UNC Asheville Grad Changes the Way We Collect Solar Energy

August 2015 graduate Eli Whipple understands design. He designed his own interdisciplinary program within the Environmental Studies Department at UNC Asheville. And he designed a prototype for small solar panels encased in a tube that may change the way we think about and collect solar energy.

“I’ve been dissatisfied with solar technology as it is,” says Whipple, “and this is my opportunity to offer something better; to provide the next step in the solar industry.”

That next step comes in a tube and is in the queue, awaiting action at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It involves getting more efficiency from solar panels by allowing them to track the sun on two axes while protected from wind resistance by the hermetically sealed tube. Whipple’s units are modular and require no expert installation, which could lead to more widespread adoption of solar power. 

Making His Own Path

Whipple, a West Virginia native and Asheville High School graduate, has twin passions – alternative energy and fuels and technological innovation – which together led him along an unconventional path.

“I went to A-B Tech for machining and automotive and learned a lot about building stuff and how things work,” he says. “Then I went into the machining industry as a tool-maker, learning how to prototype. That was kind of my time off before my undergraduate degree, doing my own design projects for fun and working.”

Whipple says he felt he would need a more advanced education to be taken seriously by financial, commercial and academic communities, so he came to UNC Asheville looking for a stronger grounding in mathematics and other sciences. “I took some physics, and then had a little romance with chemistry but we had a falling out,” he recalls. “But thankfully I took a whole bunch of mathematics and eventually the Environmental Studies Department adopted me and allowed me to create my own major. All along, I had a cohesive idea of what I wanted to do using all that background.

“Being a part of the Environmental Studies Department was really important because the technical stuff, I already had a pretty good handle on, but you can’t just have solutions without context. You need environmental, social and political context, and the Environmental Studies Department is really good about making sure that you’re going to have a solid understanding of that. I’m really grateful.”

Eli Whipple prepares to mount solar panels in a lab at Rhoades-Robinson Hall at UNC Asheville.

Prototyping the Possibilities

“With this tube, you can just bolt it down flush regardless of the roof angle – four points, light hardware – and it will just find the perfect angle, all day, without you having to do all this extra work. An average person could install just one all by themselves, and then when they save more money, add another – that eliminates the model where you need a big loan to pay the contractors. You can buy these as you can afford them and daisy-chain them; do it yourself and save a lot of money. And because it’s tracking the sun, you’re going to get a higher output.”

Tracking technology – which Whipple says makes solar panels 10-40 percent more efficient – isn’t new. What makes Whipple’s idea different is the tube and the smaller scale. “To me, one of the most exciting things is that this allows radical dematerialization of tracking solar,” says Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Dee Eggers. “The wind is the big problem. And he solved it with a light tube, rather than a monolithic panel with a massive concrete footer in the ground to keep it stable. Just to offset the energy embodied in the concrete pedestal and the footer could take years and years.”

Whipple’s invention has been awaiting a patent for about 18 months, and he could be waiting for another year or two. In the meantime, now that he has completed his Bachelor of Science degree, Whipple is headed to California for work with All Power Labs, developers of small-scale biomass electric generators. He’ll help power small villages and hospitals in remote places, mostly in South America. 

And once the patent comes through, Whipple will face a new challenge. “What excited me most about this project was building it. Marketing and selling aren’t my expertise. But I started a process by patenting it, and I’m on a trajectory where in order to justify doing all that, I have to start a small business off of it, create a market, and most likely sell that business to someone who will manage it better than me.” But for Whipple, starting small still hinges on his big ideas.

Story and photos by UNC Asheville

Published November 4, 2015