VU solar energy research facility one of few in country
BY AMY LAVALLEY Post-Tribune correspondent September 26, 2013 2:36PM
Valparaiso University senior Jesse Fosheim adjusts one of the hundreds of hexagon-shaped mirrors inside the James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility on campus. | Photo courtesy of Valparaiso University
Updated: October 28, 2013 7:11AM
VALPARAISO — Five years of work by Valparaiso University students in designing and testing for the James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility is already paying off.
In addition to the learning experience gained by the 50 or so engineering students who have worked on the research facility over the years, the U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded VU $2.3 million for a cooperative agreement to fund solar research through a proposal from the university’s College of Engineering.
The research facility, visible from Sturdy Road, will be formally dedicated at 4 p.m. Friday. International author and journalist Llewellyn King will be the guest speaker.
The facility has a wide array of applications, said Scott Duncan, associate professor of mechanical engineering, who oversaw the project along with fellow engineering professors Robert Palumbo and Shahin Nudehi.
“It is completely renewable and clean energy,” Duncan said after explaining how the facility concentrates solar energy and allows it to be stored in metals, such as zinc and iron, until it can be used. The metals can then be returned to the facility so the process can begin anew.
“We want to be able to store the sunlight and distribute it,” Duncan said.
The solar energy research facility is the fifth in the U.S., with two at national labs in Colorado and New Mexico, one at a military base in California, and another at New Mexico State University, Duncan said. The facility at VU is the only one at an undergraduate engineering college.
VU students did 90 percent of the work on the facility, Duncan said, and though a contractor could have completed the work in 18 months instead of five years, the payoff was worth it.
“We made a decision back then. We could have had an outside contractor do the work, but we knew it was an excellent educational opportunity for our students,” he said.
One of those students was Jesse Fosheim, a senior from Green Bay, Wis., who’s majoring in mechanical engineering.
“I kind of had a hand in everything,” he said.
He worked on the solar energy research facility for about two years, and spent the past summer doing a lot of the calculations that went into the Department of Energy grant proposal.
Fosheim started working on the project because he wanted research experience, and found his professors’ passion about solar energy to be contagious. He is now considering a doctorate in either mechanical or chemical engineering, with a focus on solar thermal energy.
“It was really cool to get into interactions with professors almost in a peer-to-peer relationship that not a lot of undergraduates get,” he said.
Between the solar energy research facility and the new Donald V. Fites Engineering Innovation Center, Eric Johnson, dean of VU’s College of Engineering, said there is a strengthening connection between research and what students do in the classroom.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for our current students and future students, and we are really looking at how we teach engineering,” Johnson said. “And we are growing. I think a big reason for our growth is these new facilities.”