Northridge first CSU with megawatt fuel cell

Emerson Muzada

CSUN is the first CSU college to embrace the 1-megawatt fuel cell power plant. This innovative environmental technology creates power, heat and electricity for CSUN’s campus using recycled water through an energy-saving process.

The fuel cell, which is located next to the University Student Union swimming pool, is the heart of the system. Natural gas and water from campus feeds the fuel cell and in turn the fuel cell generates cold water, heat and electricity for the campus buildings. The fuel cell generates enough energy to power 100 houses on a daily basis.

“One of the problems is the great shortfall of fresh water,” said Tom Brown, director of CSUN’s Physical Plant Management. “It is absolutely a big concern for us.”

The CSU Board of Trustees approved the installation of the fuel-cell power-plant for over $3 million in May 2006.

“We researched the past irrigation system and we kind of knew that there was problems,” said Adam Brown, senior animation major who works part-time at CSUN’s Physical Plant Management.

The fuel cell power plant is built but not fully operational. The projected timeline for a fully operational fuel cell is within a year, but Brown is pushing to get the plant fully functional within six months.

There are eight cooling towers about 20 feet away outside the power plant. Between and around the cooling towers is the location for the future subtropical forest. Outside the power plant is the 12,500 gallon tank that will hold the recycled water used to for the subtropical forest.

Manipulating reusable energy using science is the key to the fuel cell’s success. Converting water into vapor and vice versa in numerous cycles maximizes water-use on campus. The subtropical forest is present to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from the fuel cell’s production, maintaining an earth-friendly environment.

City water, which is reusable water from campus, enters the reverse osmosis and de-ionized converters at the fuel cell. This is the process of cleaning and transforming recycled water into steam. Some of the water is stored in the irrigation tank, and the rest of the water is converted into steam that vents up a passage inside the fuel cell.

The steam travels up through a vent which is converted back into water by condensation. The by-product of the converted city water is pure water, which is free of residual elements. It is used to help transfer heat to all of CSUN’s buildings.

In the fuel cell, there are two chillers that are responsible for mixing cold water and heat and generating water at different temperatures. The liquid turns into vapor because it absorbs the heat. The chillers also have the ability to cool down liquid as well. Water that enters the chillers from the cooling towers is 85 degrees fahrenheit. Water that leaves the chillers back to the cooling towers is 95 degrees. Water from campus enters the chillers at 64 degrees and goes back to campus at a cooler 39 degrees. The 95 degree water the cooling towers receive is evaporated into the subtropical forest. Hot water vapor is necessary to sustain the subtropical forest’s growth.

The constant cycle of reused water is not perfected. Throughout the entire process water loss is inevitable. Water unfit for the chillers is stored in the irrigation tank.

“Anytime you manipulate energy or transfer heat, there’s always an energy loss,” said Brown.

Mohamed Alzarouni, a graduate student majoring in electrical engineering, and Brown are responsible for designing the unique irrigation system that relies on gravity, rather than electrical sprinklers, to water the subtropical forest.

The forest will contain ferns, bamboo and other subtropical plants that rely on high humidity and heavy moisture. The more carbon dioxide the subtropical plants absorb, the faster and bigger they will grow.

“It will payoff for itself in a year or so,” said Alzarouni, regarding the fuel cell’s production.