Energy research center leads to fuel cell, solar panels

Melissa Mills

Have you ever walked by the students’ swimming pool toward the back parking lot and noticed the gated area with large silver boxes embellished with strange emblems and the words “Fuel cell energy”? Or maybe you noticed the solar panels in the parking lot? Did you stop to think, “What is all this equipment for and who put it there?” These products were brought to fruition by the Energy Research Center at California State University, Northridge. CSUN has become one of the nation’s foremost colleges by taking action to reduce global-warming.

The center was established four years ago in August of 2003 after the CSU Board of Trustees voted to endorse a comprehensive course of action regarding a clean energy policy that students spent over two years asking for. Some of the main concerns of the center are reducing global-warming, alternate energy sources, reducing energy costs and the environment.

“Our campus has a green vision,” says Dr. Hamid Johari. Johari is the chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department at CSUN and was chosen as the director of the research center. “There is a need for new and alternative energy in California.”

Which are exactly the type of projects they produce. The fuel cell plant was finished in January of this year and dedicated in February. The work was a collaboration of the research center, physical plant management, faculty and students.

“CSUN has the largest fuel cell in the world,” says Dr. Robert Ryan, who is a professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“Dr Ryan does the heavy duty research, he figures out the science behind the projects here,” says Tom Brown, Executive Director of Physical Plant Management.

So what is a fuel cell? It is similar to a battery, which converts chemical energy into electricity. They are the cleanest and most dependable supply of power. According to Fuel Cell Energy, Inc., they provide continuous high-quality power 24 hours a day, with ultra-low emissions and quiet operation.

The high-efficiency power plant generates base load electricity for the university’s facilities and provides surplus heat for hot water. It is connected to and operates in conjunction with the campus’ high voltage infrastructure and the local utility grid. With a continuous output of 1,000 kilowatts of power and electrical efficiency of 47 percent, the fuel cell has a 25-year lifespan.

The thermal energy recovered from the cells’ exhaust supplements the system that heats campus buildings, including the Student Union conference and recreation facilities, and provides heating for the student pool and domestic hot water. Exhaust from the power plant’s heat exchanger is designed to flow into the adjacent greenhouse, where research on carbon dioxide plant enrichment is taking place.

“Having a state-of-the-art fuel cell plant right here on campus is a unique research opportunity for mechanical and electrical engineering faculty, and an extraordinary opportunity for us to mentor our student engineers,” says Ryan. “My current research is studying the performance of the system used to recover thermal energy in the fuel cell exhaust streams. Calculations indicate that the combined heat and power efficiency of this plant should exceed 80 percent.”

Another exciting aspect is being able to manipulate the modulation of power.

“These units are not usually touched for long periods of time, but we are experimenting with the modulation, turning the unit down when energy needs are lower and turning it up when needed,” says Johari. “This type of experimentation could lead to commercial use, local utilities have a major interest in what we are doing here.”

Phase two of the cell fuel plant is a satellite chiller plant and a plant-sustained sub-tropic rain forest microclimate. This environment is open to the air and will be maintained with the waste products from the plant and satellite chiller. The chiller plant will cool water for air conditioning units. The excess water will be treated to remove any unwanted solids and will then be pushed through a special wall and towers placed in and around the rain forest delivering 95-degree carbon dioxide rich water to the forest.

Not a single drop of water will ever be wasted.

“We think that it will produce more water than is necessary to sustain the rain forest,” says Brown. “Our only concern is that we might have too prominent of growth in the rain forest from the enriched water which plants love.”

Phase two has a two-year completion date but Brown says he thinks it will be finished anywhere from 12-18 months.

“Society needs to focus on our energy needs and alternate options for our environment,” says Brown.

Dr. Ryan and his students are leading another current and interesting venture. They are trying to retrofit highly-efficient fume hood exhausts that will be installed in Science buildings three and four. The current fume hoods waste a tremendous amount of energy by producing heat. This means air conditioning has to run more then usual to cool the buildings.

Fume hoods are essential safety devices in the laboratories. They protect individuals from inhaling harmful chemicals and from explosion and fire by bringing air into the hood and pushing it out of the building.

“The science buildings burn a lot of energy, (and) to be able to control this flow would save a large number of energy and dollars,” Ryan says.

The solar panels in the parking lot are yet another brilliant idea for saving energy. Solar panels use energy that comes from a naturally replenished supply, the sun.

“The solar panels in the parking lot generate 180 kilowatts of electricity which is used by the university,” says Johari.

These panels are just one more way the university is cutting costs while caring for our environment.

As stated by the Schatz Energy Research Center, the United States’ energy consumption is six times that of the rest of the world and over ten times higher than in developing countries. Resources such as petroleum, natural gas, coal and uranium are expected to run out eventually. Furthermore, these fuels produce environmental impacts that threaten our health and quality of life.

With this thought in mind, it’s apparent that using natural and alternate energy, which will not run out in the future, is essential presently and in the future.

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