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Canned heat: Engineering prof and students build low-tech device to heat homes

Most people probably think “recycle bin” when they finish a canned soda or a beer. Aaron Brown, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology, thinks of heat.

May 13, 2013

Aluminum cans are the main component of a solar furnace built by Aaron Brown, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology, and a group of engineering students for last year’s Undergraduate Research Conference.
Aluminum cans are the main component of a solar furnace built by Aaron Brown, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology, and a group of engineering students for last year’s Undergraduate Research Conference.

By Cliff Foster

Most people probably think “recycle bin” when they finish a canned soda or a beer.  Aaron Brown, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology, thinks of heat.

Aluminum cans are the main component of a solar furnace built by Brown and a group of engineering students for last year’s Undergraduate Research Conference. Recently he donated the device to a nonprofit in Denver’s low-income Westwood neighborhood and he and his students plan on building five more this summer to demonstrate to the community how the units can cut energy bills.

On one level, the idea is to show how an inexpensive and simple technology can help heat a home for nothing. But beyond that, it is meant to strengthen the sense of community in Westwood and promote “humanitarian engineering,” a concept that encourages engineers to use their skills to serve people in need.

“These engineering students are going to have good careers and make good money,” Brown says. ”I tell them, ‘You’re going to have a skill set that if you just spent one or two weeks...somewhere in the world doing something for somebody it can really change the lives of a whole  generation.”

The existing Westwood solar furnace is made up of 144 cans stacked in 12 rows of 12 cans. The only other materials are plywood, acrylic plastic, paint and a small fan. As air enters the unit, it passes through columns of the hollowed-out cans and is heated by the sun. The fan pushes the warm air into the home through a vent attached to a window-mounted box.  One test measured the temperature of the air going into the unit at 70 degrees and leaving it at 150 degrees, Brown says.

Using cans for a solar furnace is not a new idea, but Brown has tweaked the design to make it more efficient and affordable. The materials cost about $100 but that’s still a sizable amount for many of the households in Westwood.

Brown is working with the nonprofit Revision International that organized community gardens in Westwood, among other projects. In April, he and his students presented the solar furnace to community leaders, who dubbed the device “Easy Heat.” They will be working with MSU Denver and University of Colorado Boulder students and Revision International to educate residents about the technology. The project is also the inspiration for Brown’s doctoral dissertation through CU Boulder.

Megan Bixler, a junior mechanical engineering technology student, was among the small team that built the furnace.  “It’s important as an engineer to really understand what you can do for your community,” she says.  “To know that I built and designed something that will ease financial stress on a low-income family…there is no feeling compared to it.”

In January, Brown took 12 MSU Denver students to Costa Rica where they built a solar hot water heater, made of wood and aluminum panels, for a school. This summer he will travel to the Galapagos Islands to work on a clean water project for a group of monks.

Such projects speak to Brown’s humanitarian engineering philosophy.

“Ninety percent of the engineering is for 10 percent of the world,” says Brown, who once worked on Curiosity, the $2.5 billion Mars rover. “And there are people who live and die in terrible conditions that are easily remedied through simple engineering solutions.”

“We’re not talking about Mars technology. We’re talking about soda cans.”

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