ENERGY RESEARCH AT CSU: BIG PROBLEMS, BIG IMPACTS

ENERGY RESEARCH AT CSU: BIG PROBLEMS, BIG IMPACTS

by Anne J. Manning

WE HAVE AN ENERGY PROBLEM HERE ON EARTH.

Addicted to burning fossil fuels, we’re on our way to an uninhabitable planet, both in terms of climate change and health effects from pollution.

This massive problem is talked about at every level of government and world leadership. Colorado State University is doing something about it – “doing” being the operative word.

CSU researchers aren’t just studying the energy problem. They’re solving it. “We look for opportunities where we can have the largest impact,” says mechanical engineering professor Bryan Willson, director of CSU’s Energy Institute.

The Energy Institute, founded in 2013, encompasses research all over Colorado State University. Areas of focus include access to energy; devices and systems; water; policy and human behavior; and environmental impacts. The bottom line: In just about every aspect of the worldwide energy problem, CSU researchers are working toward lasting solutions.

Cooking is a fundamental human activity. It’s also harming people and polluting the planet. More than half the world’s population cooks indoors by burning wood or coal, in the process creating polluting combustion byproducts like black carbon and nitric oxide. Particularly harmful emissions are particles small enough to penetrate the respiratory system. Indoor air pollution is the fourth-leading cause of disease on the planet, and the ninth-leading cause in the U.S., according to the 2010 World Health Organization-supported Global Burden of Disease study.

CSU’s Advanced Cookstoves Laboratory is a leader in improving these cookstoves, and more importantly, getting those cookstoves into the right hands.

That’s why it’s not hard for John Mizia, who leads several cookstoves projects at CSU, to get out of bed in the morning. He knows he’s making a difference.

“There are 3 billion people cooking over biomass,” Mizia says. “Those same 3 billion are the ones who live without access to clean sanitation and who are chronically affected by malaria and HIV – yet those impacts are small compared to the effects of indoor air quality. There is a big imbalance in this world. There will always be people who take care of us [Westerners]. We need to focus on the people on whom we can make a bigger impact.”

CSU researchers have been studying and improving cookstoves since about 2000, with the work originating in the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab. In 2007, that research was combined with the work of the company Enviro t International, which started producing cookstoves that year.

Envirofit began with former CSU students Nathan Laurenz and Tim Bauer, in collaboration with Byran Willson and also Paul Hudnut from the College of Business. They all came together to commercialize a two-stroke engine retro t in the Philippines. That effort emerged from a student project to reduce pollution from two-stroke cycle snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

Mizia and other cookstoves researchers work closely with Envirofit to this day. The company is especially focused on scalability and deployment, making sure stoves are affordable and accessible to individual communities worldwide.
Beyond the Enviro t connection, there are other cookstove-related projects at CSU. An ongoing partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory is optimizing the materials the stoves are made of – keeping them resistant to heat and corrosion while also keeping them affordable.

Mizia has also worked on improving the design of some stoves by injecting air into the combustion chamber to produce turbulence and lower the stove’s harmful emissions. The researchers hope they can patent and deploy that technology soon.

Air pollution from cookstoves impacts both the environment and human health. Researchers are still trying to figure out to what extent. One of them is John Volckens, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and head of the Center for Energy, Development and Health at the Energy Institute. Volckens and Jennifer Peel, an associate professor in environmental and radiological health sciences, are measuring short-term effects of human exposure to cookstoves air pollution, supported by a National Institutes of Health grant.

“The really gnawing question that’s affecting our field is, ‘How clean is clean enough?’” Volckens says. “What if I make a stove 90 percent more efficient? Is that enough to make a meaningful impact on your health?”

IMPACTS THROUGH COMMERCIALIZATION

Envirofit, a spinoff company that originated at CSU, has since gone on to selling a million stoves and counting. So how does CSU support more Envirofits, for the greatest impact of energy-related research in the world?

Go up to the fourth floor of the Powerhouse Energy Campus, the LEED-platinum facility associated with the Energy Institute, to find out. It’s full of companies – some startups, some more established – all benefiting from close proximity to CSU research. From companies that monitor gas turbines, to ones that make microgrids, they’re all interfacing with technology percolating two floors down.

And it’s not just about tech and ideas either. Factor(E), itself a CSU spinoff, is a venture capital rm housed in the Powerhouse Energy Campus that funds early-stage companies working on access to energy in the developing world. Led by Morgan DeFoort, who earned his Ph.D. at CSU, Factor(E) brings in industry and government partners to fund the best, most deployable technologies at the lowest costs. It’s working with about five companies this year, with more to come.

PARTNERSHIPS FOR CLEANER ENGINES

Along with the cookstoves lab, there’s no greater example of direct impact on energy-related problems than the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab, housed at the Powerhouse Energy Campus.

The lab has about 12 stationary research engines, almost all of which are donated by companies who want CSU experts to help them solve vexing technical problems. In turn, that research contributes to the body of knowledge on making engines burn cleaner and more efficiently.

The way the engines lab works is best illustrated by one of its oldest pieces of equipment – a large-bore (14-inch), four-cylinder, two-stroke natural gas, integral compressor engine. It’s a mini version of the thousands of compressor engines along interstate natural gas pipelines across the U.S.

That engine arrived at the lab in the early 1990s – long before the “Energy Institute” or the “Powerhouse Energy Campus” existed – because Willson and collaborators took on a project to help the natural gas industry reduce their emissions, spurred by changing federal rules. The EECL was born, and it was run as an on-campus lab that focused on partnering with industry to move problems forward. It’s a model still relevant today.

