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Engineering an Environmental Future

Engineering an Environmental FutureMechanical engineering major Matthew Thoms is a Morris K. Udall Scholar thanks in part to his work as the engineering director of this year's Solar Decathlon team.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.05.09] Matthew Thoms has always been interested in sustainable energy, but it wasn't until his sophomore year at Tufts that he was able to merge that interest with his passion for engineering.

The rising senior has taken on the role of engineering director for a group of students from Tufts and the Boston Architectural College (BAC) who are building an energy-efficient solar powered home for the U.S. Department of Energy's 2009 Solar Decathlon competition. Through his work on this project, Thoms, a mechanical engineering major, was recently selected from a pool of 515 nationwide nominees as one of 80 students to be named a Morris K. Udall Scholar for 2009.

The Udall Foundation, named after the late Arizona legislator who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 30 years, seeks to nurture future environmental leaders from a range of fields, including engineering, science and education. Thoms will receive a $5,000 scholarship and attend the Udall Scholars orientation in Tucson, Ariz., this August, where he and other scholars will meet environmental policymakers and past scholarship recipients.

"It's exciting for me because I think that we have a lot of work to do as far as implementing sustainable energy in the United States," Thoms says. "It's good to see that there are foundations out there who are trying to support the kind of leadership we're going to need in the next few years."

Thoms' specialized focus on generating sustainable energy using solar panels has been a major contribution to the project.

The Solar Decathlon, which occurs every two years, features 19 teams from universities around the United States, Canada and Germany. Over the past year, the Tufts/BAC team, dubbed "Team Boston," has been developing the plans for their home. Recently the group celebratedthe start of construction, which will take place on the Tufts campus, with a groundbreaking event held on Earth Day, April 22. Once completed, the team will transport their project to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in October for final judging.

"We've been designing since this time last year," Thoms says. "I worked as an intern at the Tufts Institute of the Environment this past summer doing research on the different products that could go into the house and last fall we had students who took independent studies revolving around the project, which was when we specified the heating and cooling systems, the solar panels and all the different kinds of engineering systems that are involved with the house."

On the Tufts side of the project, The Fletcher School's Bill Moomaw is serving as the principal investigator. The Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning School is working from the policy perspective, while Thoms and other students from the School of Engineering are focusing on the technology. The team's goal is to build a house that isenergy efficient and reasonably priced.

As the project evolves, so does Thoms' day-to-day responsibilities.

"Now that we're moving into the building process, it's more of looking for sponsors and making sure we can properly present our decisions on the energy systems we have chosen," Thoms says. "We're making this project more of an educational tool, teaching people what these things are."

After graduation, Thoms is hoping to study sustainable energy on a graduate level, with a goal of possibly obtaining a Ph.D. and working with a power generation company. He hopes to be a catalyst for change on the sustainability front in the U.S.

"We have a lot of work to do to get America to the point where we're caught up to at least Germany, and where I think we should be as a country as far as renewable energy."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communication.

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