Students from Puerto Rico Channel Resiliency to Solve Real-World Challenges

July 31, 2019

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Team Juracán from the Universidad Ana G. Méndez (UAGM) in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, returned to the Collegiate Wind Competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy for the third time in 2019. As in previous years, these undergraduate students brought a strong mission and unwavering determination with them to the competition.

Starting in 2016, the first Team Juracán saw small-scale wind energy systems connected to existing light poles as an opportunity to provide more efficient and lower-cost street illumination in Puerto Rico. In 2018, Team Juarcán returned to the event after weathering Hurricane Maria. This time their mission focused on restoring water services, which rely on electricity to run pumped systems, to serve communities in the aftermath of a storm.

Five students in safety gear stand in a huddle next to a wind tunnel.
UAGM students prepare their model turbine for a practice run in the wind tunnel at the 2019 Collegiate Wind Competition Technical Challenge. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

“One of our goals in the competition is to envision something new, to see something further than what we did in the past,” said Luis Rafael Miranda Rodríguez, the team’s mechanical division lead. “What would be the next logical step?”

That question led this year’s Team Juracán to propose a real-world solution that could have life-saving impacts in the wake of a natural disaster. The UAGM students created a wind turbine prototype that could provide backup energy to hospitals during times when they can’t keep medications and other necessary medical supplies cool.

“We chose locked-out regions that have no connections to anything when disasters happen—no food, no water, no electricity, no internet or way to communicate with anyone,” said Luis. “We also wanted to focus on something tangible, like a shelter technology that could power small freezers for medications like insulin.”

Three students wearing safety gear are visible through a glass enclosure with a small-scale wind turbine, while two people in the foreground take measurements.
Team Juracán works with competition management during one of their official wind tunnel test runs at the NREL Flatirons Campus near Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

This project idea hits home for Luis and his teammates. According to FEMA, Hurricane Maria caused 41,000 landslides that left all but 400 miles of Puerto Rico’s 16,700 miles of roads inaccessible. Luis saw citizens and public servants step up to serve the medical needs of those isolated municipalities.

“The areas that were the worst were those that were only connected by bridges. The only way people could get anything would be a brave few who would climb down a chasm, climb up the other side, and make makeshift bridges out of rope,” said Luis.

He remembers seeing police officers crossing bridges with coolant bags, in addition to their normal equipment. “The police were the ones who were able to distribute insulin to people who needed it.”

A model of a small-scale wind turbine with three red blades, including one that has the word, “Survivor” written on it in Sharpie.
The blades developed by Team Juracán featured a red resin coating decorated with a personalized message. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

This experience led Team Juracán to use a simple, readily available 400-kilowatt turbine as inspiration for their prototype. They modified it by adding an innovative resin coating, knowing that a smooth blade was essential to fit the island’s wind profile. The students not only considered more than 60 blade designs, but also conducted a survey to get feedback from the community. Their careful consideration, project relevance, and analysis of constraints earned them high marks from competition judges.

“We’ve spent hours tirelessly working on the turbine and every single drawback, but we just keep at it. We don’t stop until we get it done,” said Luis. “There’s a word that characterizes Puerto Ricans. We are resilient.”

After receiving a diagnosis of stage four thyroid cancer in 2016, Luis was declared cancer-free in 2017. Next year, he will continue his doctoral studies in philosophy and mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Team Juracán’s work may have been catalyzed by a destructive storm, yet preserved, inspiring others on the path of healing and resilience after destruction.