Highlight all of ASU's renewable energy research.

Manufactured materials offer benefits to energy sector, climate change

December 23, 2016

Mechanical engineer Liping Wang imagines an energy sector enhanced by greater control over thermal radiation. To work toward this objective, he is designing and constructing a host of custom electromagnetic materials.

An assistant professor at Arizona State University, Wang's endeavor is supported by a Young Investigator Program research grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, totaling $360,000 over three years. The program received more than 230 proposals, awarding grants to only 25 percent of applicants. Liping Wang looks over metamaterials created in his Nano-Engineered Thermal Radiation Group. Assistant professor Liping Wang (right) and Hassan Alshehri, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, research manufactured materials as part of Wang's Nano-Engineered Thermal Radiation Group. Photo by Nora Skrodenis/ASU Download Full Image

Thermal radiation refers to the transfer of energy through electromagnetic waves between objects.

Improving thermal radiation and its transport boasts improvements in energy harvesting, as well as thermal management, imaging and sensing — all of which are essential in addressing the world’s urgent need for high-efficiency renewable energy sources and energy-saving materials.

But the quality of thermal radiation, and the energy it generates, is determined by the temperature and properties of the objects, known as emitters and receivers, at play.

Currently, in thermophotovoltaic systems (systems that convert thermal energy to power), efficiency is very low due to the performance of materials that make up the emitters and receivers. These systems commonly suffer from a loss of heat — known as waste heat — rather than using that heat to generate additional electricity.

All of this results in less efficient photovoltaics and is an obstacle in ramping up the usage of solar energy and waste heat, which can be recovered and used as an emission­-free and affordable energy resource.

A solution to the problem lies in designing emitters and receivers made of materials that are near-perfectly efficient in their absorption of sunlight — meaning materials that can selectively control thermal radiation and enhance radiative transport. By extension, this research could help create solar cells that produce more energy, more efficiently.

The game-changing nanoengineered materials that Wang is developing are nanowire-based metamaterials.

These manufactured metamaterials are electromagnetic structures that are deliberately engineered to offer a range of unique electromagnetic properties, which are much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in naturally occurring materials or composites, such as rare-earth oxides as wavelength-selective emitters.

“These metamaterials would provide much more flexibility and tunability in materials designed to achieve the best system performance,” said Wang, a faculty member in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Wang said a significant feature of his metamaterials is their ability to respond to both electrical and magnetic fields at optical frequencies. All lights or electromagnetic waves are made of co-existing electric and magnetic fields, which Wang likens to the “left and right hands of a person.”

“Most natural materials only interact with electrical fields of lights at optical frequencies; in other words, they behave non-magnetically,” said Wang.

During the thermal radiation process, Wang’s nanowire metamaterials can interact with both the electric and magnetic fields, which allows for improved control of light propagation, absorption and emission with “both hands” of the wave.

This control is termed “spectral selectivity,” and can lead to greater energy efficiency and power input by improving the conversion of thermal energy into electricity.

“In addition, the project fundamentally investigates the unexploited radiative thermal transfer process between these unique metamaterials separated by nanometer-scale vacuum gaps,” said Wang, which could further enhance the performance of thermophotovoltaic energy conversion or thermal management.

“We aim to engineer these novel materials for developing high-efficiency renewable energy sources, recuperating waste heat, facilitating thermal managements and mitigating climate change,” said Wang.

About 60 percent of the total energy that is produced in United States is wasted in the form of heat during production, transportation and storage.

“Recycling of such a huge amount of waste heat with highly efficient energy-conversion devices will undoubtedly reduce the amount of fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emission by up to 30 percent,” said Wang. This could alleviate the pressing demand for conventional energy sources and reduce carbon dioxide pollution.

In addition, by funding this research, the Air Force is likely interested in applications to improve optical cloaking and infrared detection.

In his efforts in the Nano-Engineered Thermal Radiation Group, Wang engages a postdoctoral fellow, seven doctoral students including two visiting students from China, and three undergraduates as part of the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative.

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Second cohort of Pakistani students arrives at ASU to brighten country, lives

October 18, 2016

A second group of graduate students from Pakistan recently arrived at Arizona State University to study energy engineering as part of a larger effort to boost development of solutions for Pakistan’s growing energy needs.

ASU is leading the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy in a collaboration sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission. Sayfe Kiaei, director of U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy and a professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, welcomes the second cohort of Pakistani exchange students to ASU for the fall semester Sayfe Kiaei, director of U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy and a professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, welcomes the second cohort of Pakistani exchange students to ASU for the fall semester. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

An $18 million grant supports the project — the largest ASU has ever received from USAID.

ASU is coordinating the graduate student exchange program in conjunction with two leading Pakistani engineering universities in an effort to train students to be change agents in helping both countries improve their energy systems.

Support for USPCAS-E is part of $127 million investment by USAID to improve Pakistan’s agriculture and food security as well as access to water and energy.

ASU is the hub for the energy component of the project in partnership with the National University of Science and Technology – Islamabad and the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar.

Sayfe Kiaei, director of USPCAS-E and a professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering believes that ASU is important to the program’s goals because, “The center is a link between ASU’s researchers and international development funding agencies as well as implementers who are working in developing countries worldwide.”

The partnership will further the long history of U.S.-Pakistani relations through the interaction of people, government, industry and academia in order improve energy stability in Pakistan.

Technology and policy

Technology and policy research are key to creating sustainable energy systems that will help enhance Pakistan’s economic potential.

The USPCAS-E program supports Pakistan’s economic development by strengthening the universities involved and by encouraging applied research.

Project topics range from research on battery technologies, photovoltaics and fuel cells to energy policy and energy-efficient buildings.

The range of skills that the exchange students acquire in these areas will help Pakistan meet its energy challenges, while equipping students to succeed in their future engineering careers.

“The students, who are very shy in the beginning, adapt to our laboratory working culture quickly,” said engineering professor Arunachala Kannan, the USPCAS-E technical lead for fuel cell and battery research. “They develop skills in communication, technical and social aspects during their stay working in the multicultural melting pot.”

Addressing the roots of Pakistan’s energy crisis

Pakistan is currently experiencing rolling power-system blackouts that can last up to 16 hours a day.

“Pakistan’s energy system is in crisis” said Clark Miller, director of the Energy Policy Lab at ASU. “To address that crisis requires a new commitment to energy policy, innovation and leadership.”

USPCAS-E is working to prepare young energy leaders to tackle that challenge.

“All of the students in the USPCAS-E programs, in Pakistan and at ASU, are receiving basic training in energy policy to ensure that they can contribute effectively as engineers to the energy policy process,” Miller said. “We are also providing specialized training in energy policy and the social dynamics of energy transitions to a small group of USPCAS-E faculty and students through semester-long programs here at ASU.”

Non-renewable resources like diesel fuel and coal are often imported by Pakistan, while hydroelectric and solar power remain underutilized as research, innovation and implementation in those areas continues to lag in the country. The USPCAS-E project aims to reverse that trend with the help of students in the exchange program.

The human component

Technology and policy are not the only key points of the USPCAS-E initiative. Cultural exchange, soft skills, networking within the industry and bringing disadvantaged students and women to the forefront of the energy field are all important components.

