Cover Story
Kicking it new school
High school students from major port hub build a truck turbine auxiliary power system

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer


Every day, Miguel Arreguin drives his truck to work at the Port of Long Beach.

Sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening – “It’s whenever the ships are scheduled to come in,” daughter Gwendolyn says – Miguel starts the port driver ritual of starting and stopping in line, waiting for containers to haul to warehouses in the Los Angeles area.

It’s taxing work, but it has allowed him to proudly raise a family of three boys and a daughter.

He’ll turn two or three containers each day, and each time he must wait in line without idling in California’s brutal summer heat because of the state’s idling restrictions.

“I remember the day he came home and was complaining because he was hot and he couldn’t idle anymore,” Gwendolyn said.

But now a project by a high school engineering club – which his daughter is a member of – could eventually help make his daily work more bearable.

In June, Gwendolyn Arreguin graduated from Long Beach’s Wilson High School, where she worked for the past year as a member of the Wilson-Whitney High School Engineering Club.

In 2009, the club was awarded a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant to come up with a new invention. The club scored the only such grant the Massachusetts Institute of Technology awarded on the West Coast.

The club’s 20 students invented a turbine to capture wind energy to be stored and used by truck drivers like Miguel, who can’t idle and who often lack APU technology.

“What surprised me more was that it was Gwendolyn, the only girl in the family, that did this – not any of her older brothers,” Miguel said.

As it turns out, not only did Gwendolyn work as a team member on a successful “green” invention, but her work as an engineer might just be beginning.

Building green
Sponsored and guided by Wilson High School teacher Anthony Falcone and Whitney High School’s Rod Ziolkowski, the club originally thought about creating alternative energy by putting a turbine onto a sports car.

The idea soon changed, however.

The more the club looked at its project, adding electricity to a sports car wouldn’t help people or the environment much, Falcone said. While visiting the port, students learned they could help reduce truck emissions while helping to keep truck drivers cool in the summer – something Gwendolyn knew could really make a difference.

The port has adopted a Clean Truck Program designed to cut emissions, and California regulations prohibit truck idling.

“That’s kind of what got the kids thinking. We have the biggest port here in the nation with L.A.-Long Beach,” Falcone said. “It’s such a big part of our community, and you’re constantly seeing all the trucking going on. This fits in with what they’re trying to do at the ports – the clean truck initiative.”

The students were given an education by port employees on trucking, freight volume and emissions, Falcone said.

“We have kids here who have lived in Long Beach their entire life and the port is right over there, but they’ve never been into it,” Falcone said.

Patrick Mathis, a local driver who works for J.B. Hunt, brought his truck to the club and let students measure truck specs and ask questions about trucking life. The students saw firsthand how they could help someone by using science.

“It’s one thing for them to work on a science project – but it’s another thing to know this could really benefit a trucker’s lifestyle,” Falcone said. “Part of our goal was to get the chance to do this entire project, think about the ideas, apply them, and get real-world experience.”

After researching and questioning whether a truck cab could support a 150-pound turbine, the students began building.

Students developed a system in which electricity can be captured and stored for use later by drivers.

The turbine was designed to be placed in a truck’s cowling – the body portion of a semi truck directly above the windshield – which was donated to the club by UPS. When the truck moves down the road, the wind turns the turbine, creating energy to be stored by batteries. Later, the stored energy could be used to power air conditioning and heating systems.

Falcone said the students gained experience doing things like using computer-assisted design software, cutting metal, soldering wire, and using a drill press – several skills that used to be included in shop classes before many schools stopped offering them.

Student David Strachan-Olson, the club’s vice president, said sacrificing Friday evenings and Saturday mornings to work on the project was difficult, but worth the effort.

The club was helped by Ted Nye, senior engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp., which designs and builds military aircraft, weapons and aero structures.

“Ted is just a great guy. He doesn’t have any kids in the school, but he spent countless hours on this,” Falcone said.

In June, the club sent a few representatives with Falcone to present the turbine at EurekaFest, hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.

Falcone said that their project was well received and intrigued exhibit goers.

He doesn’t expect the industry to use the particular system the club invented, but said it could be used as a foundation for further development.

“Someone who knows trucking well will probably respond that there is a better way to do this, and that is what we discovered,” he said. “But it was a very high level for high school kids to be pulling off,” Falcon said.

The project made national news, splashed across the pages of USA Today, the Long Beach Press-Telegram and other publications.

Richard Steinke, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, told the Press-Telegram the students’ work was “fabulous.”

“I think the way they went about their research was excellent,” he told the paper.

Stoking a newfound passion
As it turns out, neither David Strachan-Olson’s nor Gwendolyn Arreguin’s engineering interests ended with the MIT presentation.

 David will attend Cal-Poly University at San Luis Obispo to study mechanical engineering. He said he has always wanted to be an engineer, and the truck turbine project solidified his career choice.

For Gwendolyn, the turbine project stoked a passion for engineering she didn’t know she had.

“I was interested in architecture, and when I got into the club, it was really interesting to come up with something new and helpful with electricity,” Gwendolyn said. “I didn’t think I’d enjoy electrical engineering, but it was pretty interesting.”

This fall, she’ll start classes as an engineering major at California State University at Long Beach.

Miguel said he hopes the turbine project will spur improvements that will help truckers and continue to solve the pollution problem at the ports, while improving driver comfort.

As for his daughter, Miguel didn’t hesitate.

“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” he said. LL