Sustainability

Researchers at Colorado School of Mines took delivery of the world’s first Geothermic Fuel Cell (GFC) on Aug. 5, 2013. 

Designed and built by Delphi, headquartered in Rochester, NY, for IEP Technology, of Parker, Colo., the GFC will efficiently generate 4.5 kW of electricity from natural gas fuel. 

Its real value lies in the heat that it liberates while generating this electricity -- scientists and engineers seek to harness this heat to recover unconventional oil. This electricity comes as a useful and valuable byproduct of the oil-recovery process. 

In partnership with IEP Technology and Delphi, students, engineers, and faculty will characterize the thermal and electrical performance of the geothermic fuel cell at the Colorado Fuel Cell Center laboratory on the Mines campus. 

The solid-oxide fuel cells packaged within the GFC operate at high temperature (nearly 750 ºC) to convert natural gas into electricity and heat. When implemented, clusters of GFCs will be placed into the earth within oil shale formations for oil recovery. GFCs present a potentially transformative technology for accessing the world’s vast oil-shale reserves, which are estimated at 4.8 trillion barrels worldwide, in an environmentally responsible manner.

“This privately funded research and development project leverages the past investments in infrastructure made by Colorado School of Mines and federal agencies in the Colorado Fuel Cell Center. Such university-industrial partnerships are common at Mines, and create unique learning experiences for both our students and faculty, while answering important questions facing our industrial partners in bringing such technologies to market,” said Dr. Neal Sullivan, Mines associate professor of mechanical engineering.

To learn more about geothermic fuel cells, visit the IEP Technologies website: http://www.iepm.com/

Learn more about the Colorado Fuel Cell Center at www.coloradofuelcellcenter.org.

 

By Todd Neff

Forests across the Mountain West have gone orange and faded to gray. Since about the turn of the millennium, the mountain pine beetle’s appetite for lodgepole has killed off some four million acres of trees in Colorado and Wyoming alone. That the larvae of an insect the size of a grain of rice can bring such destruction is in itself a wonder of nature.

The changes go far beyond appearance, and while questions about the effects of so many dead trees on forest fires may be the most obvious, some of the beetles’ biggest impacts lie downstream. Pine beetles are shrinking the snowpack, hastening runoff and parching summer soil. The bugs have affected everything from the molecular habits of soil metals to the makeup of soil microbes. They have changed the chemistry of forest earth and increased the loads of carcinogens flowing through water treatment plants.

It’s more than a provincial concern of cabin dwellers and ski condo owners. Mountain runoff into the Colorado and Platte rivers alone sustains 30 million people and 1.8 million acres of irrigated farmland. With a warming climate, the deep freezes that once killed off pine beetles will be fewer, threatening more frequent, longer lasting epidemics affecting the region in ways science is only beginning to grasp. But science will soon catch up. A Mines-led team of hydrologists, microbiologists, geochemists, numerical modelers and social scientists is sharpening the picture of pine beetle impacts below a given dead tree and connecting how those changes trickle out to watersheds and the people who depend on them.

A five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation grant and $375,000 in Colorado state matching funds are fueling the effort. Mines Associate Professor Reed Maxwell, who specializes in hydrological modeling, serves as principal investigator. His Mines office is big and sparse. Its notable features include a high-end road bike outfitted with commuter lights, a wall clock whose arms at noon point to the cube root of 1728, and a 28-square-foot whiteboard, mostly empty on this day.

“The water quality in, say, Lake Granby has a lot to do with a watershed area that’s heavily beetle impacted,” Maxwell said. “We want to move from tree to plot to hillslope to watershed scale. That’s one of the big tasks in our grant, and we’re developing the models from scratch. They aren’t really out there.”

There are plenty of hypotheses, supported — but also contradicted — by a growing number of studies. Combined, the story goes something like this: Pine beetles kill trees, which drop their needles and load the soil with carbon as they break down. Their denuded branches let more snow into the ground, but they also stop less sunlight and block less wind, accelerating melting and runoff. The water moves through the hillslope and watershed faster. That influences how fast it reacts chemically, which in turn affects carbon balance, metal absorption and microbial makeup. At larger scales, the flow paths and speeds of rivulets, creeks and rivers change, too. The sum of the impacts shifts water quality, quantity and timing to new equilibriums, Maxwell said.

