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Wind-energy research at UNC Charlotte reaches new heights

UNC Charlotte students, from left, Parvin Nikpoorparizi, Shamir Bin-Karim, Joe Deese, Alireza Bafandeh, Nihar Deodhar with professor Chris Vermillion conduct research on tethered airborne wind-energy systems on campus.
UNC Charlotte students, from left, Parvin Nikpoorparizi, Shamir Bin-Karim, Joe Deese, Alireza Bafandeh, Nihar Deodhar with professor Chris Vermillion conduct research on tethered airborne wind-energy systems on campus. UNC CHARLOTTE

An assistant professor at UNC Charlotte will take his research on tethered airborne wind-energy systems to the next level with a $500,000 National Science Foundation Career award.

Chris Vermillion, a 32-year-old uptown Charlotte resident, is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and engineering science in the William States Lee College of Engineering at UNCC. The NSF Career grants are given to faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research and education excellence.

Vermillion teaches classes but also conducts research with graduate students in his lab, where he oversees the fifth-largest water channel in the nation. About one meter square, the water channel – similar to a wind tunnel – allows Vermillion and his students to conduct tests while replicating realistic challenges faced by airborne wind-energy systems.

The $500,000 grant will fund research assistant positions for a graduate and undergraduate student. It also will pay for equipment and upgrades meant to jump-start research in the lab.

Airborne wind-energy systems, which fly at altitudes up to 2,000 feet, are meant to replace traditional wind turbines. These wind-energy systems vary in size and shape but generally include a sizeable lifting body, or vessel, that houses a turbine.

Some designs are kite- and wing-like, while others use a ring-shaped balloon to lift the turbine. Most companies developing these technologies say these systems can generate anywhere from 30 kilowatts to 200 kilowatts of energy, enough to power five to 10 average-size homes, Vermillion said.

“Renewable energy research is alive and well at UNC Charlotte and, in the Vermillion lab, cutting-edge airborne wind-energy research is on the rise,” Vermillion said. “This is the only platform in the world – at such a small scale – that replicates both the flight dynamics and the control of airborne wind-energy system lifting bodies.”

Vermillion’s research of the flight dynamics of tethered wind-energy systems will use 3-D printing to develop prototypes, which will lay the framework for small-scale flight experiments at a much lower cost than full-scale prototypes.

The water channel allows Vermillion and his students to fly 1/100-scale prototypes of airborne wind-energy lifting bodies. The insights will have broad implications.

In addition, Vermillion’s students will spend time this summer with Boston-based Altaeros Energies, a pioneer in wind-energy systems and a collaborator on the grant, exploring full-scale development of wind-energy systems.

Vermillion earned undergraduate degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering and, eventually, his doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan.

He’s also worked on advanced automotive power-train control systems and most recently served as a lead engineer for Altaeros.

Altaeros was founded in 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the mission of deploying the world’s first commercial airborne wind turbine.

Second-year doctoral student Nihar Deodhar said their work is driven by a responsibility to produce clean energy at a low cost.

“The ability to perform experiments is a valuable asset, as one can learn a lot from real experiences and gain confidence in relating to the existing theoretical knowledge,” he said.

“The ultimate satisfaction in working at the water channel is in realizing that you have accomplished something at the end of the day and there is always some improvement that can be done the next day.”

Johnson: 704-358-5089

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