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Solar Panel Tree Capstone Project, NJIT

CE495 met ME408 in the 2022 Spring semester for a capstone project: the Solar Panel Tree project.

Erin Foody and Ofek Nahar Civil engineering seniors, and Manav Guzraty and Justin Harrington Mechanical engineering students made a collaborative team to address current energy crisis and seek affordable solutions under the supervision of Professor Simon Shim and Professor Harry Kountouras. At the early brainstorming meetings, the team set the target topic to be achievable and completed within the spring semester. When the team chose the solar energy topic, the ideation process got expedited and ended with a tree structure to hang the solar panels and capable of rotating toward sun along the season. Indeed, this divided the scope of work well into static tree structure by civil engineering and kinetic system by mechanical engineering.

When named tree, it provided a generic configuration of the structure, consisting of one main trunk and three branches, tying in a triangular strut to hold various leave shapes. When the function integrates with the shape, structural stability, as well as visual attraction, are well achieved. In a steady standing position, the tree and its leaves face south to receive maximal sunlight. As the sun moves along in various altitudes over the season, the mechanical gear system can adjust the angle of leaves toward the sun by a manually actuated bevel gear system.

Overall engineering workflow leads with geometry definition using Rhino/ Grasshopper design and parametric Plug-in tool, designed by finite element software SAP2000 for the tree structure, engineered by Solidworks for the gear system.

During the semester, students and professors met every other week and exchanged ideas, researched existing solar panel systems collaboratively, and coordinated their scope of work for a final report and presentation successfully. As most solar panel tree works are new to students, they had to delve through self-education for various items and build their creative engineering ability while adding a new lens of engineering. It is no doubt that the capstone project with peers from other fields is a second-to-none experience and also helps boost engineering curiosity and seek a solution collaboratively.

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