But no one knows for sure, which is why the team of eight faculty, eight graduate students and two postdoctoral researchers from Mines and Colorado State University has much to do.

If recent studies are any indication, the pine beetle plot will have many twists. Mines hydrological engineering PhD student Kristin Mikkelson spent three summers doing field work in Pennsylvania Gulch near Breckenridge and Keystone Gulch, focused on testing surface waters for copper and zinc. Dissolved organic carbon, more abundant with all the fallen pine needles, latches onto metals and keeps them mobile, boosting their soil concentrations and, one would think, the volume of metals flowing in surface waters. But while soil concentrations of metals have indeed been higher, Mikkelson said, “We’re not seeing it in the surface water.”

Another curiosity relates to municipal water quality. In a separate Mikkelson-led study, published in Nature Climate Change in October 2012, she and Mines colleagues reported that higher concentrations of organic carbon from pine needle pulses react with chlorine-based disinfectants in water treatment plants and produce more carcinogenic disinfectant byproducts. The study compared water treatment plants in five pine-beetle-impacted watersheds with four controls and linked increases in disinfectant byproducts with the degree of pine beetle infestation. The surprise, Mikkelson said, was that one class of disinfectant byproducts, known as trihalomethanes, spiked while others, haloacetic acids, didn’t.

“When we saw the jump in only the one, it was clear that the pine beetle epidemic is not only changing the amount of organic carbon, but also its composition,” she said.

Mikkelson is following up with experiments in which she percolates artificial rainwater presoaked with brown pine needles through columns of soil. “We’re measuring how that organic carbon is changing as it goes through the columns — what parts are partitioning and sorbing into the soil and which metals they’re grabbing.”

That effort complements Mines hydrology PhD student Lindsay Bearup’s work. In a Berthoud Hall lab, Bearup pulled a one-gallon Ziploc® bag from a refrigerator. Its dirt would find its way into jars, and then vials.

“I have jars and jars of dirt – really exciting!” she joked.

Bearup had collected it from a site north of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. After hiking the eight miles in, she had filled bags of dirt beneath trees in various states of beetle impact – some green and untouched, some orange, some gray. In the lab, she had put single grams of soil into 50 milliliter falcon tubes and added chemicals to determine how organic fractions differed and what metals were present. This information, combined with water captured in a rain gauge (to determine precipitation volume and stable isotopes) and other data, may help explain the surface water metal mystery, among other things.

“I’m looking at where metals are associated with soils,” she said. “It’s interesting because organic matter is changing as trees die.”

Those changes probably affect the microbial communities in forest soils, added Jonathan Sharp, a Mines assistant professor who focuses on the intersection of microbiology, geology and hydrology. With the pine beetle work, Sharp is guiding graduate students as they work to determine microbial makeup in soil based on DNA analysis. The theory is that, as trees die, microbial ecosystems face a pulse of needles and lifeless root systems and will evolve accordingly. That, in turn, could ultimately affect the transport of metals and water quality.

“We’re trying to look from the millimeter scale all the way up to the watershed,” Sharp said.

Maxwell’s modeling work will incorporate the team’s fieldwork, as well as data from partners at the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Colorado, to bridge these scales. One aim is to put new information in the hands of water managers and policymakers. Part of the project, Maxwell said, will involve partnering with water municipalities in Colorado and southern Nevada to help them understand how pine beetles may be affecting the quality of their inflows and how they might adjust their water treatment regimes.

“We’re seeing real water quality changes,” Maxwell said. “At best, this is going to mean an increase in water bills.”

John McCray, a co-investigator and head of Mines' Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says the project’s combination of field work, chemical and DNA analysis, and computer modeling could help answer questions well beyond those posed by the pine beetle.

