When the Jefferson Trust Got Wind of Student’s Project, They Gave Him $30,000

April 19, 2023
Zack Landsman demonstrating a wind turbine built from printer parts

Zack Landsman demonstrates his wind turbine STEM kits during UVA Engineering’s Open House. He will donate the kits, built from recycled plastic and electronic waste collected at UVA, to local schools at no cost. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

A University of Virginia doctoral student’s labor-of-love side project is creating mini-wind turbine kits from UVA’s tech waste and offering them for free to local schools.

Zack Landsman, who is studying systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the founder of Printers 4 Kidz, which compiles the STEM kits by repurposing electronics equipment components, such as those found in printers, and recycling plastics from UVA Health.

“I wanted to make STEM kits that were going to be reused, that could be easily disassembled, and also recycled if they’re broken,” he said.

The Jefferson Trust was so excited by the windy win-win that they awarded the ingenious idea a $30,000 grant earlier this academic year. The trust provides funding to students, faculty and staff members with innovative ideas for improving the University community.

Landsman is a Double-Hoo, having majored as an undergraduate in biomedical engineering and cognitive science with a minor in technological entrepreneurship.

It was as a volunteer at the similarly named Computers4Kids, a local mentorship program for youth focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, that first got Landsman thinking about offering the kits.

Recycled materials make up all the parts needed.

Putting It All Together

A wind turbine works by spinning an unpowered motor, so Landsman extracts motors and other electronics primarily from old printers, but also desktop computers and monitors, all of which are supplied by the UVA Reuse Store.

Zack Landsman and Elynore Zarzyski behind a table presenting kits built out of printer parts
Landsman and fourth-year systems engineering major Elynore Zarzyski, who has been involved in Printers 4 Kidz, participate in UVA Engineering’s Open House. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

The idea of using recycled electronic parts arrived while working in systems engineering professor Gregory J. Gerling’s Touch Lab at UVA.

Landsman was building amplifier circuits to improve component parts used in his research, but supply chain issues made it difficult to procure circuits. He got creative, salvaging parts from discarded printers and other electronics waste.

“As I was taking apart old printers, I started seeing all this other cool stuff in them,” Landsman said. “If you were to buy the materials inside the printer, they would cost around the same price as the printer. And we’re throwing all this away without even caring about the value we’re giving up as a community.”

In addition to the recycled motors, the kits call for wind turbine blades and holders. Landsman researched how to 3D-print these materials from recycled plastic.

A shredder refines the plastic into small pieces, and an extruder forms those pieces into 3D printing filament, which in turn can be used to 3D-print the kits’ blades and holders. If pieces break or there’s no longer a use for them, they can undergo the same process again.

The Jefferson Trust money has allowed Landsman to acquire a plastic shredder and extruder to make this process possible.

As for where to find the plastic, the obvious choice was UVA Health. The UVA Facilities Management recycling team has initiated a pilot program in collaboration with UVA Health to provide Landsman with pre-sorted recycled materials, such as packaging for medical equipment, plastic distilled water bottles and saline containers – all safe and sanitary items.

“The hospital is one of UVA’s greatest contributors to waste, given the sterile environment demanded in the medical field,” Landsman said.

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As Landsman’s project grows, the STEM kits will present a significant way to recycle the hospital’s plastic waste, contributing to UVA’s overall goal of reducing its waste footprint to 30% of 2010 levels by 2030.

Using the Kits in Classrooms

Once assembly is complete, students will be able to test the wind turbines’ ability to generate electricity using Arduino, a microcontroller frequently used in programming education.

In future iterations, he plans to modify kits for varying levels of complexity, so they could be incorporated into lessons in both middle schools and high schools.

There is already interest. He and several UVA student volunteers recently demonstrated the kits for Western Albemarle High School Robotics Club. The school is interested in having UVA students teach younger students to use the kits.

“Zack, Olivia Claire [Rose], Skye [Taylor] and Elly [Zarzyski] gave our robotics club students an excellent outlet for their minds and hands with the windmill kits, all the while being educated on the issues surrounding e-waste, and considering options for a cleaner future,” club adviser Noah Biros wrote in an email.

“As a physics teacher, it inspired me to see how I could incorporate similar activities in my unit on energy and power, bringing more real-world connections into our classroom. I’d love to see more Printers 4 Kidz kits find their way into the hands of our students, and then spread beyond the C’ville area!”

Landsman’s next step toward making that happen is a planned session with students and parents at Albemarle County’s Woodbrook Elementary.

Ultimately, he envisions Printers 4 Kidz as part of a circular economy, in which he reinvests these recycled parts into the community, and the items are continuously reused or repurposed, rather than discarded as waste.

For more information about the project, including how to get involved, email Landsman at junklabtech@gmail.com.