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Research could revolutionize home, small biz power markets

Fed up with high power bills? Help could be on the way soon due to cutting edge research at Mississippi State University (MSU) into a Micro-CHP (Cooling, Heating and Power) system that runs off bio-fuels, propane or natural gas, providing twice the efficiency of traditional large electrical power generating plants.

The Micro-CHP technology has the potential to revolutionize the home and small business power market.

“CHP systems could promote energy reliability and self-sufficiency for many industrial and agricultural applications,” said Dr. Louay M. Chamra, a mechanical engineering professor at MSU who is working on a $1-million grant from the Department of Energy to develop Micro-CHP for commercialization. “It’s good economics and good for the environment.”

Chamra said CHP is a promising technology for increased energy efficiency through the use of distributed electric and thermal energy delivery systems at or near end-user sites. MSU is the only research university in the nation to focus on developing optimal CHP technology for small applications such as homes, small farms and businesses.

The Mechanical Engineering Department, the Chemical Engineering Department and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES) have joined to demonstrate the technology at the Micro-CHP and Bio-Fuel Center (online at www.microchp.msstate.edu) at MSU. Chamra said this center will add new capabilities for the development and optimal use of CHP packages for energy conservation, efficiency and reliability. The center will develop CHP systems suitable for agricultural, residential and small commercial buildings. In addition, the center will develop and validate design tools for CHP applications and educate the public on the benefits of CHP systems.

Chamra said biomass generated in the region is a candidate energy source to fuel different types of engines for CHP systems. Bio-fuels can be produced from sources such as animal wastes and wood byproducts.

“However, during biomass fuel production, contaminants are present in the bio-fuels,” Chamra said. “A center objective is to evaluate the performance of Micro-CHP systems with simulated bio-fuels. Bio-fuels with various levels of contaminants will be simulated in the laboratory to evaluate the impact on micro-CHP system performance and on the exhaust gas emissions. Thus, micro-CHP systems may expand the growing biomass-based economy in Mississippi and the Southeast. The Micro-CHP and Bio-Fuel Center will focus on the three action areas of the micro-CHP Technologies Roadmap: demonstration, education and research.”

The Micro-CHP system uses combined cooling, heating and power technology on a small scale to produce electricity. Waste heat from generation of power can be used for heating and cooling the building and for heating hot water.

“It makes the energy source twice as efficient as traditional electricity utility methods,” Chamra said. “I see these systems being available on the commercial market in two years for about $4,000 to $5,000. We are working with Trane air conditioning company to commercialize the technology.”

The idea of the Micro-CHP is to have power reliability that is independent from the electrical grid. This could be useful not only when natural disasters strike, but in the event of rolling blackouts because the electric grid can’t handle extra electric demand. Availability of alternative power when the grid is down for one reason of another can be vital not just for comfort, but to prevent damages from high humidity. An example given by Chamra is a hospital in Beaumont, Texas. After Hurricane Rita made landfall near Beaumont-Port Arthur and took out electrical lines, back-up generators started. But power couldn’t be maintained due to the length of the outage. The hospital was closed for a week and had more than $30 million in hurricane costs and damages, primarily related to loss of HVAC.

“Here in the South where we have a hot and humid climate, humidity can be very destructive to some businesses,” Chamra said. “Air conditioning is an important part of daily life. Without air conditioning, humidity infiltration at the Beaumont Hospital resulted in extensive damage to floors, ceiling tiles, medical supplies and equipment.”

By contrast, Mississippi Baptist Medical Center in Jackson remained open after Hurricane Katrina and treated a high volume of patients due to its ability to use a CHP system to power the hospital during the time electricity wasn’t available from the grid.

“CHP has many advantages,” Chamra said. “You have greater energy efficiency and a cleaner environment, power security and power reliability.”

The system doesn’t have to be saved for emergencies. Power bill savings can result from using the systems on a regular basis.

MSU has a demonstration site for the technology located on campus. A small building that is not connected to the electrical grid is powered by Micro-CHP so people can visit and see how the technology works.

Mississippi is a state rich in biomass, materials such as agricultural waste from chicken litter that have the potential to be made in bio-fuels. Chamra said using such biofuels instead of natural gas or propane could have significant positive impacts to the largely ag-heavy Mississippi economy.

“We could turn waste into energy,” Chamra said. “The bottom line is this could be very positive in the area of economic development.”

In addition to economic benefits, the use of bio-fuels could help reduce dependence on foreign oil.

For more information on the efforts of the Sustainable Energy Research Center at MSU, visit the Web site www.serc.msstate.edu.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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