UNT home to one-of-a-kind lab

UNT home to one-of-a-kind lab

September 27
07:29 2013

Alyson Bogus / Contributing Writer

UNT’s Zero Energy Research Laboratory, “the Z0E lab”, is the only one of its kind in Texas.

Sitting at Discovery Park, the 1,200-square-foot lab uses multiple energy sources, like solar and wind power, in an effort to produce enough energy to power the building and have some in excess. Researchers hope to break into the black this year.

“The concept of the Zero Energy Lab is to assume a net-zero energy level by the end of the year or in an annual period,” said Thomas Checketts, a graduate student for the Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering at UNT. “Annually, we want to be able to produce or give back to the grid as much as we consume.”

The 17-month-old lab was the creation of Yong Tao, professor and chair of UNT’s Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering, and Vish Prasad, also a professor of the engineering department.

Tao directed the construction of the first energy-efficient home in 2005 with the Solar Decathlon Team at Florida International University, where he was a professor for the College of Engineering and Computing. He and his team were invited to build a renewable-energy-source home to display at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, China, and enlisted the help of Prasad, who was dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at the time.

When they both came to UNT, Prasad in 2007 and Tao in 2010, they decided to push for a research laboratory with similar capabilities.

“The lab is good because it’s a very hands-on experience that allows for teaching and international partnerships,” Prasad said. “Important information and data can be shared among the three houses.”

Twenty-six solar panels, a wind turbine, a solar chimney system and rain collection system are just a few of the technologies the lab uses to create energy, including an essential element for combating the Texas heat.

“The most important energy resource we use is the geothermal heat pumps,” said graduate student Suraj Talele. “They’re used for the air-conditioning system and heating domestic water.”

The $1.15 million lab was financed by operating funds, higher education assistance funds and gifts-in-kind. It was constructed with a number of GREEN materials, including recycled-glass countertops, low-energy appliances, LED and halogen lights, and low-emissive glass windows.

It’s composed of two sections: a research space and a living space equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, a bathroom with a shower and a bed, among other things.

“One of the goals is to actually have someone be able to live here on a regular basis for maybe two weeks,” Checketts said. “We can do several different studies based on that, and one of those is user behavior. How long they take a shower, how many times they flush the toilet. All of those different things affect the overall energy of the building.”

The lab has more than 160 sensors that measure inputs and outputs such as energy consumption, humidity, airflow and temperature.

The sensors are tied into an eGauge monitoring system, which allows the researchers to see the lab’s power and energy that is generated, consumed and returned to the grid in real time.

Users also have the option to view the input and output for a particular day, week, month or even for the entire year, as well as the amount of money spent and saved for that time period.

UNT was the first university in the U.S. to offer a degree in mechanical and energy engineering, and the department offers a variety of research opportunities for undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and TAMS students. A few topics the research group is looking to explore are solar-thermal power generation, water analysis and overall heat resistance of the building.

Prasad believes the lab has created a strong foundation for the creation of a master’s degree in energy at UNT. He is currently developing courses for the program, and says it will be open to students with a major in engineering and other areas of study, such as finance management and social sciences.

Students wishing to tour the lab can visit www.mee.unt.edu to schedule an appointment.  Those curious about the lab’s energy input and output can visit conceptrenewable.com/schools/unt-discovery.

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