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The winning project, called Turbox, can generate power in remote, off-grid locations and can be transported by four people.

Credit: Courtesy of Tommy Sutton

This year's Senior Design Project winners are bringing portable wind energy to anywhere from Sub-Saharan Africa to Nepal, all in a small wood paneled box.

Engineering seniors Manfred Reiche, John Doyle, John Whitman and Tommy Sutton have worked since September to create a product they call Turbox, which can generate power in remote, off-grid locations and can be transported by four people. The box can generate enough power in an hour to charge an iPhone.

All Engineering seniors are required to complete the Senior Design Project, which applies what they've learned throughout their time at Penn. Once completed, the projects are entered in a competition.

The Turbox team started their journey with another idea. They lost a couple of months working on a way to gather energy from cars passing by on a highway, which ultimately didn’t produce the data that they were hoping for.

“They were very courageous,” said Engineering professor Paulo Arratia, their advisor. “They were informed by their data and had no emotional attachment and they said ‘let’s move on’.”

Thankfully the team was able to use much of the data and measurement tools that they had acquired from their first pet project toward their new wind turbine idea.

“This is a fully functioning product,” Sutton said. “It definitely could be generating energy in places like Nepal or Ethiopia.”

The idea of distributed energy, or that each house can store the energy that it produces, is the intended use of Turbox. The team hoped to apply this technology to homes in Africa, which have significantly less energy needs than a home in the United States might have. The team members are now looking to get a provisional patent for their product.

“If we can get a patent on it that means no one has done it, which means no one has proven it couldn’t be a good idea,” Whitman added.

Turbox is a five and a half feet by two and a half feet box that weighs around 85 pounds. When it opens up, it is made up of four custom designed carbon fiber blades. The team used just about all of the resources that the Engineering school offers, including the 3D printing lab and Weiss Tech House. They also tested their product across campus, even venturing to the roof of Skirkanich Hall.

The team of seniors, hailing from the Mechanical Engineering and Applied Science department, had to present their project along, with three other top teams from each of the engineering majors, to a panel of real world alumni judges. They were awarded first place on May 1.

The teams are judged on not only the design approach, but also their ability to communicate their product’s goal and the results of their gathered data.

The road to success has been long and difficult, as laboring over a complicated project on top of classes senior year is a lot of work. Yet the team has enjoyed working on Turbox, as it has provided a departure from most of their normal engineering homework.

“With the end goal in mind, you’re looking at everything from the cost to the customer,” Whitman said. “It’s nice to see the full scope of a project rather than just a problem set or analysis.”

“It’s different to work on something for a whole year. We did learn a lot about teamwork,” Rieche added. “We were all friends before we got into this and we all survived.”

In terms of winning the entire competition, the team members think their strong presentation skills and ability to present a complete and marketable product, from the manufacturing to the shipping helped convince the judges.

“I think it helped because we had a complete product,” Sutton said. "Having something that is fully functional and further along in the development state definitely helped us.”

Arratia, who guided the team as a resource and mentor throughout the year, hopes that they continue to work with Turbox.

“I think they have something special,” Arratia said. “I would love to see this being shipped by Amazon or Red Cross to places where people need energy.” 

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