Saqib Sattar, who was a part of the first cohort of Pakistani students to begin studies at ASU in early 2016, spent a great deal of time in the Photovoltaic Reliability Lab. He has some advice for the recent cohort of students.

“Being an exchange student doing research at ASU means that you will be exposed to number of different [types of] equipment in the lab that will help you in learning many new things as well as getting hands-on experience,” Sattar said. “Also you will get the opportunity to meet with people from various cultures and will get to know about them and their culture.”

“So my advice to the current exchange students at ASU is to realize that this is a great opportunity for them not only to develop their technical skills but also soft skills, which are very necessary to be successful in your field, so they should make full use of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Hafiz Malik, a student in the new cohorts said he is “loving this tapestry of cultures” at ASU and is looking forward to heeding Sattar’s advice.

The new cohort includes more than twice as many female students compared to previous group of graduate students, bringing the total up to five women.

The group also includes one visiting female faculty member, Rabia Liaquat, who said the total student exchange experience benefits both countries and students economically and culturally, and enhances the professional development of faculty and students alike.

Through the networking opportunities the program provides, Liaquat said, “ASU can help us to interact with other universities for the future, and can connect us with university fellows in our field.”

Andrew Sarracino, the USPCAS-E international visits coordinator, helps to acclimatize the students to life in the United States. He said the female students “are paving the path for more young women in Pakistan so that they are empowered to help their country overcome its energy challenges.”

Graduate exchange student Nafeesa Irshad said there are “very few females in Pakistan in the energy field. We are going to take the lead.”

Irshad said of her experience at ASU thus far that “people are very supportive and helpful.”

Future cohorts of exchange students will arrive at ASU each semester through 2019 to help bolster the exchange of culture and research between the United States and Pakistan.

Erika Gronek

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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ASU moves up ranks of 'Cool Schools'

ASU named a Cool School by Sierra Club for campus sustainability.
September 6, 2016

Sierra Club honors ASU for campus sustainability with No. 6 spot in its 2016 report, up from No. 11 in 2015

It's easy to be green — if you're a Sun Devil.

Arizona State University’s sustainability efforts have earned it a top 10 ranking in Sierra magazine’s 10th annual “Cool Schools” ranking of America’s greenest colleges and universities, released today.

ASU came in at No. 6, moving up five spots from its 2015 ranking.

More than 200 schools participated in Sierra’s extensive survey about sustainability practices on their campus. Using an updated, customized scoring system, Sierra’s researchers ranked each university based on its demonstrated commitment to upholding high environmental standards. 

Sustainability efforts aren’t just about the university’s operations, said Mick Dalrymple, director of ASU’s University Sustainability Practices — it’s about changing habits and mind-sets.

“Universities are about opening people’s minds,” Dalrymple said. “If we can get students, staff and faculty to see new opportunities for improving how we treat the environment and each other on campus, we can help them take those innovations out into the world to improve their lives, careers, neighborhoods and society.”

ASU scored high in several categories, including bike facilities, organic gardens, undergraduate programs, student outreach and move-in/out waste reduction. 

Other Arizona universities also made the list: Northern Arizona University was ranked 52nd, and the University of Arizona came in at No. 162. The full rankings can be found at www.sierraclub.org/coolschools.

Read on to learn more about what ASU is doing to help the environment.

Solar panels

ASU has 88 solar energy installations across four campuses and the ASU Research Park, creating more than 24 megawatts of power. In addition to providing power for the university, the solar panels also provide shaded parking, extend the life of roofs that have shade, and act as a living lab for academics and research and sustainability initiatives.

Bike valets

ASU provides free, secure and convenient bike valet services in three locations around the Tempe campus. The stations accommodate up to 200 bicycles and provide supervised bicycle parking on a first-come, first-served basis.


As part of its Zero Waste initiative, ASU supports Blue Bin commingled recycling on all campuses and has services to recycle specialty items. In 2015 the university launched the Blue Bag recycling program to capture traditionally hard-to-recycle items such as batteries and wrappers. More than 500 Blue Bags have been placed around Tempe campus.

Campus harvest

The Tempe campus landscape is a diverse collection of plants from around the world including citrus, olive, pecan, peach and many other harvestable trees and shrubs. Last year, more than 400 volunteers harvested 3,600 pounds of dates on campus for sale, and 5 tons of ASU’s Seville oranges were also harvested for juice at campus dining locations.

Sustainable dining

Sun Devil Dining strives to make the path from field to fork as sustainable as possible through programs such as Engrained Cafe. This restaurant on the Tempe campus is committed to environmentally friendly practices such as using locally grown food, energy-efficient equipment and sustainable building materials.

LEED buildings

Since July 2006, ASU has completed 27 certified LEED projects, comprising 46 buildings including the second floor of the Memorial Union. In the past year, the Sun Devil Fitness Complex on the Tempe campus and College Avenue Commons were the latest to receive certification: platinum and gold, respectively.

Campus shuttles

Last spring, this free intercampus service received a makeover that included a new shuttle fleet of double-decker buses, enhanced Wi-Fi, and charging ports and electrical outlets at every seat. The shuttles help support ASU’s commitment to sustainable transportation, which also includes biking, public transit and carpooling.


This year, ASU launched the first compost station for the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. Students, faculty and staff may place food scraps and paper food-service items in a green compost bin.

Polytechnic Community Garden

The Community Garden at the Polytechnic campus provides space and programming for students, faculty, staff and K-12 students to grow and enjoy fresh products.

“We are delighted that our actions align with the Sierra Club’s sustainability priorities,” said Nichol Luoma, ASU sustainability operations officer and associate vice president, University Business Services. “As a New American University, ASU is committed to leading by example and continuously innovates to achieve our sustainability goals.”

More Earth-friendly facts about ASU’s sustainability efforts:

  • Renewable-energy use at ASU during fiscal year 2016 avoided approximately 21,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, roughly equal to the annual emissions of 4,500 passenger vehicles.
  • ASU’s Campus Metabolism is an interactive web tool that displays real-time energy use on four campuses and ASU Research Park.
  • During Ditch the Dumpster — when residence hall residents are encouraged to donate or recycle unwanted items instead of throwing them away during move-out — ASU students diverted more than 105,000 pounds of food, clothing, furniture and other reusable items.
  • Zero Waste efforts resulted in a FY 2016 diversion rate of 35.6 percent. Total food waste diverted from landfill: 414.14 tons.
  • ASU placed first in the Pac-12 for diversion rate in the RecycleMania Game Day Basketball Challenge with a diversion rate of 92.4 percent.
  • ASU partners with the non-profit Borderlands to make rescued fresh produce available at low cost to ASU students, faculty and staff and the broader community.
  • A Rescued Food Feast event diverted nearly 600 pounds of food from the landfill.
  • The university offers a range of sustainability-related degrees and is home to the nation’s first School of Sustainability, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. In addition, the School of Sustainability Residential Community provides a living and learning opportunity for students to “walk the talk.”

“For more than 10 years, ASU has demonstrated its fundamental commitment to sustainability,” said Christopher Boone, dean and professor of the School of Sustainability. “We are very pleased to be recognized by the Sierra Club for all of our hard work.”

