[Feature Story] Positive Energy

STEP INTO THE MAIN office of the Schatz Energy Research Center, and it’s easy to get swept up in the buzz of activity. Researchers at computer stations are busy analyzing data or poring over government regulations. Students run experiments at banks of hydrogen fuel cells. The center’s director, Peter Lehman, is finishing a proposal to analyze a method of producing cheap, clean and readily available biomass fuels (a process called torrefaction; more on that later.)

For 20 years, cutting edge research into renewable energy has been taking place behind the modest façade of the University Annex, a sprawling building that served as Arcata’s Trinity Hospital until 1968. Over the course of two decades, the lab has grown to include 12 full-time staff members, 12 graduate and undergraduate research assistants and operates with a yearly budget of about $1 million. Now, the Schatz Lab has moved into its own state-of-the-art building, just across from the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. The new building has more breathing room, bigger lab spaces, a central-campus location and serves as a showcase to the center’s commitment to sustainability—the facility is built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold-equivalent standards. The new structure is HSU’s first donor-funded building, drawing on funds from the estate of Louis Schatz, the man who started it all with a gift in 1989. It represents a turning point in a 20-year existence that has steadily built on one success after another.

Graduate students and Schatz Energy Fellows Brendon Mendonca (left) and Tirian Mink perform a Water Boiling Test on an energy-efficient “StoveTec” cookstove. Approximately 2.4 billion people worldwide burn biomass inside their homes for cooking, primarily over inefficient open fires; more efficient stoves will improve indoor air quality and reduce deforestation.

THE SCHATZ LAB CAUGHT the attention of the nation when it rolled out the country’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered car licensed to drive in the United States. The project grew out of a $3.9 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Working with the SunlineTransit agency in Thousand Palms, Calif., Schatz engineers outfitted the area with a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles and the accompanying fueling infrastructure.

The vehicle’s debut was a hit, and it wasn’t long before the Schatz Lab was being featured in Scientific American and Popular Science.

For years the center pushed further into researching fuel cells, going as far as to secure two patents for its work on the proton exchange membrane fuel cells and a registered trademark for the Stack-in-a-Box®—a portable fuel cell capable of pumping out 125 Watts of on-the-go power. The group steadily built a reputation for producing high quality fuel cells that were known for besting the competition in the lab tests and real world trials. The University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the University of Michigan, Kettering University and Auburn University in Alabama are all recipients of Schatz-built fuel cells. “We were able to give those schools exactly what they wanted for their graduate students to conduct their research,” says Greg Chapman, senior research engineer at the Schatz Lab.

In October 2008, the group was granted $395,000 from the Department of Energy to develop the Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education program, which focuses on providing hands-on hydrogen energy education to engineering students in the CSU and UC systems. An additional $15,000 was awarded in 2010 to build 30 bench-top electrolyzer/fuel cell experiment kits destined for campuses around California.

“The best thing about the program is that it puts students in touch with real life problems and modern technology,” says Lehman. “We focus on ‘issue oriented’ science. We take something from the modern world and relate it to what’s going on in class.”

ABOVE: The Schatz Lab’s new 6,000-square-foot facility, is also the campus’s first donor-funded building. BELOW: SERC co-director Peter Lehman by the entrance to the Schatz building. Lehman describes the new space as “a dream come true.”

In a way, for the Schatz Lab to move from developing fuel cells for graduate level research and into classrooms across the state (and even the country—the New York-based company Labaids is developing curriculum resources based on the Schatz fuel cell), is a natural extension of their early work as a university research center. “As far as seriously studying renewable energy goes, Schatz Lab was one of the first in the nation,” says Lehman.

Before bringing fuel cells to the state’s engineering students, the Schatz Lab was putting its hydrogen expertise to work. One major project, overseen by Chapman and developed from the ground up by a group of dedicated student researchers is California’s first rural hydrogen fueling station.

It was a team of Environmental Resources Engineering students, with guidance from the Schatz Lab, who had the first creative spark that led to the station. The Humboldt State team went on to win an international design contest sponsored by the National Hydrogen Association, which paved the way for the station’s opening in 2008.

Now, the station provides fuel for a pair of test vehicles—a modified Toyota Prius and a state-of-the-art fuel cell-powered Toyota Highlander—and is poised to receive a significant upgrade, says Schatz Energy Fellow and HSU graduate student Meg Harper. “We’re looking into upgrading the station’s capacity from 5,000 psi to 10,000 psi, which would allow us to use all the potential fuel capacity of the Toyota Highlander,” says Harper. “The upgrade will give the Highlander a range of over 400 miles, about the same as a regular gasoline powered passenger car.”

Ongoing work with the hydrogen fueling station is just part of Harper’s work with the center. She has also worked with the Schatz Lab to explore energy issues in the developing world, where improving economies are often outpacing the infrastructure’s ability to provide adequate energy resources.

Last spring, Harper and her HSU teammates competed against teams from many wellknown universities and won a $75,000 award at the Environmental Protection Agency’s national Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. In the summer, Harper traveled with two other student researchers to Bhutan to investigate energy issues in the landlocked Asian nation. Many Bhutanese villages use a local mini-hydro system for electrical power. “Basically, after work, everybody comes home and plugs in their rice cookers and water boilers and there isn’t enough power so you wind up with brownouts,” she says. “We were looking for a technical solution to the problem as well as developing education to teach people to stagger their energy use to make the best use of their grid.”

