Renewable energy research harnesses the power of mechanical and chemical engineering senior design teams
An interdisciplinary team of senior design students led by Amy Van Asselt, assistant professor, mechanical engineering, and Aseel Bala, assistant professor, chemical and biomolecular engineering, is exploring compressed-air energy storage (CAES) and the feasibility of a CAES plant that could be used to power the College campus.
Renewable energy in the form of solar and wind energy offers a reliable, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. However, one of the challenges in the utilization of these forms of energy is that peak production can occur during times of low electrical demand.
This misalignment of the supply-and-demand curves is known as the duck curve. Since solar energy is only available during the day, methods of large-scale energy storage for late in the day when electrical demand is the highest, such as CAES, are currently under investigation. CAES is a system in which energy produced during peak production times is used to compress air, which is then stored in a reservoir. During off-peak hours, the air can be expanded through a gas turbine cycle to meet energy demands.
This collaborative senior design project between the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Mechanical Engineering departments aims to design, test, and simulate a bench-scale CAES system that can be used to charge an electric car.
This builds on research Ryan Berry ’22 (chemical and biomolecular engineering) began with Van Asselt in 2021. In this research with the CAES system, excess energy from the grid is used to compress air. When electricity is needed, the compressed air is released. This system is largely the same as hydroelectric dams, currently one of the only reliable means of large-scale energy storage, but instead of storing potential energy in the form of elevating water, the CAES system stores potential energy in the form of pressurized air.
“Lafayette’s senior capstone experiences provide a great opportunity for students to work as a team to solve a significant problem,” Van Asselt says. “When Ryan and I discussed the future of the CAES project, we thought that other students may have an interest in working on this system. By May 2022, the team will have a functional prototype and system model. Working with students and a professor from another department really gives the students an idea of the benefits of interdisciplinary teamwork.”
“I think the connections across disciplines is really refreshing. It is nice to hear how other departments tackle the same problem,” Berry says. “Ultimately, I would like the project to highlight the importance of large-scale energy storage as a solution to the pressing global energy crisis. CAES is just one technology that can be part of the solution.”
In addition to Berry, who is minoring in mechanical engineering, senior chemical engineers involved in the project include Cecelia Cecconi, Walter Longo, Jack Ma, double major in chemical engineering and a self-designed Chinese major, and Emily Ross, who is minoring in environmental science. The mechanical engineering team includes Danielle Mullan, Colin Shalk, Jill Warabak, a mechanical engineering major with an architectural studies minor, Dylan Minghini, Kristen Steudel, mechanical engineering and mathematics/economics double major, Riley Tropp, Danny Sachs, mechanical engineering major with a minor in German, Kazuki Osawa, Jenny Chen, Eduardo Rodriguez Gomez, and Gunnar Simons.
The chemical engineering team is working on simulating the bench-scale prototype that the mechanical engineering student team is building. The simulated model will allow the team to quickly and easily test a number of design decisions and optimize the units in the process. Ultimately, the chemical engineering team will use its model to provide recommendations on the design and operation of the prototype to the mechanical engineering team. Additionally, the teams will be simulating, sizing, and costing the scaled-up CAES plant and assessing the economic feasibility of the process.
“Both student teams are bringing different but equally important skills to the table. This project provides an opportunity for them to experience engineering through the lens of another discipline,” Bala says.
“The chemical engineering students will be able to interact with the physical prototype developed by the MechEs and gain insight into the building process,” she says. “The mechanical engineering students will be able to leverage the chemical engineering students’ model to quickly and easily ask ‘what if’ questions about their design.”
“Working as a part of an interdisciplinary team is great as I get to see this project from a different perspective. The mechanical engineers on the project have been working hard to get physical parts and put them together using our knowledge, but having the chemical engineering students model our system with their knowledge and tell us if it will actually work is extremely beneficial,” says Warabak. “We have a great partnership, and it’s fun to learn about each other while working toward a common goal.”