Missouri S&T Ph.D. graduate wins $70,000 Laegeler Fellowship for solar farm protection research

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On July 21, 2022

Research into new designs to help solar panels withstand severe weather threats landed a $70,000 fellowship for Yi Zhao, who earned a Ph.D. from Missouri S&T this spring. The Laegeler Sustainable Energy Fellowship – from Concept to Reality was created by two Missouri S&T graduates and will provide a stipend and benefits for Zhao to conduct postdoctoral research at S&T.

Zhao points out that 22 weather-related disasters in 2021 each caused a billion dollars in damage, compared with three in 1980. Forecasters predict that extreme weather events will continue to increase because of climate change. Zhao says he became interested in protecting solar farms to combat climate change through clean energy.

“I’m working on new designs to make solar panels more weather resistant,” says Zhao. “This fellowship supports the beginning of my career and gives me the chance to expand my research in clean energy. I believe this will provide precious experience, starting with the research idea and moving into production.”

Zhao is researching three autonomous technologies: sacking, fencing and shelter. The sacking system lays solar panels flat on the ground to reduce wind pressure in strong winds or tornadoes. The system can also improve the panels’ productivity during normal operations by adjusting the orientation of the panels to increase direct exposure to sunlight. Zhao says the adjustment may increase productivity by up to 25% compared with traditional fixed panels. 

The fencing system, installed around the perimeter of a solar farm, would automatically and adaptively change the fence height depending on severe-weather characteristics. The autonomous tornado shelter would lower solar panels below ground and cover them. The solar farm size, location and other factors would determine which system would be used.

Zhao is working with Dr. Grace Yan, associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Missouri S&T, to improve solar panels’ survivability in tornadoes and other weather events. Yan has formed an interdisciplinary team that plans to apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Zhao believes the research opportunities supported by the Laegeler fellowship will give the team the preliminary results they need for future projects and research.

The Laegeler Fellowship was established in 2020 by Missouri S&T alumni Molly and Andy Laegeler. They created the fellowship because they feel strongly that additional research will identify technologies able to bring profitable, sustainable energy to the world.

Molly Laegeler earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from S&T in 2000. She is a member of the S&T Academy of Mines and Metallurgy and serves as a vice president of Chevron Corp. in Bakersfield, California. Andy Laegeler earned dual degrees in chemistry and biology from S&T in 2001 and played on the S&T men’s golf team. He is a hospital pharmacy consultant and USA Swimming, USA Triathlon and Ironman Certified Coach.

About Missouri University of Science and Technology

Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university of over 7,200 students. Part of the four-campus University of Missouri System and located in Rolla, Missouri, Missouri S&T offers 101 degrees in 40 areas of study and is among the nation’s top 10 universities for return on investment, according to Business Insider. S&T also is home to the Kummer Institute, made possible by a $300 million gift from Fred and June Kummer. For more information about Missouri S&T, visit www.mst.edu.

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