Each year, approximately 480,000 school buses across the U.S. transport over 26 million students

to school and back, causing school districts and taxpayers to spend a total of over $2 billion per year on diesel fuel.

Gabrielle String, a senior mechanical engineering major at Clarkson, spent last summer retrofitting local school buses with hydraulic Regenerative Braking Systems (RBS) with hopes of battling high school bus fuel costs while also reducing emissions and students’ exposure to particulates.

An RBS captures the energy that is normally lost to heat through friction upon braking and stores it. So, when the driver pushes the gas pedal, the stored energy is used to accelerate the vehicle before the diesel is used.

String says this current technology is already found in hybrid cars, but it is not practical for large vehicles. So, with the help of Prof. Ken Visser, she focused on a new RBS model that uses hydraulics, something that a few other companies are testing on garbage and shipping trucks.

“This problem highlights a small area of improvement where the impact can be tremendous,” explains String. “I have the opportunity to do the engineering analysis and design of the system, and eventually to build, test and analyze the results of a bench-scale model.”

Supporting Undergraduate Energy-related Research

String was able to perform her research thanks to a $350,000 endowed fund created by National Grid earlier this year to promote and support undergraduate research focused on renewable energy. 

The National Grid Endowed Fund for Student Research Opportunities in Sustainable Energy annually funds summer research opportunities for Honors students studying sustainable energy. This summer String, along with five other engineering students, performed faculty-mentored original research on projects related to energy storage systems, energy efficiency and biodiesel production.

Civil engineering major Brandon Rivera ’13 worked on a project to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy-related costs in indoor environments. Working with Prof. Narayanan Neithalath, Rivera’s research involved mixing microscopic particles called Phase Change Materials (PCMs) into concrete to decrease cooling costs in buildings.

“When implemented into concrete systems, PCMs absorb the thermal energy passing through the concrete. This means that less heat is transferred indoors, decreasing the need for air conditioning on hot days,” explains Rivera. 

Rivera’s National Grid research adds to previous research that he began with Prof. Neithalath before his freshman year.

renewable_energy1Biodiesel From Algae Production

Under the mentorship of Professor Susan Powers and Michael Twiss, junior Bethann Parmelee, an environmental engineering major, looked into the sustainable production of biodiesel from algae grown at the Development Authority of the North Country (DANC) Solid Waste Management Facility.

Currently, the DANC facility lacks the quantity of water necessary to grow algae naturally. Parmelee attempted to use two waste products, heat from an industrial process at the facility and leachate, the liquid collected from a landfill (to replace the water), to produce the algae.

“Using these two types of wastes accomplishes a few things,” explains Parmelee. “First, it utilizes a product otherwise destined for disposal. Second, it uses energy already being produced at the facility. Third, it creates a fuel source that will help decrease the facility’s dependence on petroleum, ultimately saving the facility money.”

renewable_energy2Cost-Efficient Solar Cells

Current methods for producing inorganic solar cells from silicon are expensive, which translates into high costs for green electricity. That leaves the general public unable to afford eco-friendly, energy-saving devices.

Senior Patrick Kelleher, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major, worked on solar cell technology that would result in significant cost savings, thereby improving its user ability.

Working with Prof. Sitaraman Krishnan, Kelleher researched the development and characterization of iodine-doped thin films to produce solar cells, which are used in photovoltaic devices like home solar panels, at a lower cost. “In our research, we used unconventional, yet economically viable materials to produce the solar cells because we wanted to save the end user money,” Kelleher says.

Sydney Laramie ’13 is another chemical engineering major who worked on solar cells with Prof. Krishnan. Her research focused on structure-property correlations for the density, viscosity and conductivity of ionic liquids used in green technologies, such as electrolytes in dye-sensitized solar cells.

To perform her research, Laramie gathered data from the available literature to find a density correlation and predict the density of an ionic liquid at room temperature.

“By using the properties I have predicted, researchers do not need to waste time and money synthesizing and testing these ionic liquids. Instead, they already know which liquids would be best for a particular use,” she says. 

Turning Garbage Into Oil

Finally, fellow chemical engineering major Dustin Nuhfer ’11 spent his summer in the laboratory converting cellulosic organic material into oil in order to reduce residual waste volume in landfills.

“I have witnessed garbage taking up more and more space and landfills growing,” Nuhfer says. “It has to go somewhere. Why not have it be reused to help lower fuel costs?”

To solve this problem, Nuhfer worked with Prof. Richard Partch to combine the chemical compound sodium formate with sugar, coffee grounds, mattress foam, packaging peanuts, milk jugs, leaves, human hair and many other products found in landfills to produce oil, and then extract and analyze the oil for comparison with other oil production in the future.

“Doing this research has given me the opportunity to not only design my own experiments, but actually perform them and even make some mistakes along the way,” he says.

All six students are continuing their research projects through the fall semester. For the seniors, their projects will become their Honors Thesis.