Las Cruces – In 1979, New Mexico State University constructed a solar-powered furnace to research alternative means of energy. With alternative energy now an up-and-coming focus of study at the College of Engineering, the solar furnace, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair, was recently restored to its former glory.
Along with the Physical Science Laboratory, the college was able to enlist the help of students, faculty and staff for a successful restoration, which began two years ago and was completed in the fall of 2009.
Thomas Jenkins, a professor of engineering technology, guided the restoration project, working closely with staff engineer Chris Wise and the retired PSL staff members who were involved in the construction of the furnace in 1979 to ensure the repairs were properly executed.
"These gentlemen were very kind in helping us get materials for the solar furnace and discuss how we could restore and enhance the capabilities of the solar furnace," Jenkins said.
The energy produced from the furnace is different from what most people associate with solar energy. Rather than electricity, the furnace produces heat, a type of energy production known as solar thermal energy. "Solar thermal is taking sunlight and converting it into heat," Jenkins said.
Jenkins, who heads up the Renewable Energy Technologies program in the engineering technology and surveying engineering department, made certain the restoration was used as a learning opportunity for graduate and undergraduate engineering students.
"It doesn't power anything. The concept of a solar furnace is mostly theoretical," Jenkins explained. "Most of its potential is in teaching, including not only theory but applied applications. The engineering technology department is very hands on, very applied-oriented."
Graduate student Kyle Glenn and undergraduate Mike Dehmlow operate the furnace. They conduct demonstrations for visiting students to peak their interest in engineering and help them better understand how renewable energy, such as a solar furnace, operates.
"The solar furnace uses a large mirror array, called a heliostat, to track the sun and direct its energy into a stationary concentrator. The concentrator is [similar] to a magnifying glass that directs the energy into a small focus," Glenn explained.
Generating heat from sunlight using the furnace produces 4,200 watts of energy, which is collected by a panel of 2,012 mirrors. The solar furnace reaches temperatures of approximately 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The concentrated solar energy is very intense and generates enough heat flux to distill water, generate electricity, melt metals for materials testing and produce hydrogen fuel," Glenn explained.
It's because of students like Glenn and Dehmlow that the engineering technology and survey engineering department's spring 2007 renewable energy course became a successful area of study in the College of Engineering.
That single course has evolved into an academic minor Renewable Energy Technology. Students pursuing the minor have the opportunity to learn about solar energy, wind and water energy, fuel cell technology and hydrogen technology.
"The classes are continuing to evolve and change. We're getting feedback from students, so it's been a very successful thing not only for the department but for the College of Engineering in recruitment and retention of students," Jenkins said.