Local student helps build solar-powered water heater

UW-Eau Claire team develops prototype

Judy Berthiaume, Special to the Leader

Contributed Photo Kim Pierson, right, discusses the solar-powered water heater with research students Brendon Kwick, Sawyer Buck and Hunter Hermes.

When Kim Pierson began teaching a new class about renewable energies, he used some inexpensive materials he found at a local store to build a small model of a solar thermal water heater that he could use in his laboratory.

The UW-Eau Claire physics professor quickly realized that his model — if built to a much larger scale — actually has a lot of potential for use in the real world.

After a few stops and starts, mostly due to time constraints, last summer Pierson pulled together a team of two students to begin building a larger prototype of his model solar-powered water heater.

Their goal is to develop a low-cost, lightweight solar water heater that can be used to preheat hot water for electric and gas water heaters, and to provide hot water for ground-source heat pumps to heat buildings.

“Our design is theoretically three times more effective than the solar panels on the roof of Davies Center that provide the energy for hot water in that building,” Pierson said of the faculty-student collaborative research project.

In March, Pierson and the students wheeled their creation out of their lab in Phillips Hall and into the early spring sunshine to test it for the first time.

While the test run showed that work remains, it also showed that the team has many reasons to be hopeful.

“It looks very, very promising,” Pierson said of the prototype. “It looks really good. It’s working much better than I’d ever thought it would. Right now, our calculations show that its efficiency is 70-80 percent, which is utterly amazing to me.”

Pierson is working with a team of student researchers that includes Sawyer Buck, a junior materials science and physics major from Shawano; Brendan Kwick, a junior physics and mechanical engineering dual major from Eau Claire; Hunter Hermes, a senior applied physics major from Elk Mound; Jordan Wales a junior physics and engineering dual major from Sugar Camp; and Li Jin, a pre-engineering major from China.

While solar power continues to grow as a source of renewable energy, commercial solar panels are still expensive, Pierson said.

So by using Wisconsin-made polycarbonate panels that cost just a few dollars, they can bring the costs down, making it a much more affordable option for people and businesses, Pierson said.

“I can get these $40 panels from an Eau Claire store,” Pierson said. “They are strong and cheap so that makes the entire project inexpensive and efficient.”

After the testing, the team decided to purchase and install a larger pump to address some issues they identified, Kwick said.

More testing is necessary to determine if the glue they use to secure the thermal panels will hold over time and in varying temperatures, Pierson said.

Still another challenge facing the project team is the size of the prototype. Because they have to be able to get the panel into an elevator and out the doors of Phillips, they are limited in how large they can make it.

If they can continue to test and enhance the prototype, Pierson said his hope is that in two years he can pursue funding to take the project to the next level.

Regardless of where the project ends, the students say they appreciate the opportunity to put to use the skills they mastered in their physics classes.

Equally important, Hermes said, are the troubleshooting, teamwork, planning and documenting skills they learned through the project, all skills that will serve them well in the future.

Buck said that the renewable energy physics course that Pierson teaches, along with his work on the solar project, have helped shape his future goals.

“Mostly due to that class and Dr. Pierson, I now have a strong desire to work and develop green energy technologies after I graduate,” Buck said.

While he appreciates the impact the project has on the students, Pierson is quick to note that they aren’t the only ones who benefit when faculty and students work side by side on research.

“I might come up with an idea, but the students come up with their own ideas that often are better than mine,” Pierson said. “They learn to not only develop the ideas, but also to communicate them to me in a way that convinces me their idea is better. Students bring new perspectives to campus, so they often come up with ideas or questions that nobody has thought of before.”