Necessity, or so goes the adage, is the mom of invention. But Micah Toll now can argue that contests also can birth some inventiveness.
He's proven that point.
The University of Pittsburgh junior-to-be in mechanical engineering developed a lightweight, inexpensive and portable wind turbine that generates enough electricity to light several rooms or power appliances.
His friend, Shaun Espenshade, an upcoming junior at Duquesne University, produced a booklet on tips on living green to go with the wind turbine. Both students are from Lebanon, Lebanon County.
Their project defeated 28 other entries to land the $5,000 first prize in sustainable design in a contest sponsored by Pitt's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.
Second place went to Pitt mechanical engineering student Patrick Wetherill and industrial engineer student Stephen Palmer, who combined cooling and heating systems into a single device with a solar-assisted window fan and heating unit.
Carnegie Mellon University chemistry student Jacob Mohin and team won third prize for a device that would transmit home power-use data to a personalized Web site, reducing consumption by informing people in real time how much power they are using.
While commercial wind turbines can take years, or even decades of operation, to offset construction and equipment costs, Mr. Toll designed and built a portable system that overcomes its reduced electrical output with easy assembly, simplicity of design and low cost.
The turbine uses plastic blades, which whirl in the wind to produce electricity with a conventional electrical generator.
Installed inside an aluminum pipe pounded into the ground, the turbine takes little time to set up, but produces one third of the electrical production of a commercial system at a fraction of the cost.
Mr. Toll said his turbine -- one stood 6 feet high and a more efficient model towered 12 feet high -- produced about 330 watts of electricity, or enough to light several rooms or power a battery bank from which appliances could draw power.
His turbine also could be placed atop a flag pole for better results at higher elevation.
Mr. Espenshade, Mr. Toll's hometown friend, and a classics and rhetoric major at Duquesne, wrote the book full of tips, some of them obscure or forgotten, on how to reduce energy consumption in households.
Mr. Toll is seeking a patent on his wind turbine with plans to sell instructions or manufacture kits so people can build them for about $100. The wind turbine could be placed near a house, with a daisychain of turbines possible in small space to produce even more electricity.
"What I did was approach this problem from a new directions," Mr. Toll said, noting that conventional wind turbines require 10 years to get a return on investment. "What I wanted to do was cut back the payback to one year. The way to accomplish that was by reducing the efficiency of the wind turbine by using very inexpensive materials.
"It's not as much electricity, but it's a tenth of the cost."
Actually a much smaller fraction of cost than one-tenth. He said his turbine cost only $60 with a total weight of 50 pounds.
"We achieved very nice results," he said. "This was not a complicated project at all."
Eric J. Beckman, codirector of Science and Technology for the Mascaro Center, said he could conquer the world with 100 Micah Tolls.
The contest mission was to provide new technology to help people improve energy efficiency inside their homes. The first-year contest was funded by a grant from the Heinz Endowment.
All three winners show potential for commercial production, if the students can focus on becoming entrepreneurs, Mr. Beckman said.
"Mostly we wanted to fire their imaginations about entrepreneurship so when they leave the university they can do what they want to do," Mr. Beckman said. "Typically the trick with someone like Micah is to get him to focus."
Mr. Toll, who aspires to be an engineer, said he's planning a career in developing and selling his own inventions. But focus could be a challenge.
He's already busy developing new exercise equipment, medical devices, a children's toy, a cleaning product and a few recreational gizmos.
But his biggest invention to date is an inexpensive and lightweight, albeit strong plastic construction beam, filled with foam, that he said could be produced on-site to build refugee camps or emergency rescue shelters.
The idea came to him years ago.
Awaiting a patent on his beam technology, he's launched a company, Disaster Rebuilding Solutions, with details at www.disasterrebuildingsolutions.com.
He uses a mold to produce a hollow plastic beam he fills with foam. Eight to 10 beams can support 20,000 pounds of weight. Produced from sheets of plastic, the lightweight, easily produced beams could be used on short notice anywhere in the world.
Mr. Toll said he's built several one-room houses in his own back yard, and each house can be lifted and moved with ease. He ties the beams together and stakes the plastic house to the ground, much like a tent. The house can be covered with sheets of the same plastic used to produce the beams.
Just as plastic can be used to help humanity, so can wind.
"There's energy everywhere," Mr. Toll said. "Let's use it."
David Templeton can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1578.