Harvard Undergraduates To Build Water Turbine

A team of undergraduates will build water-turbines that use flowing ocean water to generate electricity, as part of an effort to expand opportunities for undergraduates to take on real-world engineering projects.

Students will collaborate with engineers from Hydrovolts—a hydropower company founded by Burt Hamner ’83 that specializes in making hydrokinetic turbines—on the project, sponsored by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Harvard College Engineering Society.

Once completed, the turbines will be used by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for research.

“This is a great opportunity for [engineering students] to see how industrial process of design works,” said Sarah J. Shareef ’12, co-president of the engineering society.

Currently, deep-sea sensors that take continuous measurements of the ocean’s biological and chemical processes are powered by batteries—a costly and inefficient model, since the batteries need to be replaced when they run out, according to Barry A. Griffin ’71, a visiting SEAS lecturer who is coordinating the project.

The team will design a turbine that can generate enough electricity to power the sensors, thereby eliminating the need to replace batteries as frequently, he explained.

The students will first learn how the existing model works so that they “can optimize it and explore new uses for this technology,” Griffin said.

Hydrokinetics, or making use of technology that takes advantage of flowing water, has great relevance to today’s society, especially in India and Pakistan, according to Griffin. For example, water turbines can be placed in irrigation canals to supply power to villages.

This project marks SEAS’ growing trend of bringing opportunities for undergraduates to work beyond the scope of Harvard labs. This year, according to Griffin, five senior projects involve collaboration with outside companies.

“We’re looking to generate long-term relationships with companies and other institutions to provide real-world engineering projects for our students...both within and outside the curriculum,” said Griffin, who mentors students’ senior projects.

This year-long project will be a significant time commitment, said Daniel H. Nevius ’11, co-president of HCES.

By April, Griffin said, the students are expected to have created a working prototype, which will be tested in Cape Cod.

“Working in the industry is different from doing homework for a class. There will be an expectation to have results each week, so you have to be devoted,” said Nevius.

He added that the project is especially looking for freshman and sophomores to join the team, so that the project can be expanded in the future.

—Staff writer Helen X. Yang can be reached at

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: October 17, 2010

An earlier version of the Oct. 15 news article "Harvard Undergraduates To Build Water Turbine" incorrectly attributed a part of a quote to Sarah J. Shareef ’12. The phrase has been removed.