News | May 14, 2018

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Grad student studying solar is a maker in the making

5 - minute read

In just about everyone’s life, there are serendipitous moments that are hard to explain but joyously embraced.

In spring 2016, Michael Hegy was a junior at FGCU, majoring in environmental studies, with a heavy focus on integrating unmanned aircraft systems — also known as drones — in mixed environmental research and monitoring. He had a curiosity for everything electrical, mechanical and computational.

Michael Hegy

While watching FGCU’s SunChase Solar Go-Kart Challenge, he sought out Christian Bokrand, the event’s technical consultant and organizer,to tell him that this was one of his hobbies and he builds this kind of thing in his free time.

Bokrand happened to be preparing to serve as lab manager at FGCU’s Emergent Technologies Institute, then a soon-to-open research and development complex overseen by the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering and designed to encourage the development of renewable energy and focus on environmental sustainability.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Hegy says. “They invited me to start sharing some of my knowledge into the research they wanted to see there.

“I put it as, ‘I’m getting paid to do my hobbies, essentially.’ I’ve always been building stuff and figuring out how things work and teaching other people how to do unique things. That’s what I ended up doing at the ETI.”

Hegy started out his internship doing general biomanagement work. Now, as he does graduate research in FGCU’s new master of science in engineering program with an emphasis on renewable energy engineering, he is taking on complex and rewarding challenges.

He has proposed a project that is basically an extension of his undergraduate research, going into more depth and detail on microclimate variabilities — such as the effect that rooftop solar panels have on the surrounding environment.

“Solar panels get really hot when they’re in operation—upwards of 80 degrees Celsius,” or 176 degrees Fahrenheit, he says. “Imagine several square miles of these. They’re only about 20% efficient, so 80% of the energy that’s hitting them is being converted straight to heat. There’s a little bit of light being reflected, but the majority of energy is waste heat.

“I’m planning to develop some methods to determine how this heat source influences a heat islanding effect. This is something you normally experience in a city with a lot of the concrete structures and lack of transpiration from plants. Plants have a cooling effect that results from the transpiration of water in their leaves.

“If we’re installing solar panels in greenspaces or even in urban areas, we need to understand how that influences anything from local flora, fauna or even just the quality of life. My goal at the moment is to develop this method so we can share it with other studious people in the ecological sciences to determine how that affects species migration, for example.

“From what I learned in my undergraduate studies, something as little as a half-degree mean temperature change can displace or alter the ecological niche in which a certain species thrives. Plants, animals, insects, many ecological processes rely on seasonal temperature changes throughout their life cycles. Such subtle environmental changes can throw off a whole hierarchy of events in regards to the world’s ecosystems and their relationships among each other.”

If it sounds complex, it is. But Hegy has the intelligence and work ethic to unpack the intricate elements with relative ease.

“He works hard, always has a great attitude and is very resourceful,” ETI director John Woolschlager says. “He can figure out how to do anything with little or no guidance.”

Bokrand believes Hegy will be a leader in the maker movement, a technology-based extension of DIY culture that features independent inventors, designers and tinkerers and is being compared to the late-1970s culture that led to the development of the PC industry.

“As a student, he is meticulous, motivated and interested in learning,” says Bokrand, who earned his environmental engineering degree at FGCU. “Michael has a deep understanding of electronics and mechanical design, and loves to tinker with machines. He is very quick to understand any system I assign him to and doesn’t hesitate to track down the answers he needs.

“Students of Michael’s caliber are rare. He will be the head of the R&D department in the startup that rivals innovators like Elon Musk.”

Hegy’s reaction?

“I may be modest, but I’m always surprised, yet grateful to hear comments like that,” he says. “For most of my life, many of the people I’ve worked with — professors, teachers, friends — have stated something along the lines of, ‘Remember me when you make it big,’ or ‘Remember me when you give a big speech about a prize-wining invention you made.’

“Of course, I’ll remember them. I’m always endlessly thankful for the knowledge and experiences these people share with me. Similarly, having grown up as a struggling dyslexic, always finding new ways to do simple things, it’s reassuring to know how others have been regarding you and wishing you the best of luck.”

Hegy says he intends to follow a career path into multi-disciplined R&D with a field or innovation that is important for us today and for our future. But for him, it’s more of a we thing than an I thing.

“Working with others and sharing our ideas to build something great is how we can get there,” he says. “Building things and learning how things work is what I do in my free time. It’s my goal to keep doing what I love and apply those experiences to a better tomorrow.”

Photo shows FGCU's Emergent Technologies Institute
FGCU’s Emergent Technologies Institute
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