Saturday Feb 04, 2023

Engineering students collaborate to design and build a solar tracking array – Western Carolina University News

By Tom Lotshaw

From left to right, engineering students Roberto Estrada, Zachary Kielbasa and Stephanie
Chavez Cardenas.

For a junior design class, three engineering students at Western Carolina University
built a solar tracking array. The device finds and tracks the sun to keep solar panels
optimally aligned with it as the Earth rotates.

North Carolina is a leading state for solar panel installations and such devices can
boost the amount of energy generated. That’s because panels are most efficient when
precisely aligned with the sun.

Engineering students Roberto Estrada, Stephanie Chavez Cardenas and Zachary Kielbasa
said they modeled their solar tracking device after the Parker Solar Probe NASA launched
in 2018 to observe the sun.

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The probe has a reflective shield to keep it from being destroyed within a matter
of seconds by the sun’s powerful radiation. Sensors installed along the probe detect
light and help the probe reposition itself as needed to remain safe in the shield’s

The students’ solar tracking array similarly uses a series of smaller solar panels
positioned behind the device’s main solar panel array, Kielbasa said.

When the small panels come into direct sunlight, they create energy to power motors
— one for vertical movements and one for horizontal movements. These motors move the
main solar panel array back into optimal alignment with the sun. Once aligned, the
shield casts a shadow on the smaller panels, removing power from the motors.

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The students came to the design project from different engineering backgrounds. Kielbasa
is studying electrical engineering while Estrada’s area of concentration is mechanical
engineering and Chavez Cardenas is studying engineering technology.

After developing a workable strategy for the device, the students designed and 3D
printed many of its parts, including a counterbalance needed to offset the weight
of the main solar panel array. They tried to keep the device as simple as possible
from a production-cost standpoint.

“I feel like we worked well together. There were a lot of skills we could bring together,”
said Chavez Cardenas, who is from Asheville.

Each of the students said they prefer the collaborative, project-based learning that
is a core part of engineering studies at WCU. “I think these kinds of courses are
essential to reinforcing our knowledge,” said Kielbasa, who is from Florida’s Space
Coast and served six years in the Air Force.

The device earned top marks in the junior design class taught by mechanical engineering
professor Martin Tanaka, who spent 11 years designing commercial products in the private

It is now giving demonstrations to Estrada’s family in Hillsborough.

“I wanted to show it off to them, to show them this is what I’m doing at Western,”
Estrada said of the solar tracking array. “We left it outside to show them. They’d
check back every hour and see the panels facing a different direction. They thought
it was very cool.”

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