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Catching some rays at ASU solar camp

High schoolers flock to ASU for the hottest summer camp in town.
Students build solar panels at unique ASU summer camp.
July 28, 2016

High schoolers get hands-on experience with the science behind solar

Scorching, squinting, sweating and learning — welcome to Arizona State University’s Solar Energy Camp, the hottest camp at the hottest university in the hottest state.

On a sizzling July morning down at the university’s Polytechnic campus, six students are setting up solar panels and attaching various measuring devices to them.

Joo Seung, 16, came from San Diego for the weeklong camp. He has been interested in renewable-energy sources since he was in elementary school.

“This year I was reaching out to find out where I could learn about solar energy,” he said.

Everything he found in California was geared toward college students. Seung did some of his own research on the internet but ended up getting lost in overly technical texts. He said he much preferred learning in class, with material that wasn’t aimed at someone with a doctorate in electrical engineering, which is where he said he wants to end up.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Seung said. “A lot of the resources (professor Arunachala Kannan) gave us were very informing.”

Kannan, a professor in the Engineering and Manufacturing Engineering Program in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, provided each student with a kit including a battery, inverter, solar panel and other components. When assembled, it is a standalone system.

“The purpose is to give them basic electrical parameters,” Kannan said. He keeps lectures to a half-hour —  it’s a camp, not a class — and then they get to work.

“I think they’re excited about doing hands-on,” he said.

They learn how solar modules work, power performance, safety and which parameters control performance. One aspect of the latter? “Once you get above 100 degrees, performance is not good,” Kannan said.

Panels need to be washed off. Dust hampers their performance. The most famous example of this is when the Curiosity rover stopped working on Mars because its solar panels were dusty. Scientists expected this, and they predicted that was it for the rover. However, wind blew the dust off, and Curiosity is still going strong.

The students set up panels in the sun on a sidewalk, measuring their angle and direction. The panels have sundials on them. At the end of camp, the students are responsible for a report including notes, pictures and measurements. It’s meant to cement what they’ve learned into their heads.

“When they submit a report, many things become clarified,” Kannan said.

Michael Geddis, 16, attends the American Leadership Academy high school in Queen Creek. The school has a STEM program that requires attending an outside enrichment program. They provide students with a list of possibilities, including Poly’s Solar Energy Camp.

“I really like the labs because I’m learning a lot,” said Geddis. “I like to learn.”

Top photo: Carlos Nunez, 15, of Tempe, and other members of Solar Energy Camp adjust the angle of their panels on the Polytechnic campus on July 13. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU researchers aim to pull fuels out of thin air

July 21, 2016

Nonrenewable fossil fuels give liquid fuels a bad name.

But not all liquid fuels are fossil fuels, and fuels don’t have to be dirty. The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions’ novel air-capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist. The process has promising new applications in creating carbon-neutral liquid fuels, a greene The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions’ novel air-capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist. The process has promising new applications in creating carbon-neutral liquid fuels, a greener alternative to fossil fuels. Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Fuels are considered dirty when they put new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes pollution and the buildup of environmentally detrimental greenhouse gases. But what if rather than using fuels that add carbon dioxide, we could create fuels that recycle carbon dioxide from the atmosphere?

Researchers at Arizona State University are exploring the idea of creating fuels that do just that: carbon-neutral liquid fuels. Think of them as fuels created out of thin air.

The endeavor builds on the advances being made at ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, which is developing a technology that collects carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using an air-capture technique that literally scrubs it from the air and then captures it so it can be reused at an affordable cost — a carbon dioxide recycling program.

This effort moves toward closing the carbon cycle, which means making sure no new carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere — essential for ensuring that concentrations don’t surpass unsafe limits for life on Earth.

In addition to the environmental benefits of removing carbon dioxide, excessive amounts of it can be turned into carbon-neutral liquid fuels, making it a renewable energy source.

“The answer to our search for a sustainable future is likely to involve a combination of technologies — and fuels from air will play an important role.”

— Arvind Ramachandran, ASU environmental engineering doctoral student

How exactly can fuel be pulled from thin air? Like any magic act, it is surprisingly simple.  

First, the center's researchers generate hydrogen by using a renewable, carbon-free electricity source (such as wind energy or solar power) to split water through a process called electrolysis.

Second, this gaseous hydrogen is combined with the carbon dioxide captured from air.

What does this mixture produce? Methanol, an alcohol fuel similar to ethanol. Voila! Fuel from air.

Like ethanol, methanol can be blended with gasoline or further processed into gasoline.

“When this methanol or synthetic gasoline is burned, it releases carbon dioxide and water back into the atmosphere where it can then be recaptured and reused to make more fuel,” said Steve Atkins, a Center for Negative Carbon Emissions senior engineer who specializes in this technology.

Methanol can also be converted into plastics that would be carbon negative, or into other fuels such as diesel and jet fuel.

“If we can make air-capture affordable then we have a carbon-neutral feedstock to make liquid fuels and take advantage of abundant renewable energy,” said Christophe Jospe, who was CNCE’s chief strategist from September 2014 until June of this year and is now founding The Carbon A List to highlight the most promising approaches to capturing and recycling carbon dioxide.

The big impacts of this technology are threefold.

First, it can help society to go carbon neutral. Unlike fossil fuels, carbon-neutral liquid fuels do not add greenhouse gases or generate a net carbon footprint. Limiting, and preferably reducing, our carbon footprint is essential for sustaining life.

Second, this technology is attractive because carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be used within our current industrial infrastructure.

“If we can’t use the internal combustion engines in our cars, then we have wasted assets,” Jospe said. This renewable alternative can work within society’s current infrastructure and energy system and be more sustainable.

Third, it addresses some of the limitations of other renewable energy methods. Solar and wind power experience intermittent drops in energy production. Much like traditional liquid fuels, carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be stored long-term and used in accordance with demand.

“During periods of intermittency in renewable energy, you could utilize liquid, carbon-neutral synthetic fuels to provide electrical power,” said Atkins — though he acknowledges the round-trip efficiency (electricity to fuels and back to electricity) would be low.

lab equipment

In this mobile methanol synthesis trailer senior engineer Steve Atkins produces hydrogen and mixes it with carbon dioxide, part of the process of creating a carbon-neutral liquid fuel. Photo courtesy of Steve Atkins

Related to our transportation fleet, Jospe said, “We don’t need to move toward a totally electrified transportation fleet. We can use fuels, but the fuels need to become carbon neutral.”

Flying an airplane with an electric battery may not be a realistic option due to the reality of energy density (how much energy is contained within a unit).

“Batteries can’t pack as much electrons into the same amount of space,” Jospe said.

That means options like jet fuel are beneficial because they are lighter weight, and can power travel across further distances. Maybe it’s easiest to say that they offer users more bang for their buck.

But nonrenewable fuels, like jet fuel, also come with nasty consequences for the environment.

Promisingly, the energy density of carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be more advantageous than current batteries. They are also better than fossil fuels because they avoid adding new carbon to the atmosphere.

Arvind Ramachandran, a first-year environmental engineering doctoral student, is advancing research in converting captured carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals under the supervision of Klaus Lackner, the director of CNCE and a professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“I think it is very clear that we have to figure out a way to become carbon negative or at least carbon neutral,” said Ramachandran, who earned his master’s degree in chemical engineering from Columbia University.

