Seniors devise plan to build automated solar panel cleaner for engineering project

March 15, 2017 — by Caitlyn Chen and Claire Rhee

When senior Zayne Khouja found out about his Engineering Design and Development class’s final project last semester, he immediately started brainstorming problems that affected the environment and everyday life.

After communicating with some of his classmates and narrowing down his options, Khouja decided to join with seniors Kyle France, James Johnston and James Lorenz to tackle the problem of how the efficiency of solar panels decreases by around 30 percent when they are covered in dust and pollen.

“If we could clean the panels, it’d be an opportunity to harvest more energy from a pre-existing set up,” Khouja said. “Also, there's a massive market for solar panels, since solar renewable energy is taking off.”

Following weeks of research about the solar panel problem, they created their problem statement, a thesis for the project. Looking at prior solutions and data about the effects of the problem, they found that many commercial cleaning solutions had been made for solar farms, but there wasn’t much for residential use. As a result, they decided to market their product toward personal house installation of solar panels.

The four came up with the solution of creating self-cleaning solar panels to clean off debris and therefore maintain the maximum efficiency of the panel. The plan for their project is to build water jets on top of the solar panel so that the panel can clean itself.

Once the team agreed on their solution, they needed to start prototyping; however, they were missing a key component: a solar panel to work with.

By the end of first semester, they had contacted a dozen or so well-known solar companies in the Bay Area, including Sun Power, The Solar Company and Solar City. The seniors were hoping they could either buy a used panel for cheap or receive a donation to the school engineering program for them to use. To their disappointment, they received absolutely no responses.

But during one of Khouja’s college interviews, the interviewer, who happened to be the parent of an SHS alum, suggested contacting Barry Cinnamon at Cinnamon Solar. Although Khouja didn’t have high hopes for a response from Cinnamon, he ended up receiving a reply within 20 minutes.

“It was incredible,” Khouja said. “We were getting nothing from any other companies, and when I heard back from Cinnamon, I told Kyle, ‘No way!’”

Two days later, Khouja and France drove to Cinnamon’s shop in Campbell, where Cinnamon donated a $200 solar panel to their project.

“In the course of our home installation research and development work, we occasionally have extra panels,” Barry said. “I was glad that [France and Khouja] could put one of these to use.”

In addition to giving them a panel, Barry taught the two how to use it and gave some tips on cleaning and recommendations on what they do with it.

This was the first big step the team took after spending most of first semester brainstorming the logistics of a self-cleaning solar panel.

This semester, the team has been focusing on carrying out their plan and actually building their self-cleaning panels.

The four have found that building their contraption has been difficult in some aspects, but obtaining the solar panels was a key step in proceeding with the project.

“We couldn’t be doing this project without his solar panel. Now that we have it, we can build our cleaning contraption on top of it,” Khouja said. “I’ve been in correspondence with both [Barry] and his daughter, and [Cinnamon Solar is] a very personable company. I’ve asked them various questions on how we should test [the contraption] and what components we need, and they quickly reply.”

Cinnamon’s daughter, Julia Cinnamon, said that her father has always been “an active and involved community member, ”  and is always promoting science.

Barry donates many solar panels to local schools in order to encourage hands-on-learning, but this particular project was an exciting donation for him because all five of his children have graduated from Saratoga High.

“[My father] was happy to help with the project after hearing about their interest in solar, and he continuously encourages and mentors aspiring engineers,” Julia said.

Khouja said the Cinnamons will be coming to see the group’s final presentation at the end of the year.

Since receiving the panel, the team has been playing with separate pieces of their water jets to see which ones will provide the maximum efficiency. Each person has been delegated a different task, including working on the electronic component, figuring out the best water nozzle or simply testing the panel in various places.

France said that he has been working with 3D-printed water jet nozzles so that the water stream can oscillate instead of simply having a stream jet.

Other than testing various types of each part of the panel, the group has just barely started to build their prototype. Since the project is still in its early stages, the group recently went to Home Depot to buy their materials.

Even though the team has spent ample time in class working on the project, they have no plans to bring their product to the market.

“We’ve kind of toyed with the idea of trying to make something of it,” France said, “but part of the problem is that when we got the panel and the other components, those were donated, so we would have to definitely get clearance if we were to try to monetize anything.”

Khouja said that while the product is viable and has a massive market, the seniors are mainly going through the design process and gaining experience from completing an engineering project from idea to actual product, which is, after all, the whole point of the Engineering Design and Development class.

Right now, the team has seven versions of the nozzle and a few more on the way. As the year progresses, the team will continue prototyping, asking questions and doing trial-and-error design experiments in order to learn more and optimize the product’s efficiency.

Pouring much time into class, the team is looking forward to presenting their product at the end of the year.

“It’s like a real world product: prototype research and design-based,” Khouja said. “You figure out what issue you want to solve. You do research to figure out what’s currently on the market, who you’re catering towards and how viable it is pricewise. And then you go through various iterations, and see how it turns out.”