Inventor, engineering students explore solar collectors

Tags: energy management

There’s a lot of energy in the College of Engineering at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J., these days, and it doesn’t have anything to do with 20-year-olds cramming for finals.


The energy in this case involves a team of students led by chemical engineering associate professor Dr. Kevin Dahm working with a local inventor to advance a new solar thermal collector the inventor designed. The engineering students pointed out that this is the first truly new solar thermal system in more than three decades, and the company stated that it is unique among renewable energy technologies as it is cost effective without any government subsidies.

Generally, solar panels act by absorbing light on a two-dimensional flat black surface coating on copper sheets and then transferring heat to a liquid that runs through copper tubes behind the panel, according to Dahm.

Neal Cramer, founder of Medford-based Helios Products LLC – an entrepreneur and self-described professional inventor – has a patent pending on a three-dimensional process, termed “3-D,” for obtaining energy from the sun. The system initially will focus on residential applications, including producing hot water for cleaning, washing and bathing and soon thereafter space heating. With additional engineering, the solar collectors may be used for heat-driven cooling as well.

“The need for heat is ubiquitous, and the heat energy derived directly from the sun is the most efficient way of obtaining it,” Helios literature indicated. “Solar thermal bypasses the production of electricity and goes directly to making the required heat energy at the point where it is utilized, eliminating the losses that occur in conversion and transmission. Solar thermal is the low-hanging fruit of the renewable energy equation.”

Murray Luftglass, a Helios director, said typical photovoltaic systems produce 10 kilowatts of energy, require an array of panels that may cover half a roof, cost on average $80,000 and reduce energy costs about $1,500 a year. “Our system is going to be available for between 5 to 10 percent of the cost and produce as much energy savings,” Luftglass said. He noted that such a system can decrease utility costs, substitute domestically produced renewable energy for fossil fuels from foreign sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dahm is working on basic research evaluating key variables in the collector process with students Ceridwen Sara Magee, 22, a senior mechanical engineering major from Fair Haven, Monmouth County; Derek Becht, 21, a junior chemical engineering major from Harding Township, Morris County; Chris Logan, 22, a senior chemical engineering major from Tabernacle, Burlington County; and David Teicher, 22, a senior chemical engineering major from Jackson, Ocean County.

They’ve set up shop in a lab on the third floor of Rowan Hall, the College of Engineering building, and on the top floor, with its heating facilities, storage areas and access to sunlight. They’ve constructed the solar panels out of a readily available, durable material that will facilitate a rapid introduction into the market, according to Magee.

“We’re taking his idea and helping making it viable for the marketplace,” Dahm said. “Our system is just a test panel – fluid in, fluid out.” Cramer, he said, will have to determine how best to transfer the heat that the panels retain to a house.

Dahm sees advantages to Cramer’s plan, noting that the ability to heat in three dimensions in theory allows the absorption of far more solar energy than in a two-dimensional device, which is more efficient than the typical process. Logan predicted that, with what the Rowan team has observed to date, it also would be less expensive to construct a solar panel of Cramer’s design than the typical type.

“It works at least just as well as prior technology for a fraction of the cost,” noted Teicher.

Dahm said that the new panels also could potentially be lighter than the existing ones, which will make them easier to install and maintain, other factors that could impact their long-term cost.

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