Missouri S&T Ph.D. candidate wins $70K Laegeler Fellowship for renewable energy research

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Xinzhe Yuan, Ph.D. candidate at Missouri S&T, is the winner of the 2021 Laegeler Sustainable Energy Fellowship. (Photo by Michael Pierce, Missouri S&T)

Research involving drones mounted with thermal and hyperspectral cameras to inspect solar panels for damage has won a $70,000 fellowship for Xinzhe Yuan, a Ph.D. candidate at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

The Laegeler Sustainable Energy Fellowship – from Concept to Reality, created by two Missouri S&T graduates, will provide a stipend and benefits for Yuan to conduct postdoctoral research at Missouri S&T.

“This is a precious opportunity for young Ph.D. students to start a career, and it is good practice in pitching a research idea,” Yuan says. “I appreciate this support for my postdoctoral research.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association predicts that the U.S. solar market will quadruple from current levels by the end of the decade, adding hundreds of thousands of jobs for U.S. workers. Solar panels need regular inspection and maintenance, and that’s where Yuan’s research can help.

“If panels have surface defects, it can affect the output of solar farms,” Yuan says. “The traditional approach is to send people with thermal cameras to inspect the panels, but that is not very efficient. Drones are much faster and can quickly determine which solar panels need repair.”

Yuan adds that, based on data from a California solar farm, it takes humans 195 hours to inspect the farm’s solar panels. Drones equipped with thermal and hyperspectral cameras, which can capture images the human eye cannot see, did the work in four hours. The farm saved $20,000.

Yuan’s research project will be supervised by a multidisciplinary team of Missouri S&T faculty: Dr. Rui Bo, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Dr. Casey Canfield, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering; Dr. Sanjay Madria, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of computer science; and Dr. Genda Chen, the Robert W. Abbett Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering. Each wrote letters of support to the fellowship selection committee.

Chen, who is Yuan’s academic advisor, is also director of Missouri S&T’s Center for Intelligent Infrastructure, which will provide much of the research equipment.

The Laegeler Fellowship was established 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.

"We are very excited to provide this postdoctoral opportunity at Missouri S&T,” Molly says. “Our goal in supporting translational research in sustainable energy is to draw awareness to the university for the excellent research it fosters and to provide a vision for bridging the gap between research and practical application in this field.”

“The education we received at Missouri S&T taught us how to solve problems,” Andy says. “We want to encourage great minds to continue working on even bigger problems still outstanding in our world today.”

Molly Laegeler earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from Missouri S&T in 2000. She is a member of the Missouri S&T Academy of Mines and Metallurgy and works as Chevron’s General Manager of Asset Development for the Permian Basin.

Andy Laegeler earned dual degrees in chemistry and biology from Missouri S&T in 2001 and played on the Missouri S&T men’s golf team. He is a pharmacist and USA Swimming and Ironman Certified Coach in Midland, Texas, where he and Molly live.

The Laegelers are developing a nonprofit organization to promote sustainable energy.