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2008 News in Brief



Two in CEE receive seed funding from MIT Energy Initiative

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Two faculty members in CEE received grants through the MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund Program in September: Markus Buehler for a project on bioinspired thermal materials and Harry Hemond (with Ahmed Ghoniem of mechanical engineering) for a solar heat and electricity project. The two projects were among 17 that will share more than $1.7 million in grant funds.

Previously CEE Professors Penny Chisholm, Roman Stocker and Janelle Thompson received funding in MITEI’s first round of seed grants in January 2008.

Thermal materials
The goal of Buehler’s project is to identify, using biological concepts such as self-assembly, hierarchies or geometric confinement, new thermal materials that would serve either as extremely good heat conductors or as extremely poor heat conductors (insulators).

“Materials with maximized heat transport are important for the generation of electrical energy from conventional or alternative sources, such as in harvesting geothermal energy,” said Buehler. “Great heat insulators could be applied in cryogenic components. The ability to switch between these extreme properties through external stimuli—a phenomenon referred to as thermomutability—could create controllable materials similar to electronic transistors. Recent breakthroughs in understanding the performance of biological protein materials provided the basis for this new project, illustrating a new engineering paradigm that links structure and material throughout multiple scales.”

Buehler, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor, received a $100,000 grant from MITEI.

Solar heat and electricity project
Hemond, the William E Leonhard Professor, and Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane (1972) Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will develop solar power installations that use mirrored troughs to focus sunlight on liquid-filled tubes and photovoltaic cells, generating enough heat and electricity to run electric lights for a village school or provide refrigeration for vaccines in a rural clinic in the developing world.

Seed funding from the MIT Energy Initiative will support the development of the core power generation system and control unit. The work builds on a previously developed low-cost, easy-to-manufacture parabolic trough module capable of delivering thermal power to an engine constructed from widely available automotive and other mechanical components. This type of micro-scale (5-20 kW) hybrid solar photovoltaic thermal power plant design could generate electricity in places where people now rely on diesel generators.

“The hybridization of photovoltaic and thermal generation provides higher sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiencies than either of those technologies can produce alone,” said Hemond. A plant in this output range can vastly improve the ability of rural clinics, schools, and businesses to deliver services, thereby helping to reduce poverty.”

This solar powered system built in January 2008 by MIT students, including CEE graduate students Matthew Orosz and Amy Mueller, generated heat and electricity in a remote area of Lesotho, Africa. An MITEI seed grant will make it possible to continue developing this type of small power plant for off-grid areas.  Photo / Courtesy Harry Hemond