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Posted:
November 7, 2000

New Energy Lab
Offers Powerful Lessons

A loud micro-turbine generator that began life as an aircraft's backup power is now the star of a new lab at California State University, Sacramento, where engineering students are getting their hands on a possible solution to the state's growing energy shortage.

The "Cogeneration Lab" produces energy in the micro-turbine, which operates on natural gas. It then uses the thrown off steam to power a large refrigerator.

Relatively simple in theory, cogeneration yields impressive results as far as overall efficiency. And the technology is becoming much more widely used in the real world.

"The technology is becoming extremely popular, so when our students go out in the workforce having hands-on experience working on them they will have a definite advantage," says Andrew Banta, the CSUS mechanical engineering professor who led the effort to build the new lab.

Cogeneration all starts with turbines, which, as a class, are much smaller than traditional steam plants. They're little more than jet engines modified to sit on the ground, and are better for the environment than steam plants. They can also power up in minutes rather than many hours, allowing quicker and cheaper response to peak energy demands.

All of that has attracted the attention of power companies.

The catch is that turbines cost too much to operate on their own. They're only economical when they're also used to power a secondary operation by producing steam, which is the essence of cogeneration.

Locally, for example, the Campbell Soup company powers a steam turbine with heat thrown off by SMUD gas turbines.

At CSUS, the cogeneration lab produces enough electricity to power 10-12 homes, and powers a refrigerator about three times the size of a typical home air-conditioning system. Both the electricity and cooling are essentially wasted. But the experience about 100 students are now getting every year with cutting edge energy technology is invaluable.

Students are learning to measure the energy output of a cogeneration plant, and experimenting with various ways to make the plant more efficient. They're also working with turbine efficiency and heat transfer rates.

The lab was installed in Santa Clara Hall last year, and is now getting its first semester of use. It replaces an old steam turbine system that was out of date and becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Bruce Scott, a technician in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, led the installation of the new lab, with help from Jim Penaluna, also a technician in the College.

Planning and funding the lab took six years of work by faculty, students and staff. Over that time, Banta and his group acquired more than $250,000 in grants and gifts for the project. The National Science Foundation provided $100,000; SMUD gave $70,000; PG&E gave $20,000 and the University provided $75,000. In addition, the planning and design of the lab provided senior projects for numerous groups of engineering students.

Banta says he's thrilled with the result, but he's still hoping to do more. His next goal for the lab is adding a steam turbine, so that students can learn to manage a cogeneration plant using that common feature. It's a $100,000 project.

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