By Zack Harold, Charleston Daily Mail
It’s the biggest challenge since the Space Race: figuring out a way to power the country in a sustainable, renewable way.
Researchers at West Virginia University Institute of Technology’s Renewable Energy Lab are working to solve that puzzle.
Professor Asad Davari founded the lab about four years ago in collaboration with the university’s chemistry department to investigate.
Students currently run a miniature power grid from the roof of Tech’s engineering building, where they’ve also placed a small wind turbine and two solar panels. Those generators pump their power through heavy-duty extension cords down the side of the building and into the renewable energy lab.
Professor Koarosh Sedghisigarchi said students are working to design controllers to manage power from those energy sources.
Davari said one of the biggest problems with renewable energy sources is figuring out how to store the energy once it’s created. Lumps of coal will lay around until someone burns them. But solar rays and wind power come and go, so engineers have to find a way to store such energy for an uninterrupted power source.
Researchers at the Renewable Energy Lab are working to solve that problem, too.
“We have some idea, but you have to do research and development to see what works,” he said.
Once the technology is perfected, Davari said schools, hospitals and businesses could install “micro-grids” and generate their own power through wind, solar or fuel cell technology. Whatever power they had left over could be sold to the electric company.
The Renewable Energy Lab is also looking at ways to use fossil fuels better.
The United States Department of Defense recently gave the university $2.4 million to fund a research program aimed at developing carbon-powered fuel cells for military use.
The multi-year project will be a collaborative effort with the Army Research Laboratory and American Science and Technology.
Davari said fuel cells are nothing new – the military just wants a better one. Soldiers already use hydrogen-based cells in the field, but those are big and bulky.
“They need some source of energy to power them and they want it small,” he said.
The carbon-based fuel cells would be powered by coal, and turned into carbon monoxide through an “electrochemical conversion,” not combustion or gasification.
The lab is also charged with creating a fuel cell that makes more energy with less fuel.
“You have to develop a product that uses less energy to make more energy,” Davari said.
Davari said the cells will be used for several different purposes, including unmanned military vehicles.
The lab mostly uses the university’s undergraduate engineering students to conduct research. Davari said the experience gives students a good background in renewable energy sources, a resume tidbit that looks increasingly promising for potential employers.
“It’s good for them. We pay them, too. That’s a good thing for a student,” Davari said, grinning.
The project is still in its early stages, so students are spending time researching already-developed fuel cell technology.
“You don’t want to start from zero,” Davari said.
He said the students will build on that existing knowledge to develop the new technology.
Davari said his department won the project with support from Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and because students have worked on other defense projects.
“If you’ve built your reputation, you can deliver, they count on you,” Davari said. “We are small but we have capability people don’t know.”
Davari said his ultimate goal is to start a “coal power research institute,” tying the university’s research capabilities to the coal industry.
“We need a champion for this,” he said.
In Davari’s mind, coal companies would dictate what projects researchers worked on – efficient clean coal-burning technology, for instance.
The companies would give the engineers financial support, “and the research goes back to them,” Davari said.
“Coal is the future of energy for everybody,” he said. “Our goal is to be able to use coal.”