they go, with plenty of help from Rayess, who has made himself available to the team around their busy schedules (all are student-athletes, in addition to their full course loads and work on this project), even when that has meant meetings at odd times, like late Sunday evenings.
But their hard work is already paying off; the experience they have gained through their work has given them a great jumping off point when interviewing for summer internships.
“It helped me get my internship,” said Gustafson.
Shumack expected the students to benefit from participating in this kind of project. “Energy efficiency is a big deal,” he explained. “Not only to HVAC, but to any company with a campus of buildings. Somebody with their skillset would be valuable anywhere.”
It’s an experience they don’t think they necessarily would have had at other, bigger schools, at least not until they were upperclassmen.
“The opportunity is a lot greater here because of the smaller class size,” said Kumnick.
“It’s harder to get your voice heard (at larger schools), especially as sophomores,” Brill added.