Solar energy project receives $3.9 mil

by Hannah Beausang

Hannah Beausang, Contributor

San Diego State Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering Fletcher Miller received a $3.9 million grant for the development of solar energy technology.

Miller was awarded the grant on Oct. 16 through the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative which provides funds for high-risk, high-payoff solar energy projects.

According to the SDSU NewsCenter, the grant will allow Miller and his team to build a large-scale model of technology and test the prototype at the National Solar Thermal Testing Facility in New Mexico.

Miller believes his solar technology will significantly contribute to a cleaner, more cost-efficient future for energy. The goal of the project is to make solar energy accessible on a daily basis.

Miller uses technology similar to an aircraft engine to power the solar receiver rather than typical steam-based methods, eliminating the need for water usage in desert- based solar plants, where water is limited.

“The same thermodynamics is going on in our receiver and generator that would be going on in a jet engine,” Miller said. “That just uses air and a fuel; we’re using air plus sunlight to run it.”

Miller’s innovative technology uses a quartz window as the receiver to concentrate the energy from sunlight. There are tiny carbon particles that collect sunlight from the field of mirrors around the plant and move the energy into the gas inside the receiver. The particles transfer into the hot gas, which propels the turbine.

Miller has been awarded two previousgrants,whichsignificantly helped to further the project and contributed to his eligibility for the SunShot grant. A $240,000 grant from Google.org research program, Develop Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal, helped fund student research and provide more lab equipment. A $95,000 grant from the California Energy Commission helped construct the solar simulator and lab scale receiver.

Miller developed this technology during his graduate school years at University of California, Berkeley; however, because of a low demand for solar energy technology in past years, he put the project on hold.

“Solar is a big news item now,” Miller said. “Five years ago, you’d never see anything like this.”

Students have been working on Miller’s team throughout the entire process and will continue to play a pivotal role in the upcoming months of development.

Lee Frederickson, a grad student at SDSU, has worked with the project since July.

“It has its difficulties,” he said regarding the project. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll get some good results.”

International Student Pablo Fernandez, who is spending the year solely working on the project, thinks the grant is a great opportunity for the future of solar energy.

Murat Mecit, a Turkish grad student, is also dedicated to the project.

“This is a noble cause because we all need solar energy,” Mecit said. “It’s good for us to contribute to the environment. We have a chance at this.”

The grant will attract attention for SDSU in the solar energy industry. Miller said he thinks the grant will garner national recognition for SDSU.

“We were listed along with other winners such as MIT and Stanford, UCSD—big name schools,” Miller said. “We had the most money of any of them.”

The team thinks it will be challenging to construct the full- scale model. Fine-tuning the window, which costs as much as $300,000, will be the most critical part.

Although the project is still in developing stages, Miller and his team have the potential to create technology to redefine the future of clean energy.