SCIENCE FAIR PROJECTS
With the increasingly strong evidence of a global warming trend, renewable energy projects are likely to be a hot topic for science fair projects in this new academic year. Alternative energy ideas abound, and can offer some respite from the ever-present (and ever-boring) clay volcanoes at science fairs booths.
Many unusual and provocative projects are possible in the area of solar and wind power. Free plans for a small electricity producing windmill kit can be found on the Internet, as well as inexpensive kits. Because some of these free plans feature cardboard parts, they are easy to modify in order to test a science fair hypothesis. For example, such plans could be used to test different wind turbine blade configurations, various generator components, the effects of changing wind speeds, or other experiments limited only by the imagination. A simply digital volt meter can be used to take measurements of electric output and a spreadsheet program can be used to produce charts and graphs of the results, resulting in a great presentation.
Solar energy can also provide many science fair ideas. These range from solar ovens and solar stovetops to solar photovoltaic (PV) cells that produce electricity. Once again, some simple searches on the Internet can yield free plans and inexpensive sources of parts for such experiments. An example of a good solar electricity experiment would be to connect PV cells in series or in parallel and measure voltage and current under different sunlight intensities (for a more controlled experiment a bright lamp could be used). You will find that some combinations yield the optimal output in lower light and others are optimal in stronger light conditions.
One excellent idea is to create a miniature "hybrid" renewable energy power plant. This could be accomplished by combining solar cells and a small windmill kit. Such an idea could graphically demonstrate the complementary nature of these two free power sources. For example, the sun is less intense during winter, yet in most places wind is more intense in the cold season, because air is denser and weather patterns favor wind. The sun does not shine during storms, but often wind is very strong during stormy weather. Sounds like a good hypothesis for a science fair project!
Another interesting line of research involves a device called the thermoelectric generator (TEG). A TEG converts heat directly into electricity without moving parts. Such devices are currently used to power deep space missions and provide power for teams exploring remote areas of the earth. While not as efficient as mechanical generators, the lack of moving parts, low weight, and high reliability of these devices makes them ideal for these applications. TEG devices can be built from scratch simply by twisting pairs of certain types of wire together, or can be bought commercially for only a few dollars. A small heat source such as a candle can generate a significant voltage. One example of a winning science fair idea would be to construct a TEG and "fuel" it with solar energy, and to compare this to a traditional solar cell. To be effective, the solar energy must be concentrated using either a solar cooker type reflector or a fresnel lens (but be careful not to overheat a commercial TEG). Another project idea is to show how waste heat in a house or factory could be captured and put to good use by a TEG, offsetting fossil fuel usage.
Some other forms of renewable energy might be harder to construct for an average science fair student, but for advanced students may be possible. Examples would include small wave power and geothermal energy projects. Some of the kits mentioned earlier could be used in these projects. For example, the small windmill kit has an alternator that could be slightly modified to run off of water power. A TEG could be used to illustrate geothermal energy production, perhaps by placing it inside a glass jar filled with sand and heating the bottom of the jar to simulate the heat deep within the earth.
So, banish the clay volcanoes this year and make your next science fair project interesting, topical, and green. You might just power your way to a first prize!
Written by: Steve Pendergrast - PicoTurbine Renewable Energy Education Projects
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