It wasn’t their first idea, but it was the one with staying power — up to 240 volts of it.
After pitching a few ideas for an electrical engineering senior capstone project to their professor, student Abby Dolan and three of her classmates were approved to build a portable electric cart out of Tesla Powerwall batteries. A team of six students from the Mechanical Engineering Department designed the cart that will support the 1,000-plus-pound industrial electrical equipment and batteries. The combined project, Mobile Power Station, will be displayed at Innovation Day, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 5 in the University of Nevada, Reno engineering buildings.
Seniors in the College of Engineering are expected to do a capstone project to showcase innovations, plans and developments that solve real-world problems and/or better our lives. This year, 443 students in teams of three to six will present 104 projects across seven disciplines: biomedical engineering; chemical engineering; civil and environmental engineering; computer science and engineering; electrical engineering; materials science and engineering; and mechanical engineering.
The projects often are done in conjunction with industry partners — in the case of the Mobile Power Station project, Tesla was the partner. Other industry partners include government public works agencies, gaming companies, civil engineering firms and more. The Mobile Power Station project is unusual because students from two different engineering departments — electrical and mechanical — are coming together to create one big project.
Clean, quiet and accessible power
Abby Dolan and her teammates — Chris Livingston, Jack Nish and Cole Schaefer — initially proposed a couple different ideas for their capstone project before Electrical Engineering Professor Sesh Commuri approved Mobile Power Station. Dolan said she was inspired by her father, also an electrical engineer, who constructed a similar device for elementary education purposes years ago. She also saw a need: in addition to being a student, she is an electrical designer at Tesla’s Gigafactory Nevada in Sparks, which is continuing to expand its facility.
“The main goal of the cart is to provide clean, quiet and accessible power to active construction sites where power is not accessible,” Dolan wrote in an email explaining the project. “This cart will have the functionality of a generator without the noise, emissions and upkeep: think oil, gas and maintenance. This becomes very useful when working indoors or in proximity to people. Generators cannot be run inside and can be uncomfortable working close to even when outdoors.”
Tesla donated four Powerwall batteries — typically used in residential homes to store solar energy — that the team is using to create a power source that can serve industrial loads. Each Powerwall provides 13.5 kilowatt hours of energy storage, so the Mobile Power Station cart will have 54 kilowatt hours, along with electrical equipment, including a subpanel and outlets, according to Dolan.
“The Powerwalls themselves serve as energy storage, (but) they need to be paired alongside other equipment to allow functionality, and that’s where the cart comes into play,” Dolan wrote. “This differs greatly from the classic Powerwall install that is hard-connected (immobile) to a customer’s home and tied directly into their electrical panel. This is super-useful in household applications (power outages, offsetting your consumption…) but we want to take this idea and be able to use it on the move in areas where power isn’t accessible.”
Mobile Power Station will be able to output 120 volts and 240 volts, enough to power many different industrial tools and equipment.
“To put the functionality of the cart into perspective, 54 kilowatt hours is enough to power an average American home for 44½ hours,” Dolan said. “The cart will also have an assortment of outlets at different voltages and amperages, 120 volts and 240 volts, and between 15 amps to 50 amps. You can plug anything, from your phone charger to your household stove to a commercial welder, into this cart.”
Mechanical engineering student Steffany Yang had wanted to do a project with Tesla.
“Abby and I used to work together at Tesla, and we had a class (together) last semester, and agreed it would be cool to work together on this project with Tesla,” Yang said. “This would be the first senior project that Tesla has worked with students on.”
Yang and her teammates — Ava Banfer, Trace Larson, Giovanni Miranda, Adam Sjolunc and Taylor Stevens — designed the cart, which had to carry the four heavy Powerwall batteries, out of T6 aluminum alloy.
“The use of aluminum extrusion was very intentional, because it’s lightweight and strong,” Yang said. “It definitely has a lot of structural integrity.”
The Mobile Power Station power cart supports four Powerwalls, two on each side, with a “double H” structure with crossbars to make a rack. As of early April, the team also planned to incorporate a trailer hitch onto the back of the cart for ease of movement: the goal is to make sure that this can be used at construction sites.
Innovation Day showcases senior capstone projects, which offer an opportunity for businesses and government agencies to tap into the college’s student talent.
“We’re proud of what this year’s seniors have accomplished,” Dean Erick Jones said. “We also appreciate the support of the many businesses and sponsors who participated in this year’s event.”
Financial sponsors for Innovation Day 2023 were Mr. and Mrs. William R. Berry lll, Sierra Nevada Corporation/Faith and Eren Ozmen and Southwest Gas Corporation. In addition, many more companies and agencies — including Tesla — worked with individual teams.
“I’m excited to see how we can build on this,” Chris Reilly, Tesla director of Recruiting and Workforce Development, said. “Companies can be doing more fun things like this that are also energizing for students; it brings a textbook to life.”