Seeking his limits

U undergraduate uses engineering to follow his passion

"I barely got into the University of Minnesota," Scott Morton says. "I realized I almost didn't have this opportunity. I knew everyone else here was super smart. So I was ready to just work. This is where I need to make things happen if I want to do something interesting with my life."

Morton knew he wanted to study engineering. As a kid he made contraptions out of all his stuff. "I would make these things that would go all over my basement," he recalls. But becoming an engineer would be difficult. "Math classes were hard," he says. "Nothing was easy."

And then he got his first semester his grades. He couldn't believe it. "I got a 3.75. I saw my name on the Dean's List. I was thrilled. How I thought about myself completely changed." Soon he would become an honors student and the creative force behind three big engineering projects. 

Three big projects

Solar tracker

If a solar panel on a building roof is set in one fixed direction, then for most of the day it won't face the sun, and it won't capture as much light or produce as much power. That's why solar panels on large commercial buildings have trackers. The tracker actively positions the solar panel so it faces the sun throughout the day. This increases energy production 30-35 percent.

Morton's big idea was to design a solar tracker so cheap and so simple that anyone could build it for use on their home. At first he had no idea how he would do that. He decided to just propose it as an undergraduate research project and then go out and try to come up with something. He did. The tracker he designed is simple. A tiny pyramid sits on the solar panel. Each side of the pyramid has a photocell that detects sunlight. The tracker turns and tilts until the pyramid's base (and so also the solar panel's face) is square to the sun.

The tracker is powered by common 12-volt motor drives, which have been around for 70 years.

His Advice for Freshmen

Seek your limits. "Finding your limits, that is really it. The more you put yourself out there, the more you experience the times you are uncomfortable, the more comfortable you become in other settings."

Value failure. "There's failure in any success. Failure is absolutely necessary."

Follow your passion. "The thing that you are passionate about, you are also going to be the best at. And you're going to enjoy it. Finding what you're passionate about is what is going to get you through all the things that you're not as passionate about—the smaller things."

Experience the whole U. "Experience everything the University of Minnesota has to offer. The U is a very different place from high school. Get out and see what's out there."

Wind turbine

At the end of his freshman year in the University's College of Science and Engineering (CSE), Morton went to Scandinavia as part of CSE Global Seminar focused on renewable energy. He came back inspired and found some fellow students working on building a wind turbine—again using readily available, moderately priced materials. He joined their CSE student group, Innovative Engineers, soon serving as its president.

They built thee wind turbines. Morton travelled to Nicaragua twice, helping to install one of the turbines in a village that lacked electrical power. He says, "Just the international experience and seeing that if you put the time in you can do well in school, that made me think, 'What more can I do?'"

Underwater wind turbine

His third research project was at the University's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, within the College of Science and Engineering, where he worked to develop an underwater wind turbine. The big idea is to generate power without damming a river, so fish can still swim upstream. The main channel at St. Anthony Falls is one of only three in the United States with the capability to test such a turbine.

The $25,000 project was successfully completed after six months of intense work. "We had to redesign it three times," he says. "There are always obstacles and things that happen. And now this whole new research focus is opening up from that."

What motivates him

Morton isn't motivated by mere technical knowledge. "That is a means to an end," he says. "If I were sitting in class, just talking about how you control a dc 12-volt drive, I wouldn't be that interested. But I'm very interested when I want to make a solar tracker work."

He is motivated by the challenge of renewable energy. "My dad always took me camping," he says. I see a value in nature and the environment. It's a huge issue for the future. And a lot of it falls on the shoulders of engineers. If I'm going to be an engineer, I want to be doing something that I care about."