Students See Renewable Power Potential at SIPI

Nov 15th, 2005 | By | Category: 17-2: Sustainability, Tribal College News

SOLAR ROBOT. This dual-powered, mobile robot (solar and fuel cell) demonstrates the excitement of science to college and high school students.

For the past four years, Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI, Albuquerque, NM) has been developing a curriculum in renewable energy and the environment under a cooperative agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE).

SIPI designed the curriculum not only for the students but also for the surrounding tribes. SIPI faculty wants to help develop tribes’ capacity for making informed decisions regarding energy and other resource uses. The courses help students develop critical thinking skills by studying, for example, the economics of energy — both capital and recurring cost perspectives.

DOE provided funds to alter existing facilities at SIPI, adding a number of photovoltaic, wind, solar- thermal hot air, and solar-thermal hot water systems. The SIPI campus is used as a model community.

Each class analyzes different aspects of this community, from waste and resource management to detailed energy and cost analysis. Partnering with the local utility, PNM, and a Native-owned industrial partner, Sacred Power Corp, SIPI students have developed detailed performance characteristics for each building and activity. This hands-on project helps engage students, according to the faculty.

The program includes outreach designed to excite pre-college students about science and technology. For example, SIPI students and faculty demonstrate robots fueled by photovoltaic and hydrogen fuel at area schools.

In the robotics program, 12 pre-engineering SIPI students each year learn the fundamentals of robotics, including electrical and mechanical assembly, programming, troubleshooting, and operating sophisticated, wireless-networked robotics platforms. The mobile robot platform will be loaned to any tribal college that is willing to serve as a beta site and provide feedback to improve the platform.

SIPI students in the robotics programs also see how various “science payloads” are used in NASA’s robotics Mars exploration missions.

One of the miniature robots they work with is powered by photovoltaics and a hydrogen fuel cell. The fuel cell is attached to a small plastic car chassis (less than one-foot long) with two tanks for hydrogen and oxygen attached to the back.

When placed under sunlight (or other light source), electricity runs from the solar panel to the fuel cell and car motor. As electricity passes through the fuel cell, electrolysis occurs, creating hydrogen and oxygen.

When the level of light can no longer support the motor and fuel cells, then reverse electrolysis occurs. Hydrogen and oxygen gases combine in the fuel cell, producing water and electricity. Electricity from the reverse electrolysis can be used to power sensors or to supplement the main power source for the system.

The students and faculty will try to improve the design and increase its efficiency.

For more information on the tribal energy program, contact Dr. Mike Thomas, (505) 346-7730, email For information on the robotics, contact Dr. Nader Vadiee, (505) 792-4618, email

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