Online Interdisciplinary Design Course on Solar Thermal Energy

As reported earlier, together with Bern University of Applied Sciences (BUAS) we launched a education course on design and development of wood-based solar thermal designs for our Lytefire solar concentrators. Due to covid, we moved the course online. In this post we’ll go over the structure of this first online course.

Our online-course was fully booked and the 24 participating students came from the fields of wood-engineering, architecture and design. The interdisciplinary group had no prior experience working together and no experience working with solar. On GoSol’s site the project was lead by Judith Bernet and Urs Riggenbach. On BUAS’s site the project was facilitated by teachers Franz-Josef Niederwolfsgruber and Markus Zimmermann.

Screenshot from the interdisciplinary design course with BUAS.

Design Thinking

The main goal for us was to instil in the students our design-thinking which is based on developing practical solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

“Practical” means it works in the real-world, meaning that a crazy amount of design parameters need to be met: It can’t be too costly, it has to be powerful, it needs to have high usability, it needs to be fabricatable with available materials and simple to maintain – and it should be built to last.

One key aspect is cost-efficiency versus efficiency. Western schools often teach efficiency assuming that efficiency is also reducing cost. This was true in a fossil-fuel powered world, where every percent gained in efficiency would represent huge fuel-savings over time. However, in renewable energies increase in efficiency do not result in increased cost-efficiency per default and often just create higher cost of equipment. Since the energy is there for free and is abundant and not finite, you can just make the solar concentrator a percent bigger if you want that extra percent energy. Our aim at cost-efficiency for the Lytefire product-line was a pay-back in less than two years and we hit 18 months in some cases and we are striving to get the payback down to one season which would be the best for many farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs in low-income countries.

Apart from cost-efficiency, the concept of simplicity is also key to develop innovation. We explained the team a lot about the context of where a solution is needed, and that for example eliminating moving parts can be a big gain as it reduces wear and tear and need to maintain systems – and at the same time has also cost-reduction potential. So a big part of the design-thinking we wanted to instill in the students was to seek for simplicity. It’s a difficult process, because to get to a simpler design requires more thinking and the result is – well, simpler! It took us years to develop a simple and cost-efficient way to concentrate the mirrors but in the end it is actually a very simple and elegant solution – and from looking at it these hours are not visible. On the other hand, it really takes a while for the simplicity of the design to sink in and sometime people say, Wow – it’s “just” that? But that’s so simple! – Yes it is, and that’s part of good design.

Preparation Sessions

To get things started we held preparation sessions. 2.5h hours each week were dedicated to this to get the students up to speed with the subject matter and prepare them for the practical intensive-week following the preparation sessions.

Before the first session we asked the students to familiarize themselves with the technology. We compiled a list of resources, mainly videos from our Youtube channel featuring the Lytefire 4, Lytefire 5 and Solar Sauna products. That way they were already able to get a first impression on the concept of solar concentration.

In the first session we held a presentation on the history of Solar Fire / GoSol / Lytefire, we covered the different applications running in the field and we did a technical walk-though of the different aspects of the technology. We ended with a Q&A session. Due to covid we were unable to bring the students to have a hands-on visit on one of the machines in Switzerland.

In the next session we presented the specific goals of the project. The students were to develop wood-based alternatives to our solar concentrator designs mainly built from steel. They were to design and create instructional content about the fabrication process. Due to covid we were unable to do a physical build-project, normally we would then also build the developed designs. We shared on the context of real-world entrepreneurs such as David in Kenya who bakes daily with the solar oven. The design would have to be fabricate with simple tools and skills so it can easily be maintained locally even in contexts like Kenya.

By the third session we had split the students into 4 sub-groups, and each group had started to develop drafts of wood-based designs. We spent the bulk of this session reviewing the different design-proposals from the group, we encouraged the groups to be creative and gave technical feedback. Each group was able to develop their own design, and as long as it fit the basic requirements and could technically work we left them free hands. The student groups were very creative and we encouraged them to discuss and agree as much as possible internally. In our experience it’s precisely this kind of internal design-discussion that results in great design. In the end every group got to refine one design proposal and create the instructional content for it. Some groups also prototyped their ideas in simple ways, which brought a lot of input to the preparation-sessions.

In the fourth session each group presented their design proposal along with first drafts of that the instructional content would look like. We provided feedback on both and gave inspirations where needed.

Project -Week

In the intensive week the students now worked in their group (all-though remotely due to covid), to refine their designs and create the instructional content and project deliverables such as the engineering calculations for strength/sizes of materials chosen.

We provided fixed times for coaching sessions with individual groups. All groups progressed steadily and on Friday of the week we held a presentation-session to which we also invited some guests from the Lytefire-Team which were not familiar with the project and could give an outsider’s perspective.

Results

The project proved that it is really possible to teach the design-principles of solar concentration online and get the students to apply their design-skills to a completely new technology.

We were excited by the student’s creativity and energy. One group developed a design fully built in Bamboo, others impressed with great simplifications, such as removing wheels or creating wood-based pivot points requiring no metal screws. Another group developed a wood-based mirror holder. The groups also delivered great instruction content in the form of construction guides. Unfortunately we were not able to fabricate their solutions due to covid, but subsequent project-weeks could focus more on the practical aspects of wood-fabrication – the designs are ready!

 

 

 

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