Solar Energy Project at Valparaiso University

In the search for sustainable energy sources, a Valparaiso University (VU) professor and his engineering students are helping to bring the wide-scale use of solar energy closer to reality.

Valparaiso, Indiana – November 26, 2003 [] Dr. Robert Palumbo, professor of mechanical engineering at VU and head of the High Temperature Solar Technology Laboratory at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, is leading a three-year solar research project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Students in VU project, “A Swiss Solar Undergraduate Research Experience” (ASSURE), are working with an international team of scientists to develop the science and technology required to design solar thermal chemical reactors with a high efficiency. The research of Dr. Palumbo and his students aims to turn solar energy into fuels that can be stored and distributed throughout the world. “The problem with solar energy today is that light is not being distributed everywhere people live and it is not available all the time,” Palumbo said. “To realize the potential of solar energy, we must capture it and store it for use when and where it’s not available.” To do that, mirrors must concentrate light to heat a furnace to temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Those extremely high temperatures are needed to produce fuels like hydrogen or zinc that can be contained in fuel cells. “As our fossil fuel resources continue to be depleted and as our concern for their negative impact on the environment continues to grow, humans are going to need renewable energy resources like sunlight,” Palumbo said. “It takes on average 50 years to turn a technological concept into a commercial reality, which means the solar research happening now is critical.” While lab scale reactors exist, they have yet to be proven economically feasible. The engineering students at VU, who are working in an international multidisciplinary context, are contributing the science that will help make that happen. “The students have helped and will continue to help build exciting reactors for producing solar fuels,” Palumbo said. “The type of reactor concept being pursued by the students is, for the moment, too risky for the moment to build at a large scale. But the students’ findings are bringing us closer to making these higher risk but better reactors a reality.” So far, he said students have found improvements in operating conditions, methods of adding reactants and materials used to build solar reactors. “We’re helping create the technology and science that will allow us to make the solar production of fuels possible on a large scale,” Palumbo said. “That will give us a sustainable source of energy that doesn’t pollute our planet like fossil fuels or nuclear power do.” Over the past two years, four VU mechanical engineering majors have spent their summers working on the ASSURE project. Two more engineering students will work on the ASSURE project in the summer of 2004. Among the four students who have participated in ASSURE, one is studying high temperature thermodynamics at Stanford University, in Stanford, California, and another is a thermodynamics researcher for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Cleveland, Ohio. “The ASSURE project has given our students tremendous insights into research into solar energy,” Palumbo said. “I have not found a better way to stimulate a student’s interest in science and engineering than by having them advance the frontier of their field.”
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