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ECE students find inspiration in laboratory from the past










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History of the
Reed Creek Mill

The first mill on the Reed Creek site was built in 1858 by Abraham and John Barrett, who also built an iron foundry, a wool carding mill, and a machine shop that was used to manufacture guns for the Confederacy. All of these industries were powered by a wooden dam built by the Barretts.


In 1878, a flood destroyed Barrett Mill. A new mill and dam were built in 1902 by Austin Stone. This mill served as the Wytheville Power Plant and powered the city's streetlights for a decade.


The second mill was razed by fire in 1934, and the current Reed Creek Mill was built by T.J. Eades two years later. The mill closed in 2004 and was abandoned until 2012, when Bob and Deon Downey purchased the property and began renovations, with the hope of restoring the mill to working order.

Reed Creek Mill

ECE involvement grows

Engineering discourse is dominated by all things cutting-edge, innovative, and high-tech. Yet some engineering students have discovered that inspiration can be found not only by looking ahead, but also by looking to the past.

A class project led students to the mountain community of Wytheville last spring, where a piece of southwest Virginia history lies nestled along Reed Creek. Built in 1902, and rebuilt after a fire in 1934, Reed Creek Mill has powered a variety of enterprises over the years, including streetlights, grain processing mills, and an iron foundry.

Milling grinders

A network of shafts and fabric belts underneath the floor transfers the mechanical energy from the water to these milling grinders.

The mill closed in 2004 and lay abandoned until Robert Downey purchased the property in 2012. After renovating the house and old mill buildings, Downey became interested in restoring the mill itself and selling hydroelectric power to the grid. He reached out to the Virginia Tech Service-Learning Center and was connected to students who agreed to conduct a feasibility analysis for ECE 4364: Alternate Energy Systems, taught by Saifur Rahman, the Joseph Loring Professor of ECE.

The student team visited the mill several times to evaluate its design and collect data. “I think it was a true laboratory for them,” Downey says. “They got to do things you read about in class.”

Rudolph Cuffee (CPE ’13), the project’s leader, describes his first visit to the mill as "mind-blowing."

“Seeing the 12-foot walls and hearing the water flowing over was amazing,” Cuffee says. “The mill had history and walking around on the inside and seeing the old tech and mechanicals was inspiring.”

Dean Manno measures water depth of a reservoir

Dean Manno uses a flow meter to measure the velocity of the water entering the reservoir.

The students computed the mill’s estimated flow rate and consulted with a hydro systems company to determine the optimal turbine and generator for maximum power production. They added the costs of this equipment to the cost of safety devices and expected maintenance fees to determine Downey’s total expected investment.

Arriving at this number was a true team effort, Cuffee says. The team included engineers from various disciplines: electrical, computer, power systems, mechanical, and industrial systems. “We all had to figure out what we excelled at.”

The team calculated expected annual revenue based on the price per kilowatt-hour offered by the local power company. By comparing expected revenue to estimated costs, the students concluded that it would take Downey more than a decade to break even on his investment.

Jennifer Armstrong records notes

Jennifer Armstrong takes notes as Buzayehu Ejigu discusses the best approach to flooding the raceway with the mill's groundskeeper.

“The students confirmed what I expected to be true—that it would not be profitable to upgrade the mill to sell power to the grid,” Downey says. “They wrote a very good report.”

Yet Downey did not give up on the prospect of restoring the mill to working order. Motivated by the mill’s iconic status within the community, he is now working to refurbish the mill’s existing turbines, which are more than 100 years old. He hopes to use the mill to generate power on a small scale and light up a historic bridge and a greenway park being developed on the property.

The student’s analysis serves as a solid foundation for further research, Downey says, and he plans to invite other student groups to complete the next phase of the project. Modern engineering may get historic Reed Creek Mill’s lights burning bright once more.