“Making sure that our mobile sources of carbon dioxide emissions, such as cars and airplanes, are running on carbon-neutral fuels represents a powerful way of achieving carbon neutrality,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E REFUEL program (short for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s Renewable Energy to Fuels through Utilization of Energy-dense Liquids) is currently offering funding opportunities to encourage innovations in liquid fuel technology that promise significant impacts.

Jospe thinks the air-capture technique fits the need by supporting the synthesis of fuels made from the air. CNCE is currently applying for ARPA-E funding to advance this effort.

Getting fuels from air is not the only option researchers at ASU are exploring. Others are advancing the production of biofuels from algae as part of a multi-university project supported by a recently awarded $2 million grant from the Bioenergy Technologies Office in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Additional niche applications of the air-capture technology would make it possible to use it to carbonate beverages, create high-value chemicals and sequester carbon in products such as graphene, plastics and carbon fiber.

These and many other products and systems require the use of carbon dioxide.

“Let’s get that carbon from air so we know it’s carbon neutral, rather than a source that doesn’t help us close the carbon cycle,” Jospe said.

CNCE researchers will promote and build on these ideas further when ASU hosts the Fuels From Air Conference on Sept. 28-30. The conference will bring researchers from around the world to discuss closing the carbon cycle, techniques in taking fuels from air and different ways to turn carbon dioxide into fuels.

Ramachandran, a budding specialist in this new and exciting field, said it best: “The answer to our search for a sustainable future is likely to involve a combination of technologies — and fuels from air will play an important role.”

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Pakistani engineering students battle energy crisis, gender roles

June 10, 2016

Two Pakistani women have important insights into their country’s colossal energy crisis.

Engineers Warda Mushtaq and Syeda Mehwish are master’s students that came to Arizona State University as part of the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) program. Master’s students Warda Mushtaq (second from the right) and Syeda Mehwish (on the right) spent the spring semester at Arizona State University with a cohort of Pakistani students as part of the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) program. In addition to advancing a research agenda in renewable energy, they toured Arizona sites such as the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Hassan Zulfiqar Download Full Image

Supportive parents, a hunger for scientific knowledge and progressive academic programs have fueled their successes in engineering, a field dominated by men in Pakistan and most parts of the world.

Their cohort, composed of 25 Pakistani engineering students, spent the spring semester learning new research techniques and tackling energy-related projects alongside ASU researchers.

Funded with an $18 million investment from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), USPCAS-E is a partnership between ASU and two leading Pakistani universities, the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad and the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Peshawar.

Renewables key to solving Pakistan’s energy crisis

Many engineers remember the device or question that first ignited their passion for finding scientific and technological solutions. For Mehwish, her interest began with a fascination concerning how televisions and radios worked.

Raised in southwestern Punjab, Pakistan, Mehwish said, “my earliest and fondest memories of childhood involved the wonders I could see and hear through these devices.”

For Mushtaq, her interest in engineering came later. Though born in Pakistan, she spent her childhood and teenage years in Saudi Arabia until she returned to her home country to pursue an undergraduate degree.

portrait of ASU engineering student

Warda Mushtaq conducted research in assistant professor Zachary Holman’s lab on advanced generation photovoltaics. Her research aspires to help solve the energy crisis in Pakistan with increasingly affordable solar power alternatives to fossil fuels. Photo by: Nick Narducci/ASU

“I have seen how posh the lifestyle of many communities in the Middle East is, compared to our lifestyle here in Pakistan,” she said.

She feels that the energy crisis facing Pakistan, in particular, is causing a majority of the societal and economic strain in Pakistan.

This energy crisis is deeply concerning, as the supply of energy is far less than the growing demand of the heat-wave prone country.

Due to management difficulties, increased power generation costs and underdeveloped infrastructure, power shortfalls approached 50 percent of national demand and the country experienced two major blackouts last year.

Reports also attributed more than 1,200 deaths last year to lethal heat waves, exasperated by rampant power outages.

An over-reliance on imported fossil fuels and untapped renewable energy sources have greatly contributed to the national crisis.

“I feel very passionate about using my skills to do something for my community, to contribute to resolving the energy crisis,” said Mushtaq.

At ASU, Mushtaq worked in assistant professor Zachary Holman’s lab on advanced generation photovoltaics. Her research aspires to help solve Pakistan’s energy crisis with increasingly affordable solar power alternatives to fossil fuels.

Solar power is one of the most feasible energy solutions in Pakistan, believes Mushtaq, “but it’s very expensive because all solar cells are imported.”

“My research is focused on the fabrication of low-cost photovoltaics…available to everyone in Pakistan, from our largest city to the smallest villages,” said Mushtaq.

Mehwish worked with associate research professor Govindasamy Tamizhmani in the Photovoltaic Reliability Lab on ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

“I am looking at making electricity cheaper for rural [communities] by proving the feasibility of standalone power plants in remote locations,” said Mehwish.

These alternative energy power plants could improve access and sustainability in rural communities in Pakistan, and across the world, if their feasibility can be proved.

The research contributions of engineers like Warda and Syeda aim to address this complex problem and are championed by leaders at their university.

“We believe that women can play an integral role in the socio-economic development of Pakistan and in resolving the energy crisis,” said Sonia Emaan, the communications and outreach specialist for USPCAS-E at NUST, the university Mehwish and Mushtaq attend.

“I believe that our women are giving their utmost in finding ways to perform with perfection … [including] working at the power plants, in the process industry, conducting field surveys, developing ways of improving existing processes at the oil and gas refineries, or designing and testing machinery for converting, transmitting and supplying useful energy to meet Pakistan’s needs for electricity,” added Emaan.

Time at ASU boosts research potential

Both Mehwish and Mushtaq decided to pursue a master’s degree in energy systems engineering at NUST, in part, because of the USPCAS-E program.

portrait of Seyda Mehwish, ASU engineering student

Syeda Mehwish spent the semester
working with associate research
professor Govindasamy Tamizhmani
in the Photovoltaic Reliability Lab
on the ASU Polytechnic campus.
She hopes to pursue a doctoral
degree next.
Photo courtesy: Syeda Mehwish

Mehwish enjoyed collaborating on her research at ASU, which she calls “a melting pot for people from all regions of the world.”

Warda describes her initial introduction to ASU as surprising.

“I think we were all a little shocked at how huge ASU is and just how much research goes on here,” she said.

Mushtaq says the USPCAS-E program jumpstarted her research career and has been “an amazing experience.”

She was so committed and excited about the opportunity USPCAS-E provided that she turned down a prestigious Fulbright doctoral program fellowship, offered by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan, to spend the semester at ASU.

In addition to funding from USAID, Mehwish won the British Council’s Scholarship for Women in Energy in 2013.

Both Mushtaq and Mehwish have returned to Pakistan to continue their careers in advancing renewable energy.

“I’ve always thought the focus of research should be on how something is going to affect your community, what the real-world application is,” says Mushtaq. “I see a lot of that kind of purpose-driven research here [at ASU], and that’s something I look forward to applying back home.”

Both students aim to pursue a doctoral degree.

