Michigan Tech Dedicates New Solar Energy Research Facility

by Marcia Goodrich, senior writer

It was a damp and cloudy day, but the solar panels were still churning out electricity as the Keweenaw Research Center dedicated the new Michigan Tech Solar Photovoltaic Research Facility.

"It's amazing what free energy is out there to gather up," KRC Director Jay Meldrum told the crowd jamming the conference room in KRC's Engineering Building.

The two-kilowatt system generates enough energy to charge all of the electric snowmobiles competing in the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge, held every year at KRC, but that's just a bonus. The system's two main purposes are to support research in photovoltaic systems and to introduce student engineers to solar technologies.

Because the facility includes a variety of solar panels, researchers can compare their performance. And scientists don't necessarily have to be on site: Inside the building, a monitor displays a detailed, 24/7 flow of data from each of the modules mounted just outside. All that information will soon be free and available on the Internet.

The possibilities go far beyond solar panel design, Meldrum said. Researchers can investigate how the facility integrates with the larger electric grid, the economics of solar power, and all the system's other components.

The facility is state of the art, in part because SolarBridge Technologies, of Austin, Texas, has donated 10 microinverters. They are attached to each of the modules and convert each panel's DC current into AC current compatible with household use.

Those microinverters are key, said two faculty members who expect to use the facility in their research. "The cool thing about this is the inverters," said Professor Bruce Mork (ECE). "You don't need batteries. They allow you to connect directly into your local grid."

Associate Professor Joshua Pearce (MSE, ECE) agreed. "This is plug and play," said Pearce. Microinverters help to drive down the price of solar energy and make it more and more attractive to a mass market. As a result, "solar can now play ball in places where electricity is costly, like Hawaii," he said.

Ron Van Dell, president and CEO of SolarBridge and a 1979 electrical engineering graduate, predicted that the facility will help drive solar power closer to widespread use. "This will be a fruitful area for research," he said, adding that he expected the program to draw investigators from many disciplines, including business.

With an annual snowfall averaging 200-plus inches, this might not seem like the ideal spot to study photovoltaic systems. But SolarBridge tests its equipment in all kinds of conditions, from Antarctica to the American West. Snow can actually be a benefit, Van Dell said, since it reflects sunlight.

The facility has an added advantage for Michigan Tech: it may also bring more top researchers here. "The timing of this couldn't be better," said President Glenn Mroz. "As we continue to fill positions in the Strategic Faculty Hiring Initiative in Next-Generation Energy Systems, this facility lets us demonstrate to potential faculty members that they can be successful here."

Dow Corning, of Midland, and Hemlock Semiconductor, a partially owned subsidiary of Dow Corning based in Hemlock, donated the facility's solar panels, which were made by a number of manufacturers. Dow Corning produces the silicones used in making the panels. Hemlock Semiconductor manufactures polycrystalline silicon, the black, glass-like material on the panels' surface that absorbs sunlight.

"We're proud and happy this has worked out so well," said Bill Huss, global productivity manager for Dow Corning and a 1983 chemical engineering graduate. He addressed the students in the crowd: "One of the primary reasons we're doing this is for you," he said. Steve Trombley, a 1989 mechanical engineering graduate and reliability team leader at Hemlock Semiconductor, agreed. "The main reason we want to do this is for students, to get you excited about working in solar energy and maybe inspire you to work for a great company like Dow Corning or Hemlock Semiconductor."

Undergraduates in Michigan Tech's Alternative Fuels Group Enterprise will be among the first to get involved in the new research facility. KRC has a small weather station at the site, and the students will correlate the solar cells' output with the local weather, monitoring how they behave under varying conditions.

With so much interest in the new facility, Meldrum forecast a bright future, despite the gloomy weather. "This will be a great research station," he said.

Reminder: Richard Honrath Memorial Lecture

The Richard Honrath Memorial Lecture will be at 4 p.m., Monday, Oct. 3, in M&M U115. Dr. Michael Hoffmann, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science at Caltech, will present "Chemical Reactions at the Air-Water Interface of Aqueous Microdroplets."

The Honrath Lecture is in memory of Richard Honrath (professor in Environmental Engineering and Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences) who passed away in April of 2009.

The lecture is supported by the Earth Planetary and Space Sciences Institute (EPSSI) and the Honrath Memorial Fund. The fund provides support for the Richard E. Honrath Memorial Lecture and for undergraduate and graduate students whose major and/or research demonstrate a commitment to protecting the environment and/or the pursuit of knowledge about the earth's natural forces.

Lecturers are internationally recognized scholars in atmospheric sciences who will interact substantially with students during their visit. (For details in the Honrath fund, see Honrath.

Dr. Hoffmann will be here for the day of Monday, Oct. 3. Those who would like to meet with him should contact Associate Professor Will Cantrell (Physics) at cantrell@mtu.edu . Again, interaction with students is encouraged.

Upcoming Brockway Portrait Session Rescheduled

The on-campus portrait session with Brockway Photography has been rescheduled for Monday, Oct. 17, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Memorial Union Alumni Lounge A. For more information, see the original Tech Today announcement.

The second portrait session of the semester is set for Thursday, Nov. 10, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Memorial Union Alumni Lounge B.

If you have any questions, contact Karina Jousma, photography coordinator, at 487-2330 or kahautam@mtu.edu .

Khana Khazana: Lunch in Thailand This Friday

Food from Thailand will be featured at Khana Khazana (food treasure) this Friday in the Food Court of the Memorial Union. The menu includes chicken coconut soup, deep fried bananas and a fish dish in a spicy sauce. Vegetarian options will be available as well.

Khana Khazana is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A full meal costs $6, and items are available a la carte for $2. The campus and the community are welcome.

This weekly ethnic lunch is a collaboration of international students and Dining Services.

Scholarship Essay Writing Workshop

Undergraduates and graduate students alike are invited to attend a scholarship essay writing session from 7 to 9 p.m., today, in Fisher 101.

Work on your essay and get feedback and tips. Essay prompts will be provided if you just want to see what it might be like.

On the Road

Director William Kennedy (CTLFD) presented a workshop, "Engaging
Students Through Just-in-Time Teaching," at the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching in Traverse City, on Sept. 23.