Five people stand under nine aluminum leaves that will soon be outfitted with solar panels.
Professors with a variety of expertise, as well as college and high school students, are working on the solar tree. Credit: Lisa Prevost

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A solar tree is growing in an industrial design shop at the University of Connecticut, the inspired result of more than a year’s worth of collaboration by a multidisciplinary team of faculty and students. 

The 12-foot aluminum tree will be used as a research and education tool, while also providing a place for students to stop and literally recharge.

Solar trees have been around for years, and typically consist of a pipe-like steel base supporting rectangular overhead panels. The UConn team, however, came up with a design that artfully mimics a real tree. Several slim limbs rise from the base and branch outward toward the top to support nine large leaf shapes that will hold the solar panels. 

The completed installation will include three curved benches at the tree’s base to provide a place for visitors to sit and plug in to one of the tree’s outlets. 

“It’s an aesthetic object as much as a technical object,” said Christoper Sancomb, an assistant professor in the Industrial Design program in the School of Fine Arts and one of the project’s organizers.

Outlets at the base of the solar tree will allow visitors to stop and recharge their devices. Credit: Lisa Prevost

The solar tree is the brainchild of Dr. Jasna Jankovic, an assistant professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department and part of the Center for Clean Energy Engineering and Institute of Materials Science faculty. Jankovic said she first began discussing the idea with colleagues about two years ago. 

The concept immediately intrigued Dr. Cynthia Jones, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. 

“I told her it had always been a fantasy of mine to build an electrical plant and modify aspects, like leaf shape and positioning, to see how it influenced total electrical gain over the course of the day,” Jones said. In other words, the electrical plant could be used to gain a better understanding of photosynthesis.

Jankovich teamed up with Sancomb to apply for a UConn STEAM Innovation Grant to make the project happen. The grant program encourages innovative collaborations between the arts and STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). 

They also assembled a multidisciplinary team of faculty including Jones, Dr. Sung Yeul Park, an associate professor in electrical engineering, and Dr. Stacy Maddern, an assistant professor of urban and community studies. The rest of the crew consists of about a dozen students, including two high school students.

“We all deliberately sought out an opportunity to work with people outside of our fields,” Sancomb said. “There’s value in learning from each other — it sparks new ideas.”

The final solar tree design will include three curved benches at the bottom of the tree where visitors can sit. Credit: Christopher Sancomb

As they set about planning the tree, the group started by asking, what would separate this solar tree from the others out there? They talked about creating a public sculpture that people could plug into, a meeting place that would also provide shade and seating. They saw the tree as an opportunity to educate people about solar, perhaps with a solar-powered kiosk with an interactive presentation about the tree. 

They wanted to make it as “green” as possible. So they decided to use recyclable aluminum, and ruled out the use of any plastics. 

And, they wanted to make it portable. So although the tree will weigh around 600 pounds, it comes apart easily. The benches will contain ballast to anchor the tree to the ground in its temporary locations. 

Sancomb, who has an extensive background in creating museum exhibits, is overseeing the tree’s construction. The metal parts of the tree have been assembled, but it awaits wiring, attachment of the solar panels, painting, the benches and batteries to store power for nighttime lighting. 

The nine 50-watt flexible solar panels (and two extras), along with two batteries, were donated by Renogy, a California maker of DIY-friendly renewable energy products designed for a variety of applications. 

Meanwhile, students on the team are beginning work on a variety of “microprojects.”  For example, Pablo Zarama, 20, a materials science and engineering major, said he is creating sensors that he hopes will measure the optimal angles for the leaf panels to maximize generation. 

Vuk Jankovic, 18, a psychology major, said he will use the tree as the focus of a study on different styles of learning. Subjects will see a presentation about the tree in an in-class setting, a remote setting or through virtual reality technology. Jankovic will then test the subjects to see how well they retained the knowledge.

And Dar Jankovic, 16, said he wants to test whether using concave-shaped leaves with a smaller solar panel on one end and a mirror to reflect sunlight on the other will maximize efficiency. 

“We want to branch out to multiple projects,” Jasna Jankovic said. “We will continue to encourage students and faculty to come up with their own projects.”

As it turns out, this tree is not suitable for the kind of research Jones was interested in. 

“The leaves ended up being larger than I thought initially they would be,” she said. “We could still do some of that work if we build a second tree that might be smaller and has more flexibility for adjusting things for experimental uses.”

And that’s certainly possible. This tree was meant to be a prototype to test a number of factors, Jankovic said, and “we will apply to the National Science Foundation or another granting agency for a bigger grant to develop this project further.” Sancomb estimates the cost of replicating the prototype tree at somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000; he won’t have a more exact figure until the project is finished.

The team hopes to finish the tree this summer so it can make its campus debut this fall. But before that happens, Sancomb said they have another challenge to meet: coming up with a system of deterrents to keep students from climbing it.

Lisa Prevost

Lisa Prevost is a longtime journalist based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." A native New Englander, Lisa covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.