Navigating a male-dominated society

On track to graduate this summer, Mushtaq and Mehwish are among four female students in their class of about 30 master’s students at NUST.

“But that ratio is increasing,” said Mushtaq, and NUST is focused on bringing more women into technological fields through recruitment efforts and the addition of specific facilities for female students, including living accommodations, a medical center, a gym and increased transportation offerings.

Total female enrollment at NUST is currently 30 percent, but the environmental science and engineering programs are approaching almost 50 percent.

“By being the backbone of the society and having a dominant representation in the population of Pakistan, [women] can provide a ripple effect with their understanding of engineering programs and the dissemination of their learning and practical application to the larger part of the community,” said Emaan.

Though many supportive teachers and parents encouraged Warda and Syeda on their engineering journeys, they acknowledge that many women face pressures that can limit career progression.

According to Mehwish, “society norms in Pakistan usually dictate that women and girls are expected to run a household instead of going after a dream job.”

“It was only through the constant support and belief of my family that I have reached where I am today,” she said.

At various times throughout her academic journey, Warda says she has encountered “inappropriate attitudes and comments” due to the unfortunate belief that women shouldn’t pursue careers.

“When I excel and do better than most of my male colleagues, I gain respect and observe a change in attitudes. This has given me confidence that the only way we can gain respect in this male-dominated society is by pursuing our dreams and excelling in them,” said Mushtaq.

“Society will not always be your best friend, especially as a woman, so you must be firm in your beliefs and stay true to your passion,” said Mehwish.

While championing the “sanctity and piousness” of her own culture, Mehwish admits it can be a struggle when she feels judged for her desires to interact with people from different religions, cultures and parts of the world.

Despite any criticism, Mehwish champions becoming a “global citizen.”

“Only when we understand and listen to the problems faced by people from all corners, can we completely eradicate the petty things dividing us, the simple things distracting us and the radical things holding us,” she said.

Mushtaq added, “I look up to every career-minded woman who is determined to be strong, independent and brave enough to not worry about what the society thinks she should or shouldn’t do. From a Pakistani women who drives an auto to support her family to the Pakistani scientist in the team who discovered gravitational waves, and everyone in between, all these women — their strength inspires me.”

Mehwish said her time at ASU helped her to gain confidence in her research focus and gave her the zeal to “bring Pakistan to the forefront of academic research, especially for young girls who aspire to be researchers and scientists.”

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Can 50 percent of the power grid come from renewables?

ASU engineers say better forecasting, management is key

May 23, 2016

Renewable energy is becoming increasingly cost competitive in comparison to traditional fossil-fuel generation. So why is its impact on the power grid limited?

The fact is, renewable-energy sources are inherently variable and uncertain. The wind blows, and then it stops. The sun shines, and then a cloud comes. Faculty members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering are using a $3 million Department of Energy (DOE) grant to accelerate technological advancements that improve the coordination between renewables and other resources within the power grid. Photo: Faculty members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering are using a $3 million Department of Energy grant to accelerate technological advancements that improve the coordination between renewables and other resources within the power grid. Photo by Shutterstock.com

Fossil-fuel generators are spared this fluctuation, so the ebbs and flows of renewable generation must be managed differently to remain effective within the power grid.

Arizona State University professors Junshan Zhang, Kory Hedman, Vijay Vittal and Anna Scaglione are utilizing a $3 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to accelerate technological advancements that improve the coordination between renewables and other resources within the power grid.

The research team, all faculty members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is collaborating with Sandia National Laboratories, Nexant Inc. and PJM Interconnection.

What is their guiding philosophy?

You can’t stop the clouds from coming, but you can improve the design of the power grid so that it is better equipped to manage renewable energy and offset the use of fossil fuels.

“It goes against the purpose of integrating clean, renewable resources in the power grid if their fluctuations in power generation must be compensated for by excessive ramping of fossil-fuel units,” said Hedman.

“To depend more on the electric power coming from renewable sources, rather than fossil-fuel generators, we will need to change how the power grid works,” said Scaglione.

Addressing limitations in the power grid

The fluctuating output of renewables makes it difficult for a power-grid operator to forecast how much energy to expect from them.

Because of this, operators generally limit the expected supply of renewably energy to the power grid to satisfy established operating limits.

“In certain cases this could result in renewable energy going unused,” said Vittal, which ends up costing the end consumer more due to the operating cost of expensive emergency reserves.

The ASU grant was one of 12 grants awarded through DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (ARPA-E) Network Optimized Distributed Energy Systems (NODES) program.

Through improved technology and discoveries, the NODES program aims to achieve 50 percent or more of power grid usage from renewable-energy resources.

“The current design of the grid is prepared for the worst-case scenario, so it is a grand challenge for the grid to handle a high renewable penetration level,” said Zhang, electrical engineering professor and principal investigator for the project.

For the ASU team, the goal of their NODES project, titled Stochastic Optimal Power Flow (OPF), is to create a suite of forecasting algorithms to better account for renewable sources at all levels of the power-grid operation process.

“By taking into account the uncertainty associated with renewable resources, the project takes important strides in overcoming key obstacles in integrating renewable resources,” said Vittal.

“This is one of very few efforts focusing on the integration of this kind of variable power into the grid,” said Zhang.

The project focuses on three key areas: better forecasting of the power generation of renewables, real-time management at the grid level, and integrating power generated by consumers into the grid.

The holistic nature of this project, having never been attempted before, promises the unique benefits of a disruptive technological advancement — making it possible to achieve 50 percent renewable-resource penetration in the national power grid.

Improved forecasting capacities and real-time management

Professor Junshan Zhang, principal investigator of the grant, is creating a suite of forecasting algorithms to better account for renewable sources at all levels of the power grid operation process. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Professor Junshan Zhang, principal
investigator of the grant, is creating
a suite of forecasting algorithms
to better account for renewable
sources at all levels of the
power-grid operation process.

Zhang and Vittal have developed a suite of data analytics-based forecasting algorithms for wind and solar generation that improve the forecast accuracy of distributed energy resources (DERs).

DERs, which include renewable technologies, are smaller power sources that can be aggregated to meet power demand.

Since the implementation of DERs into the power grid relies on aggregation, accurate forecasting is paramount.

Zhang anticipates an improvement of more than 20 percent in the forecasting accuracy as a result of his improved algorithms.

By forecasting a statistical distribution of renewable power at a future time, these distributional forecasts better handle uncertainty than the existing “point forecast” paradigm, which gives only the value of renewable power at a future instance in time.

Distributional forecasts enable system operators to maintain an acceptable level of risk, reducing an otherwise wasted system energy reserve.

“More accurate forecasts of DERs give systems operators more flexibility” in determining an optimal output that still meets the economic, operational and system constraints, explained Zhang.

Another component of the project, led by Hedman, is the addition of real-time management at the grid level.

In addition to unprecedented visibility, flexibility and predictability, new stochastic algorithms enable real-time coordination between the DERs, the demand response and distributed storage in a comprehensive approach.

Hedman describes this effort as developing “a standalone tool that advises grid operators on various ancillary services needed to mitigate renewable-resource fluctuations in real-time.”

“By doing so, we are able to avoid the market pricing barriers that exist for stochastic programming, and concurrently enable Stochastic OPF to have an impact,” said Zhang.