The original natural gas compressor is still used for research. As Daniel Olsen, co-director of the lab describes, the natural gas industry has seen direct application of work done with that engine. For example, a high-pressure fuel injection valve that sits on top of the engine cylinder, developed at CSU, improves the combustion and mixing process. They’ve also worked on pre-combustion chambers to reduce emissions by allowing the engine to operate with high levels of excess air. Both these technologies dot the natural gas landscape today.

Some of the engines in the lab are being tested for biofuel compatibility and others are being tested for dual-fuel usage – mixing natural gas and diesel.

What’s Olsen’s favorite engine in the lab? It might be the 50-liter diesel engine that operates at about 2300 horsepower used for large marine applications, hauling trucks, or hydraulic fracturing. “There is no other university lab that can test an engine of that size,” Olsen says.

BIOFUELS AND BIOPRODUCTS

What about the stuff that gets poured into engines? CSU researchers are also tackling this most fundamental of challenges: cost-effective alternatives to the fossil fuels we guzzle today.

That’s one area of focus for Ken Reardon, professor of chemical and biological engineering and head of the Sustainable Bioenergy Development Center at CSU. He and many others at CSU are looking to replace nonrenewable fossil fuels with cleaner-burning fuels from biomass such as wood, grass, and algae with the overall goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

And fuel is just one of the end goals. Oil companies make most of their money from the other products produced from petroleum, plastics in particular. The biomass industry is attempting to do the same by making these chemicals from bio-based feedstocks rather than petroleum. One example: Coca-Cola’s “plant bottle” a portion of the plastic in the bottle is made from plants, not petroleum.

Reardon’s group is particularly interested in algae as a source for biofuels and bioproducts for several reasons. It increases its biomass rapidly, more so than plants. “Even the weediest weed doesn’t grow as fast as an algae culture does,” Reardon says. It also doesn’t compete with prime agricultural land, and it can be grown on wastewater.

Algae can also serve a dual function – it can be engineered to produce oil for a fuel. Then, the spent algae can be turned into ethanol or butanol, which are also biofuels, or into other chemicals.

“I remain convinced that making chemicals, including fuels, from biomass that’s renewable, instead of fossil fuel sources, has a lot of potential to get us the things we need for society at a much lower environmental price,” Reardon says.
Some of that change is going to come from a dramatic shift in the way people consume and the sources from which people consume. We’ve spent 100 years getting good at burning petroleum. Biofuels and bioproducts have been around for a lot less time, Reardon points out.

“CHANGING TO A FUTURE WHERE SOME OF OUR ENERGY COMES FROM SOLAR, SOME FROM GEOTHERMAL, HYDRO, BIO … IT’S JUST HARDER TO CONTEMPLATE. BUT WE NEED TO DO IT.”

MAKING THE ELECTRIC GRID SMARTER

And speaking of entrenchment in the old ways: If Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison awoke from their permanent sleep and looked at the world today, Edison would recognize his original contributions but Bell wouldn’t, so the saying goes.

Siddharth “Sid” Suryanarayanan, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, spends his days (and nights) working on ways to modernize the electrical gird by turning it into a “smart grid,” which is a Department of Energy-coined term dating back to 2007.

The smart grid encompasses every aspect of electricity: from generation, to transmission, to distribution. That last area is the one arguably the most challenging to solve, and is where Suryanarayanan chooses to focus.

“I want to bring about complete automation and futuristic technologies to the end user,” he says. “I want people to be as excited about the next – generation grid as they are about the new iPhone. It’s a tall order.”

Remember the Jetsons? Full automation, like homes that know when you’re walking in and adjust the thermostat? That’s the kind of world Suryanarayanan envisions.

A lot of this change is going to come from better resource allocation and utilization in the electric distribution grid. Suryanarayanan is devising algorithms to predict and model consumers’ energy-use behavior for achieving that goal. The work involves integrating those behaviors into the mathematics of the perfect electric grid, first by computer simulation.

Those simulations take place at CSU, in part, thanks to new, high-powered, supercomputing capabilities. Suryanarayanan’s work is truly interdisciplinary. He interfaces with computer scientists and social scientists as well as engineers. For example, Suryanarayanan is working closely with Pat Aloise-Young, professor of psychology, to come up with sociology-based control algorithms for a demand response electricity program in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s not just me and my students and a bunch of equations; it’s more than that,” Suryanarayanan says.

THE FULLY INTEGRATED HUMAN DIMENSION

It cannot be overstated that the energy problem is a human problem, and the solutions lie not just in the best technologies but also in the best ways to analyze and improve upon human behavior. That’s the drumbeat of researchers including Jeni Cross, associate professor of sociology.

“The truth is, sociology and social science have a part to play in all of these problems because they all come down to actions we’re trying to get people to do,” Cross says. From green development to alternative transportation, all these things depend on getting people to change their behavior. No easy task.

One area Cross is making strides in is a research collaboration with a company in Minneapolis, which has just completed an affordable housing project striving for net-zero energy: The building producing as much energy as it consumes.

She’s working with the building managers on behavior-change programs that begin with engagement, education and setting expectations of tenants – not just fancy technology. “The design of good buildings includes many stakeholders,” Cross says.

OTHER AREAS, FOCUSED ON IMPACT

There are many other areas of research CSU is working on: water resources, wastewater, photovoltaics, and soil ecology to name a few.

“What we have done over the years is to very carefully pick out the biggest problems to take on,” Willson says.

Series NavigationPROVIDING SCIENTIFIC INSIGHT INTO A CLEANER ENVIRONMENT >>