“The processes we’re looking at really have to do with any sort of change in mountain and forest hydrology,” McCray said. “Those could be changes due to fire, development or climate change.”

It’s good that the work’s happening now, he added. “Pine beetles appear to have significant effects on hydrology and water quality, and we’ve only had a limited window in which to study this.” 

 

This article appears in the 2013-14 edition of Mines' research magazine, "Energy and the Earth."

As it’s often said, the real world can be the best classroom. That’s precisely the idea behind an assignment students in Teaching Professor Chuck Stone’s ENGY 320 Renewable Energy course received: to individually design their own field trips to companies or organizations involved in renewable energy or sustainability and come back with a report.

“It was wide open,” said Stone as students showed off their posters and reports during the Forum on Renewable Energy at Colorado School of Mines, Dec. 6. “If I had told them what to do we wouldn’t have this depth and breadth of projects here. I was incredibly impressed with the variety and creativity.”

The field trips took students from solar companies to train stations and even elementary schools.

Senior Katherine Bony contacted engineers at Wheat Ridge based Major Geothermal learning how engineers at the company access heat energy from below the earth’s surface.

“I learned all about the different types of geothermal [systems]. I originally thought there was only vertical, but there’s horizontal, there are slinky loops. It all depends on the thermal conductivity of the ground,” said Bony.

Bony’s experience also led to an internship opportunity with the company.

Senior Kristen Heiden reported on her experience working with civil engineers working on the LEED certification for the Union Station redevelopment project in Denver.

“What I think is really neat is Union Station has a big waste management system,” said Heiden. “They use waste material to help in the construction, but they also recycle a lot of it.”

Heiden also learned how engineers are making the building greener by installing skylights, improving indoor air quality with large fans and planting gardens outside the station.

“It’s a great look at what we can look forward to as engineers when we’re actually designing things,” said Heiden.

Other projects showcased included a bike that measures electrical energy produced from pedaling. The project could be taken to middle and elementary schools as an interactive lesson about energy.

Stone’s ENGY 320 Renewable Energy class is part of the energy minor at Colorado School of Mines. For more information, click here.

Take a look at a solar panel on a sunny Colorado day and, if you’re like most people, you won’t see much more than a blinding glare. Mark Lusk sees wasted opportunity.

“I see that glare and feel how hot the panels on my roof get and say, ‘What a waste! We’re losing energy!’” says Lusk, a Mines physics professor and solar energy researcher, who admits to checking out his panels and their energy output more than most. On a clear day, he explains, only a fraction of the photons hitting the photovoltaic cells on his roof are converted into electricity—the rest bounce off as light or are lost as heat. On a cloudy day, or as dusk approaches, the long-wavelength, low-energy particles of light are scarcely enough to produce any juice at all. On average, just 20 percent of the sun’s rays actually get converted to energy in a contemporary solar cell.

“In terms of efficiency, there is a lot of room for improvement up there,” he says.

Fueled by a six-year, $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Lusk and his colleagues at the Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (REMRSEC) have spent the last four years working to improve that efficiency via a complex merging of nanotechnology, quantum physics and computational wizardry known as “exciton engineering.”

The nascent and controversial field hinges on the manipulation of “excitons”—the combination of an excited electron and the hole from which it is dislodged by an incoming photon. In conventional photovoltaic cells, the exchange is generally one-for-one; upon impact, a photon creates an exciton, which sends a highly energized electron racing into an electrical circuit.

Continue reading in Mines Magazine...

 

Learn more about Mines research in renewable energy here.

A group of Mines students and faculty are collaborating with area teachers, college professors and school administrators on a project aimed at enhancing education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, particularly as they relate to sustainability and energy.

Initiated in 2010 by members of the Red Rocks Foundation board, which includes former Mines president John Trefny, and funded by a three-year grant from the Community First Foundation, the Red Rocks Institute for Sustainability in Education (RISE) includes partners at Red Rocks Community College, Colorado School of Mines and Jeffco Public Schools.

... read more at minesmagazine.com.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Sustainability