Rethinking electric power management

While Zhang, Vittal and Hedman are focused on equipping power-systems operations to handle larger degrees of uncertainty, Scaglione is looking at consumption in the power grid more broadly.

She points out the problem that the supply and demand of electric power must be continuously balanced. For Scaglione, this constraint is as significant as the focus on using energy efficiently.

“As users, we are unaware today of the congestion or [renewable production] shortages that may exist at every instant of time on the grid,” she said.

“Not only must operators manage the uncertainty and variability of renewable resources, but they must also be mindful of congestion limiting the transport of electric power,” said Hedman.

According to the research team, smart energy usage is not necessarily a matter of consuming less power, but rather shifting the use of power to when it is available.

This could include controlling the energy consumption of flexible appliances, such as heating and air-conditioning systems, whose electric power can be shifted in time without people taking notice.

Currently, our air-conditioning systems, for example, turn on and off to maintain customer satisfaction without taking into account fluctuations in the power grid.

“But the consumption of these appliances could be changed to not focus on minimizing energy, but on alleviating congestion in the grid,” said Scaglione. This congestion, or imbalance between appliances and generated power, could be relieved by deferring consumption, rather than turning up or down fossil-fuel generators.

Another example is charging an electric car.

The car needs to be charged when the user intends to drive it, but the charging doesn’t have to start the moment it is plugged into the charger in many cases.

“The hours when our appliances are drawing power can shift or be interrupted without any inconvenience to better take advantage of periods of renewable-energy abundance in the electric grid,” said Scaglione.

Adding electric storage to homes and buildings could also help consumers to better use power when it is available — though an affordable solution to adding electric storage options to households is a reality not yet reached.

“The technological solutions may already exist — the challenge is to make them grid-friendly,” said Scaglione.

To compensate for shortages or surpluses of renewable generation would require power-systems operations to manage thousands to millions of subsystems — electric batteries, air-conditioners, smart lighting, electric vehicle charging and more — instead of a relatively small fleet of large fossil-fuel generators.

Scaglione is developing computational models and interfaces that aim to harmonize the multitude of subsystems within a collective system, allowing better management and understanding of the global state of production in the grid.

“My research envisions how we can treat these subsystems as a large reservoir that can be controlled to follow the ebbs and flows of renewable generation, while delivering the desired performance to the consumer,” she added.

The research team includes professors (from left to right) Junshan Zhang, Anna Scaglione, Vijay Vittal and Kory Hedman.

The research team includes ASU professors (from left) Junshan Zhang, Anna Scaglione, Vijay Vittal and Kory Hedman.

Economic and environmental benefits

The team is on track to get more renewable energy into the power grid, and subsequently into people’s homes, businesses and devices, while maintaining reliability and resiliency.

These improvements could dramatically offset thermal generation and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

This is due to the fact that the grid “will use significantly more renewable resources without posing challenges in the reliability of the power delivery service,” said Scaglione.

“With the newly imposed restrictions by the Environmental Protection Agency, in regards to clean energy, it is imperative to increase the penetration of renewable resources in the grid,” said Vittal.

Economically, improved management could also reduce the amount of power reserves on standby in case of unforeseen intermittency, valued at saving $3.3 billion per year according to ARPA-E.

The effect of this new technology could be game changing, even disruptive, in ushering in a new era in the electric-power industry.

“It will open the floodgates to integration of renewables and other DERs with the knowledge that the full potential of these renewable resources could soon be realized,” said Zhang.

Written by Rose Serago with contributions from Gary Campbell

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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Solar's outlook just got a little bit brighter

ASU engineers' work brings solar panels step closer to cheaper, more accessible.
May 17, 2016

New inventions from ASU researchers may lead to cheaper, more efficient solar power

Companies making solar panels have faced the same choice for decades. Their sun-soaking panels could be efficient or cheap, but not both.

Time to start erasing that rule.

Researchers within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering have wedded two types of solar technologies, putting solar panels a step closer to being cheaper and more accessible.

Here’s the challenge researchers faced: solar panels made with silicon are expensive but more efficient than the cheaper, thin film solar cells, which are made with cadmium telluride.

The ASU team, led by electrical engineering professor Yong-Hang Zhang and assistant professor Zachary Holman, figured out how to add a little silicon to the thin film cells, combining the qualities of each type of panel.

Their invention broke an efficiency record for thin film cells and achieved the highest open-circuit voltage ever recorded for that type of cell. Their results were published this week in a paper in the journal Nature Energy.

Overcoming obstacles

Open-circuit voltage measures the potential for a solar cell to pump electricity around a circuit. High voltage is created when light is absorbed in a solar cell, exciting electrons by shaking them off their atoms. The electrons then build up on one side of the solar cell, like at the negative terminal of a battery.

ASU electrical engineering professor Yong-Hang Zhang

Engineering a solar cell with high voltage is challenging because the excited electrons can be lost within microseconds or even nanoseconds of sunlight hitting a solar cell. Thus, a goal of solar cell research is to extract the electricity before it dissipates, which is generally accomplished by adding conductive contacts to the top and bottom of a solar cell, according to Zhang (pictured left), who also is an associate dean for research in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“The traditional contacts are made through introducing impurities in the solar cell absorbing layer,” said Zhang, “which can degrade the device performance dramatically.”

Zhang, Holman and their research teams added a separate contact layer of low-cost amorphous silicon instead of an impurity. In doing so, they created a solar cell with a voltage of 1.1 volt, an unimaginable feat even one year ago.

“Essentially, we’ve created a solar cell that allows for the maximum number of electrons possible to build up before extracting them quickly and efficiently out the ‘smart’ contact,” Zhang said.

The cells not only reached high voltage but also a 17 percent efficiency, breaking a record of 15.2 percent for thin film solar cells. While other types of solar cells, such as silicon, boast a best efficiency rating of around 25 percent, such a dramatic improvement in thin film efficiency shows promise for widespread use.

Zhang’s next goal is 20 percent efficiency or more.

Impact on industry

Materials science doctoral student Calli Campbell fabricates solar cells.

Materials science doctoral student Calli Campbell uses a molecular beam epitaxy machine to fabricate the solar cell wafers in Yong-Hang Zhang’s lab. Photo courtesy of Yong-Hang Zhang/ASU

“The important thing is that this material system has been proven cost effective, but (until now) never efficient enough in terms of energy production to take over the solar market,” said Zhang. “Many times with a paper such as this, the findings are either scientifically interesting or commercially applicable, but not both. However, these results are.”

While silicon solar panels dominate the market, there are about 10 gigawatts — enough to power 2.5 million homes — of thin film solar panels in use worldwide today. First Solar in Tempe, Arizona, is the world’s largest manufacturer of thin-film solar cells.

“These latest results further confirm our long-standing conviction that CdTe (cadmium telluride) is an ideal material choice for photovoltaic application,” said Markus Gloeckler, vice president of advanced research at First Solar. “Reaching an open-circuit voltage of 1.1 volts is a milestone for the technology and provides confidence that thin-film CdTe has not reached its limits.”

The first step in an ongoing collaboration

The success grew out of an unanticipated alliance between Zhang and Holman’s separate teams.

