Students take Clean Energy Challenge head on

ACC Clean Energy Challenge Granular Systems
Three members of NC State’s Granular Systems team at the ACC Clean Energy Challenge.

On April 9, a team of NC State students made the final four in a competition that could change the way energy is produced, distributed and used in the United States. Though the NC State inventors and developers of Granular Systems didn’t win the $100,000 ACC Clean Energy Challenge, their selection as a finalist could signal another successful startup born among NC State students.

The Granular Systems team – John Crawford, Chet Helms, Kevin Cook, Dreier Carr, Brandon Long and Andy Borleske (adviser) – have developed an energy analysis system that helps small- to medium-sized industrial and manufacturing facilities lower energy usage, optimize operations and monitor equipment performance.

“Many [manufacturing facilities] don’t have resources or personnel to do this,” said Crawford, who was part of the student team that developed the initial concept in an engineering senior design class.

Though first “smart outlet” prototype was designed for residential use, the student team realized it had greater potential in the manufacturing sector, where North Carolina ranks fourth in the nation for total output. Equip these facilities with devices that provide real-time energy usage and over time companies can determine ways to run more efficiently and save money.

“It’s come a long way. We’re pretty proud,” said Crawford, now an NC State computer engineering graduate student.

Though great U.S. energy challenges remain – improving efficiency, decreasing emissions and reducing energy imports – funding for energy innovations is slowing, according to the Challenge’s keynote speaker Mark Johnson, who worked at NC State before becoming program director at Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

Citing the recent drop in funding for clean energy innovations, Johnson advised student teams to “get real or go home” when it comes to developing a clean energy business.  New business ideas must transform the market and “have a big impact,” Johnson said.

NC State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and the Office of Technology Transfer hosted this year’s Challenge, which was judged by energy industry representatives.

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