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Oakland University wins third place at Marine Energy Collegiate Competition

A multidisciplinary team of Oakland University students made a splash at the 2024 Marine Energy Collegiate Competition, tying for third place among 20 schools nationwide. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the annual event challenges students to design, develop and present innovations that harness the power of water.   

Marine Energy Collegiate Competition

OU team members with the poster they presented at this year's Marine Energy Collegiate Competition, from left: Lance Markowitz, Matthew Brauer, Mike Zheng, Gerard Griest and Saber Khanmohammadi. 

OU students designed a filtration system that uses the ocean's thermal gradient to desalinate seawater. Thermal gradient refers to the temperature difference between warmer waters near the ocean's surface and cooler waters at deeper depths. The system functions by allowing water vapor produced via the thermal gradient to pass through a membrane, separating clean water from salts and other impurities.  

The team identified American Samoa (a group of islands in the South Pacific) as having an optimal thermal gradient for the filtration system and conferred with local officials to assess the territory’s energy needs.   

“When we contacted them, they were focused on solar and wind (energy),” said OU’s team leader Matthew Brauer. “But their location is ideal for ocean thermal, and its key advantage is that the thermal gradient is available 24/7, unlike solar and wind.”

Marine Energy Collegiate Competition

The students presented their results before a judging panel of industry professionals.

The competition featured four required challenges: market analysis, technical design, prototype testing and community engagement. OU undergraduate students Matthew Brauer (bioengineering), Mike Zheng (mechanical engineering), Gerard Griest (electrical and computer engineering) and Lance Markowitz (general management and Spanish language and literature) were each responsible for different aspects of the project. Saber Khanmohammadi, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, served as a graduate advisor.

“One of the things I liked best about our project is that it brought together students from many different majors, each using their skills to contribute,” said Jonathan Maisonneuve, associate professor of mechanical engineering and the team’s faculty advisor. “They designed the system, evaluated it in theory, built and tested a prototype in the lab, looked at the economics of it to see if it made business sense and reached out to people in American Samoa to see if it would meet their needs.”

Marine Energy Collegiate Competition

OU captured third place out of the 20 schools that competed this year. 

Markowitz, who developed a business plan to demonstrate the economic feasibility of the desalination system, said the competition opened his eyes to rewarding careers in the field of renewable energy.

“The competition showed that working in renewable energy provides the fulfillment that I’m seeking,” he said, adding that “many renewable energy companies work with clients in Spanish-speaking countries, which makes these opportunities a great fit.” 

The team also got help from Ava Kobus, a biomedical engineering major with a studio art minor, who volunteered to upgrade the team’s final presentation materials. In addition, Sanjana Yagnambhatt, a recent Ph.D. graduate specializing in renewable energy conversion for power generation, performed a cost analysis affirming the project’s viability. 

“She was not an official member of the team, but her help with the cost analysis was instrumental,” said Markowitz. “Her analysis indicated that our system had the potential to produce water at a price point competitive with current water prices in American Samoa.”

The team presented their results during the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust’s Ocean Renewable Energy Conference in Portland, Oregon, where they also networked with representatives from the marine energy industry. Their strong performance earned them a top-three finish and an invitation to compete in next year’s Marine Energy Collegiate Competition.

I'm very pleased with the team and their accomplishments,” said Maisonneuve. “They made tremendous progress this semester and were rewarded with one of the top spots. We're hoping we can build off this success and do even better next year.”

Chamber Trustees