ASU assistant professor Zachary Holman

“It’s a unique collaboration, and one that happened in the best way possible: through student initiative,” said Holman (pictured left). “One of Yong’s students reached out to one of my post-docs, and things took off from there.”

Though Zhang and his group initially conceived the underlying concept of these breakthrough solar cells, it took them nearly two years to improve the materials needed to fabricate them. They also called upon Holman’s expertise in silicon solar cells to marry two very different semiconductors to achieve these unique and efficient properties.

Zhang and Holman look to use their respective expertise to collaborate in the future as well.

“We’re exploring the possibility of developing a tandem solar cell,” Holman said, “basically two complimentary solar cells that would stack on top of one another, further boosting efficiency.”

The two teams plan to continue collaboration and are slated to present their recent results at the upcoming Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Photovoltaic Specialists Conference in Portland, Oregon, in June.

The research was mainly supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium (BAPVC), a collaboration between universities, industry and government dedicated to improving photovoltaic technology, jointly led by Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. Additional funding was supplied through Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST), one of the four National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Centers at the Fulton Schools at ASU.

Initial support for this research came from the Science Foundation Arizona in 2007, and following funding from the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Office of Scientific Research have paved the way to enabled many of these new ideas developed in the past 10 years, according to Zhang.

Top photo: A novel approach to a materials science challenge has birthed a record-breaking monocrystalline cadmium telluride solar cell, which boasts the highest voltage ever for its type of cell. Photo by Cheng-Ying Tsai/ASU

Pete Zrioka

Managing editor , Knowledge Enterprise


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ASU’s energy-systems expertise and Decision Theater will help shape Mexico’s power grid

ASU partners to help Mexico modernize its energy grid.
April 6, 2016

3-year project will explore interconnections with the U.S., the use of micro-grids, and ways to bring renewable energy into grid

Arizona State University’s leadership in energy systems is stretching beyond the border into Mexico. ASU was recently named a participant in a new grant that will help Mexico modernize its energy grid as well as make it more connected to the U.S.

The three-year, $26 million grant awarded to the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Tec de Monterrey) by Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) and its Secretary of Energy, is designed to address the energy economy in Mexico. It will help build infrastructure, perform research and conduct educational activities, preparing Mexico for its energy future.

The grant was announced as part of the launching of the Binational Laboratory for Intelligent Management of Energy Sustainability and Technology Education at Tec de Monterrey’s Mexico City campus on April 6.

Mexico is in the midst of privatizing and updating its energy industry — fossil fuel and electrical generation industries — at a time when it is moving toward using more renewables. The grant will help the country explore its energy options and how it can connect with its neighbors.

ASU is receiving $1.5 million of the grant and will provide energy economic modeling expertise via the Decision Theater. In addition, ASU will apply its renowned expertise in power engineering to the project. The University of California, Berkeley is also involved in the project.

ASU’s power engineering group will help Mexican authorities look into updating its power grid to include interconnections between it and the U.S., explore the use of micro-grids, look for energy efficiencies and bring renewable-energy sources into the grid, said Stephen Goodnick, who will lead the ASU involvement in the project. Goodnick is a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, deputy director of ASU LightWorks and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

“These are the areas our power systems engineering people, who lead one of the top power systems research consortiums in the country, excel.”
— ASU professor Stephen Goodnick

Goodnick said the research portion of the project will focus on current issues with the energy infrastructure in Mexico.

“There is research being done collaboratively with ASU in cross-border transmission,” he said. “Right now, there are very few interconnections between the U.S. and Mexico, so the project will look at what the issues and technical problems are associated with cross-border transmission.”

Goodnick said another part of the project will be looking into the integration of renewable-energy technologies, such as solar and wind, into the grid system. Renewable-energy sources are variable energy sources that cannot be dispatched like fossil-fuel-based sources, so the renewable systems need energy storage capacity to provide a steady amount of power on demand.

The project also will look into development of micro-grids, which can be deployed in remote areas of the country where there presently isn’t transmission infrastructure.

“These are the areas our power systems engineering people, who lead one of the top power systems research consortiums in the country, excel,” Goodnick said of the Power Systems Engineering Research Center (PSERC), which is led by Vijay Vittal, the Ira A. Fulton chair of Electrical Engineering.

He added the project will bring a cohort of PhD students from Tec de Monterrey to ASU to work on the research projects in coordination with professors in the U.S. and Mexico.

Goodnick added the project will take advantage of a Decision Theater that has been built at Tec de Monterrey’s Mexico City campus and will draw on ASU expertise in energy markets modeling to help assess the costs of various energy scenarios.

Mexico’s Decision Theater will display models on the impact of various energy investments on socio-economic variables such as GDP, job creation and tax revenue. Stakeholders can then readily use the tools to better understand the implications for their decisions and collaborate toward a common future. Plans are to build additional Decision Theaters in Mexico as part of the project.

“Decision Theater will help develop scenarios on Mexico’s future like should they add more renewables, more nuclear, more natural-gas plants,” Goodnick said. “This is very important for Mexico because they have a lot of decisions they need to make in the short term.”

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


SenSIP striving to make solar energy systems more sustainable

March 28, 2016

Making photovoltaic cells more effective is critical to unleashing the potential of solar energy to become a major source of clean renewable power.

The goal is to produce cells capable of converting more captured sunlight into electricity. But even with recent advances in conversion efficiency, another challenge remains: developing complementary technologies for solar energy generating systems that will help enable photovoltaic cells to perform at their peak. Leaders of SenSIP research center project at ASU Rearch Park solar facility An array of photovoltaic modules built recently at the Macro Technology Works facility at the Arizona State University Research Park will be used to develop systems designed to boost the productivity and reliability of solar power generating stations. Pictured at the site are leading members of the project team. From left to right: Devarajan Srinivasan, Jeffery Frye, Andreas Spanias, and Cihan Tepedelenlioglu. Photo by: Nicholas Narducci/ASU Download Full Image

To maximize energy generation, arrays of photovoltaic modules must be equipped to react to situations that threaten to hinder their productivity.

That’s where sensor and signal information processing technologies promise to play a big role.

Arizona State University engineers Andreas Spanias and Cihan Tepedelenlioglu are working to automate monitoring and operation of solar energy facilities in ways that provide optimal efficiency.

Self-diagnosis and predesigned remedies

Spanias, a professor of electrical engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, is the founding director of the Sensor, Signal and Information Processing (SenSIP) research center. Tepedelenlioglu is an associate professor of electrical engineering in the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

They are devising a system that can act on its own to change the configurations of electrical connections within networks of photovoltaic modules. That ability will make generating facilities capable of quickly overcoming technical difficulties and maintaining operations with little loss of solar power conversion activity.

More than that, they want to integrate technologies into the system that will detect, diagnose and remedy electrical and mechanical glitches that would hamper a power station’s output.

“The idea is to come up with the theoretical foundations for producing algorithms for fault detection and repair, for realigning connections among arrays of solar panels,” Spanias explained,” and to then embed these algorithms into operating systems so that they are ready to respond to problems with predesigned solutions.

“We think we can show that this will increase power output by as much as five percent, which is a lot of power when you scale things up to the size of typical utility company operations,” he said.

