Students dig in to help hotelier reap rewards of going green
IT Sligo engineering class is trying to solve harvesting conundrum for Ardtarmon House owner, writes Katherine Donnelly
Charles Henry is determined to make his country house hotel, Ardtarmon House on the north shore of Sligo bay, as eco-friendly as possible.
With a commitment to green energy to meet his heating and hot water needs, he installed a wood-chip boiler. A three-hectare willow plantation adjacent to the house provides a convenient and sustainable fuel source.
But, for Charles, the big challenge is harvesting the willow stems, which grow up to six metres in height. They must be cut and left to dry in manageable bundles, before being chipped.
Modern harvesting machinery is designed for much larger, commercial plantations, and is far too costly for use on the smaller Ardtarmon site.
He fabricated his own prototype stem cutter, but, as with most prototypes, complications materialised in practical testing.
Charles has had either to hire a harvesting contractor at considerable expense, or to cut and manage the willow by hand, using a chainsaw, which is hazardous, time-consuming and labour intensive.
Now a group of level 7 mechanical engineering students at IT Sligo have risen to the challenge and are designing and building a small-scale willow harvester prototype suitable for Ardtarmon, or similar-scale operations, as their final-year project.
The students and their lecturers worked directly with Charles, in the IT Sligo workshop, to refine his prototype, before redefining the problem and beginning their own prototype design.
Their involvement came about thanks to a new cross-border initiative called CREST (Centre for Renewal Energy and Sustainable Technology), which provides research and development (R&D) support to small and medium-sized business, focused on renewable energy and sustainable technology.
It's a win-win: students gain experience in devising innovative solutions to real-life problems in their regions, while small businesses or entrepreneurs get physical and technical support to develop or test ideas.
Although knowledge-transfer between industry and colleges is relatively common, CREST is aimed mainly at firms that are new to the concept, particularly those lacking resources.
CREST is an EU-funded collaboration between IT Sligo, Cavan Innovation and Technology Centre, South West College, which has four campuses in Northern Ireland, and Dumfries and Galloway College in Scotland.
As the project progresses, IT Sligo CREST R&D co-ordinators Mel Gavin and Leo Murray will liaise between the students and Charles, feeding in practical advice from Charles to the engineering process.
Mr Gavin said the students, all from agricultural backgrounds, were keenly aware of the challenges, not only those of an engineering nature, but also the relationships, timelines and expectations involved.
IT Sligo is also considering a potential CREST project involving environmental science students investigating the use of a solar air heat to dry seaweed.