VALPARAISO | The $2.3 million that Valparaiso University has been awarded through a U.S. Department of Energy grant just may revolutionize the way that we drive our cars in the future. Although for staff and students at the university, it means even more than that.
“This is transformational,” said Eric Johnson, dean of the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University.
The grant will fund research in the mechanical and electrical engineering departments using the school’s new James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility on magnesium production, a process that may help make future cars lighter, thereby more efficient.
“This project will have an important impact on the scientific literacy in our region and a huge impact on society and the community. We’re very excited,” Johnson said.
Valparaiso University President Mark Heckler said, “I am thrilled for Valparaiso University’s students and faculty and grateful to the United States Department of Energy for recognizing our College of Engineering and James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility in this way. This cooperative agreement will allow Valpo faculty and students to remain on the cutting edge of energy science, technology and research, and to help develop a cleaner, more sustainable future for our planet.”
The Solar Energy Research Facility, also referred to by staff as a “solar furnace” was built over the course of five summers by students and faculty who designed every component of the structure: heliostat, concentrators, solar reactor, computers, electrical cabinets, louvers mechanisms and safety components.
“The mirrors magnify the sun 5,000 times, which concentrates the heat to between 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than the surface of Mercury,” said Luke Venstrom, assistant professor of mechanical engineering as well as a Valpo University alumnus who returned to teach because of such opportunities as this project.
The solar furnace will be used in the solar thermal electrolytic production of magnesium from magnesium oxide, or in layman’s terms, to separate the magnesium atoms from the oxide atoms. Mechanical engineering professor Robert Palumbo explains why this is important to everyone who drives a car, or those who will drive a car in the future.
“We want to get the cost of magnesium down with as little impact on the environment as possible. We want to get as much fossil fuel out of the process as possible, so we are using sunlight to get magnesium produced,” Palumbo said.
The facility won’t be producing the magnesium, per se, but they will be conducting the research to help develop the scientific and engineering knowledge needed so one day industry can build a large power plant for magnesium oxide separation.
As only one of four universities receiving funding through the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the award for research is important and was awarded based upon their facility, their strong team to execute the research and the plan to change the way the world thinks of magnesium, Palumbo said.
The three-year project will begin the first of the year and students like Jesse Fosheim, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student from Green Bay, Wis., said he is pleased to be a part of it.
“Through my work at Valpo, I have become interested in alternative energy and have been impacted by my professors’ passion for it. This solar facility and program has changed the shape of what I want to do in life and given me the opportunity to be a player in the worldwide market. It’s cool knowing a small liberal arts college is the only undergraduate college working on solar energy on this level,” Fosheim said.
Mechanical engineering professor Scott Duncan said about 50 students were involved in building the solar facility and that about 30 to 40 students will be involved in the magnesium project.
For mechanical engineering Professor Shahin Nudehi, that kind of exposure is what makes the greatest impact on his students.
“They see the application of what they learn in the classroom, the fundamentals and how it is important. That’s the learning process,” Nudehi said.