WCU students use trash to harness the wind

From left, Western Carolina University students Josh Kirkland, Ben Plowman, and Drew Tolliver show off their award-winning windmill made of discarded plastic bottles. (WCU photo by Jarrett Frazier)

From left, Western Carolina University students Josh Kirkland, Ben Plowman, and Drew Tolliver show off their award-winning windmill made of discarded plastic bottles. (WCU photo by Jarrett Frazier)

It took Western Carolina University students Drew Tolliver of Atlanta, Ben Plowman of Waynesville, and Josh Kirkland of Hendersonville just 10 days and dozens of discarded plastic bottles to design and build a product that is original, innovative, creative, useable – and award winning.

The three students, all seniors majoring in engineering technology, were among the top three regional winners in the Juicy Ideas Collegiate Competition, a contest organized by AdvantageWest. Squeezing value out of trash was the theme of the competition, which challenged teams of university and community college students to build useful items that would communicate a dual message of environmental responsibility and entrepreneurship.

When the required recyclable material was revealed – in this case, plastic bottles – Tolliver, Plowman and Kirkland began considering the possibilities: a yo-yo, solar panel, mailbox, medical device, cup holder, shower caddy. “There were tons of things we could have done,” Tolliver said. Plowman said, “Yeah, we could have built a skyscraper if we wanted to.” They settled, instead, on a windmill capable of generating small amounts of electricity.

Kirkland began collecting bags full of empty plastic bottles from his residence hall, and the team broke its work into three stages, just as it had learned in a class at WCU taught by Phil Sanger, director of WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization.

“It’s really neat, because you think of the process in broader scale and then follow the steps like a waterfall. It’s easy to think about what you have to do down the line and not get overwhelmed,” Plowman said. Tolliver said, “It’s good because you sit there in class, wondering how you’re going to use this, and, bam, you’re using it. It was pretty cool.”

After brainstorming in the library and sharing ideas through instant messaging, the three gathered in Plowman’s room to cut out and assemble the pieces of their windmill. Kirkland figured out how to weld the parts together with solder because glue won’t stick to polypropylene, and they used a small wind-up flashlight motor for the generator. Everything else came from trash bags full of used bottles.

“We had plenty of spares. There was no shortage of the problem, which is the problem. There are so many of these throwaway items around, you need to figure out something to do with them,” Tolliver said.

“We tried to use very part of the bottle, including the cap and the o-ring that holds it on; even the threaded part of the neck,” Plowman said. From those parts, they made the blades, the body of the windmill, and a long post or handle. Best of all, their design works. With a light breeze, the windmill generates a quarter of a volt – enough electricity to power a tiny light or to charge a battery over time.

For their creativity and collaboration, Tolliver, Plowman and Kirkland’s team earned third-place honors, announced at the AdvantageWest annual meeting in Asheville on Nov. 20. WCU teams also won seventh and eighth place in the regional competition. First place went to a team from Appalachian State University; second place, to students from Western Piedmont Community College. The top three finishers representing WCU, ASU and WPCC will face regional winners from Iowa, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Carolina. The national winner will be announced in mid-December.

Somebody observed that WCU’s little energy generator is ugly, Plowman said, but he can envision dozens of the rebuilt trash-bottle-windmills, positioned on fence posts, harvesting the breeze to create electricity. “That would be beautiful,” he said.