A system of embedded autonomous controls

With $700,000 from two National Science Foundation grants — along with support from some of SenSIP’s key industry partners — the center is completing construction at the ASU Research Park in Tempe of an experimental facility with 104 photovoltaic modules equipped with prototype “smart” monitoring devices.

At the park’s Macro Technology Works, ASU researchers will test technologies and designs for a system they hope will make solar energy generating stations significantly more robust and sustainable.

Tepedelenlioglu is concentrating on enabling the system to be monitored and controlled remotely from just about anywhere.

“Maintaining solar panel arrays in isolated locations has traditionally been a limitation of solar energy facilities,” Tepedelenlioglu said. “This system would allow utility companies to monitor each individual module and to respond to problems from far away, eliminating the need for manual repairs with people on site.”

Accomplishing that will entail combining and integrating the capabilities of sensors, signal information processors and computer programming to embed an extensive communications network into the system.

Communications network for remote monitoring

Two SenSIP industry partners, Japan-based Energy Wireless and Tempe-based Poundra, are providing photovoltaic modules, along with sensor, transmitter, transceiver and signal devices for the experimental facility.

Sprint Communications installed a dedicated LTE system in SenSIP’s lab. This networking technology for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals will be used to provide additional mobile data links as the solar energy system monitoring project progresses.

The network will need to link internal communications between the devices that monitor, control and provide data on the facility’s electrical and mechanical components with the technologies that enable offsite supervision and transmit external communications and controls back to the system.

“Sensors on each and every solar panel will communicate to a central monitoring station to report what each panel is producing, and reveal if there is something keeping the facility from functioning at its full capacity,” Tepedelenlioglu said.

group standing in front of a solar panel

Students who are on the research team for the ASU Sensor, Signal and Information Processing research center project include (from left to right) electrical engineering doctoral students Henry Braun and Xue “Sophia” Zhang, electrical engineering undergraduate David Ramirez, biomedical science and genetics undergraduate Stefani Gjorcheska and electrical engineering doctoral student Jongmin Lee. Photographer: Nicholas Narducci/ASU

Overcoming technological hurdles

Through the communications matrix Tepedelenlioglu plans to develop, the monitoring data can be accessed wirelessly through a mobile phone or an Internet connection.

Designing and operating such a network can achieve technological progress that would also improve monitoring of other alternative energy facilities, as well as monitoring of infrastructure systems and environmental conditions.

“We want to demonstrate that sensor and signal processing has a major role to play in making solar energy advances, and that it can be adapted to help optimize the performance of many other types of similar facilities,” he said.

The project potentially offers much more than enhanced technical efficiency, Spanias said.

“With an advanced automated system that enables remote communications about the status of every facet of such a facility, and that detects, analyzes and fixes problems to maintain full production, you are going to be able to operate more economically,” Spanias said. “That helps overcome a big hurdle for solar energy.”

Boosting viability of solar energy systems

Raja Ayyanar, an ASU associate professor of electrical engineering, will aid the cause by helping to design and engineer inverter operation strategies to limit changes in power output due to system faults and periods when the photovoltaic array is shaded from sunlight, and to enable the facility to generate power in a form that is usable by the electrical grid.

Devarajan Srinivasan, an ASU alumnus, a faculty associate in the Fulton Schools of Engineering and one of the owners of Poundra, has been a key collaborator on the project since its beginning. He helped to design the experimental facility at the ASU Research Park.

Poundra works with energy industry clients to help them adapt new technologies and systems to improve the performance of their solar power generation facilities.

The company is hopeful the SenSIP project will produce technological advances “that improve not only the ability to monitor the overall health of the system in real time, but also to pinpoint where problems are arising and to predict its long-term performance over five to 10 years,” says Srinivasan, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at ASU.

That achievement would be a major boost to the viability of the solar power industry throughout the world, he said.

Contributions from industry collaborators

The facility’s “smart” monitoring electronics  — including sensors, relays and communications modules — were designed by SenSIP collaborators Shinji Koizumi, Shin Takada and Yoshitaka Morimoto, who are with the Japanese companies Energy Wireless and Applied Core Technologies, which have been involved with the project since 2012.

Morimoto says the concept for remote module-based monitoring was developed in response to the extensive damage done to nuclear power facilities when a massive tsunami hit Japan in 2011.  In the aftermath, the Japanese government made plans to develop remotely monitored and controlled solar energy farms to provide an alternative to nuclear power for the areas hit by the tsunami. The government gave Energy Wireless support to develop the sensor and electronics for the “smart” monitoring devices.

Macro Technology Works facilities director Jeffery Frye has been instrumental in paving the way for the building and implementation of the photovoltaic array. He was in charge of site logistics and construction coordination, as well as securing the necessary licensing and permits to operate the facility.

Frye expects to reap results from the system that could aid ASU in its quest to use solar energy to provide a greater percentage of the power needed for the university’s campuses.

solar panel

The experimental facility’s array of more than 100 photovoltaic modules will be equipped with advanced “smart” monitoring devices and other technologies to enable the system to detect, diagnose and remedy electrical and mechanical glitches that would hamper a solar power station’s output. Photographer: Nicholas Narducci/ASU

Potential breakthroughs attract interest

Spanias and Tepedelenlioglu are co-authors of a paper soon to be published in the research journal Sustainable Energy, Grids and Networks. Their article reports on procedures they have devised for optimizing the electrical configurations of photovoltaic arrays under a variety of operating conditions.

The paper will provide details on an array reconfiguration algorithm they say would enable a generating facility to reliably produce more power than facilities operating without their system for realigning electrical connections among photovoltaic modules.

SenSIP’s efforts have demonstrated sufficient promise to capture the interest of Sethuraman Panchanathan, ASU’s chief research and innovation officer and executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development (KED), well as William Petusky, the Associate Vice President of Science, Technology and Engineering at KED, and Yong-Hang Zhang, the associate dean of research in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. They, along with Stephen Phillips, director of the School of Electrical, Computing and Energy Engineering, have provided logistical and financial support for the 18-kilowatt solar energy monitoring facility.

Students benefiting from the project

ASU students are also benefiting from the project. Several engineering graduate students have roles as research assistants, and educational computer software will be developed for use in teaching undergraduates the basics of the science and engineering concepts involved in the project.

In addition to the two National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants, the NSF awarded SenSIP a Research Experience for Veterans supplement that has supported ASU undergraduate student and military veteran David Ramirez, who has already co-authored research paper and reports on solar monitoring project.

Outlook for broadening scope of efforts

Spanias and Tepedelenlioglu foresee possibilities of expanding their research endeavors in the area of green energy development, aided by SenSIP’s standing as a National Science Foundation Industry/University Collaborative Research Center that is making notable strides in its research mission.

Along with the companies contributing to the solar project, the center now counts among its primary industry partners NXP (formerly Freescale), Intel, Raytheon Missile Systems and Interactive Flow Studies, as well as associate members-at-large that include LG Electronics, Lockheed Martin, National Instruments, Qualcomm, General Dynamics, Paceco and Mitsui.

Those companies’ varied interests may lead to further support for SenSIP’s efforts to apply its sensor and signal information processing expertise to pursuing improvements in energy technologies and systems used in diverse industrial and commercial enterprises.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering