UI professor works with students to solve energy problems


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H.S. Udaykumar is more than just a professor towards his students — he's a close friend.

In the back parking lot of the Seamans Center, he stands around his students as they try to cook him a tofu dog on a Scheffler solar cooker.

He starts to crack jokes with the students as it takes the dog longer than its usual one minute to cook.

UI senior Matt Mercer is the CEO of the Scheffler model and a student of Udaykumar's.

"He's almost like one of us, but he knows how to balance leadership with personability," Mercer said. "He has introduced me to important issues that I wouldn't have recognized without him."

The Scheffler model is entirely built by students; it is a wooden structure with a large circular metal plate attached to it to reflect light from the sun.

That piece is then attached to a metal T-shaped structure that holds a Coke Zero can on the side closest to the reflector. The can absorbs the heat from the reflector and allows the tofu dog to cook.

But what most people don't know is this model isn't just a spin on the traditional grill, it's an effort to help the villagers of Rajasthan, India, prevent deforestation.

Last winter, Udaykumar and 10 of his students went on a trip to India to study how to prevent villagers from cutting down forests for firewood.

The class ran through the Study Abroad Office and was called Energy for Sustainability at the Forest's Edge: How to Balance Rural Life with Wildlife Preservation.

"I wanted to design a course to have the students actually think how their design interacts with the environment," Udaykumar said.

The students spent three weeks in the village trying to come up with a solution for the deforestation problem.

"I had no idea that 3 billion people on Earth cut firewood every single day to cook food, which is almost half of humanity," Udaykumar said. "I was totally blown away by what [the villagers] were doing."

Udaykumar, an Obermann Center Fellow this semester, knew that one thing these people had an abundance of was solar energy, but because the villagers cook in the early morning and late a night, he and his students needed to figure out a way to store the energy.

The students also had to think about how they could create a model using cheap materials, so the locals could create a similar version.

Seth Dillard, a postdoctoral researcher at the UI who has worked with Udaykumar for around nine years, is assisting the students on building the new model.

"I hope that in the future people who live in these areas are empowered to build these things themselves, and it's more important to spread the knowledge of how to construct them," Dillard said. "I'd like to see the ability to build something like this out of local materials like bamboo."

The designs that are being tested this semester are getting closer to where Udaykumar wants to be with the project and he said the students are approaching a very promising design.

The professor has plans to build a true scale model during his trip back to the village this winter and his ultimate goal is to have a solar cooker in every home there.

"The students have responded amazingly well because they see it can do well and they actually want to make a contribution to the environment," Udaykumar said. "They have taken the design process from concept to prototype."

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