College students squeeze value out of trash

It took a team of Western Carolina University students just 10 days and dozens of discarded plastic bottles to design and build a product that is original, innovative, creative, useable — and award winning.

Three seniors in engineering technology at WCU will advance to the national Juicy Ideas Collegiate Competition, which challenged college students to design and build a prototype of a useful product out of a trash item. Judging was based on YouTube videos submitted by more than 160 of teams from colleges around the region.

When the required recyclable material was revealed — in this case, plastic bottles — the WCU engineering students began considering the possibilities: a yo-yo, solar panel, mailbox, medical device, cup holder, shower caddy.

“There were tons of things we could have done,” said Drew Tolliver of Atlanta.

“Yeah, we could have built a skyscraper if we wanted to,” fellow team member Ben Plowman of Waynesville said.

They settled, instead, on a windmill capable of generating small amounts of electricity.

Their third team member, Josh Kirkland of Hendersonville, began collecting bags full of empty plastic bottles from his residence hall, and the team broke its work into three stages, following a process they learned in the project management class of Phil Sanger, director of WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization.

“It’s really neat, because you think of the process in broader scale and then follow the steps like a waterfall. It’s easy to think about what you have to do down the line and not get overwhelmed,” Plowman said. Tolliver said, “It’s good because you sit there in class, wondering how you’re going to use this, and, bam, you’re using it. It was pretty cool.”

After brainstorming in the library and sharing ideas through instant messaging, the three settled on a miniature windmill and gathered in Plowman’s room to cut out and assemble the pieces. Kirkland figured out how to weld the parts together with solder because glue won’t stick to polypropylene, and they used a small wind-up flashlight motor for the generator. Everything else came from trash bags full of used bottles.

“We had plenty of spares. There was no shortage of the problem, which is the problem. There are so many of these throwaway items around, you need to figure out something to do with them,” Tolliver said.

“We tried to use very part of the bottle, including the cap and the o-ring that holds it on; even the threaded part of the neck,” Plowman said. From those parts, they made the blades, the body of the windmill, and a long post or handle. Best of all, their design works. With a light breeze, the windmill generates a quarter of a volt – enough electricity to power a tiny light or to charge a battery over time.

The contest was organized by AdvantageWest regional economic development arm. Tolliver, Plowman and Kirkland’s team earned third-place honors.

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