The team Harper was a part of developed GridShare, a device designed to be installed near a home’s electrical meter and encourage smarter energy use in two ways: by indicating the readiness of the grid to the user and by cutting power to large appliances during brownouts. And the results were promising. The student-designed device was able to reduce the duration of brownouts and further research, still ongoing at the Schatz Lab, aims to alleviate the brownouts altogether.

In places like Kenya, much of the population relies on kerosene or fuel-based lighting and there are profound effects.

ELSEWHERE ON THE INTERNATIONAL front, the Schatz Lab is making an impact with its research into off grid lighting.

Professor Arne Jacobson, Schatz Lab co-director and faculty member in the Environmental Resources Engineering Department, has led the Off-Grid Lighting Project, which is developing design standards to boost the availability of affordable, high-quality off-grid lighting systems in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In places like Kenya, much of the population relies on kerosene or fuel-based lighting and there are profound effects. “It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it generates indoor air pollution, and it’s inefficient. It ends up being pretty costly—you put in a lot of money and get a little amount of light,” explains Jacobson. To combat these issues, the project is developing standards for manufacturers to build reliable and safe LED-based lamps and flashlights for the developing-world market.

Jacobson’s project not only promises to deliver clean, safe lighting to much of the world, it also provides ample opportunities for Humboldt State students to engage in the hands-on research of important contemporary issues.

TOP: Engineering undergraduate and Schatz student research assistant Patricia Lai tests the illumination level of an LED light destined for the African market. BOTTOM: A portion of the many lighting products being tested as part of the Lighting Africa program.

Patricia Lai is an Environmental Resources Engineering undergraduate pursuing her second degree after earning a bachelor’s in International Development at UC Berkeley. In the lighting lab, within Harry Griffith Hall, much of the work on lighting design standards is being conducted. There, Lai can often be found testing and retesting dozens of LED lighting systems.

The tests include analyzing battery capacity, solar charging efficiency and visual inspections to look for signs of obvious low quality (“We drop them and some just fall apart,” says Lai). One goal of the project is to develop a seal of approval that indicates the lamp that customers are about to buy has undergone rigorous testing and meets all qualifications. “We’re trying to encourage these product designers to improve their lights by providing quality assurance carrots to move them along,” Lai says.

The off-grid lighting project is part of the World Bank/ International Monetary Fund-sponsored program, Lighting Africa. Humboldt State has counterpart labs in China and Germany conducting similar research.

The work has taken Jacobson to Washington, D.C., where he’s currently on sabbatical from Humboldt State. In Washington, he’s working with a team of researchers to expand the Lighting Africa project to a global scale. The other portion of his work includes the Climate Ready initiative, a multi-million dollar program to transfer renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies to developing countries.

WHILE THE SCHATZ LAB is earning big points for its work on the global scene, it’s also intensely focused on local energy issues. That commitment is embodied by the group’s work on the Renewable Energy Secure Communities project (RESCO). The goal for the RESCO project is to develop a strategic plan that, by 2030, will have Humboldt County getting 75 to 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

In a packed auditorium in the Behavioral and Social Sciences Building, Schatz researchers Peter Alstone and Colin Sheppard recently presented their research as part of the RESCO group.

“Schatz’s role is developing the technical and economic research to figure out what’s going on in Humboldt County’s energy profile,” explains Alstone.

In order to uncover that data, Alstone and Sheppard, working with RESCO project manager and Schatz senior researcher Jim Zoellick, devised a computer modeling system that analyzed the county’s energy sources and uses. The model can be tweaked by researchers looking for outcomes to specific questions. “We really focused on asking useful questions to home in on a model that will either minimize emissions or costs, depending on what you’re looking for,” says Sheppard.

So far the results have been promising. Humboldt County currently produces a considerable amount of the energy it consumes, with biomass plants, hydroelectric power, and a natural gas-powered plant. Any remaining energy needed comes in via transmission wires from Redding, Calif. Further development into renewables, could expand run-of-the-river based hydro-electric (reportedly safer for wildlife than traditional dam-based hydro-electric), biomass, and wind power. The research team is working with the model and is partnering with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and local stakeholders to explore the economic impacts of developing renewables on the North Coast.

Graduate student Chhimi Dorji and the GridShare destined for installation in Bhutan. Dorji graduated in December 2010 and now works as an engineer for Bhutan’s Department of Energy. He is working with HSU students to install 90 GridShares in the Himalayan village of Rakubji this summer.

BACK IN THE LAB, Chapman is showing off one of the latest areas of interest for Schatz researchers. After investigating the viability of using biomass for producing gaseous fuels (while the technology definitely works, the process is not suitable for remote locations in the western U.S.), the group is now running tests on torrefied wood.

In a nutshell, torrefaction is the process of heating wood chips and or other biomass to between 280 and 300 degrees Celsius in the absence of air. The result is a product that’s energy-rich and half its original weight due to the loss of evaporated water.

The challenge now is developing markets for this wood product, something that could easily be done here on the North Coast where forest products are abundant. Closer scientific scrutiny is necessary to maximize the efficiency of this product and this is where Lehman’s proposal comes in. In a well-ventilated metal outbuilding near the lab, torrefaction equipment stands at the ready.

With another area of renewable energy about to open up for research, one thing is clear, the lab’s new 6,000-square-foot facility is definitely needed. The building includes an exterior laboratory, two indoor labs, a machine shop, a conference and demonstration room and offices for staff and graduate students. All this will be essential in welcoming the next generation of researchers to the lab, where they’ll begin the work that could bring the world closer to a future built on clean, renewable and safe energy.