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High energy

High Energy

UMass innovations power the world through wind, water, and air

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In the wind

Chances are you’ve seen a modern three-blade wind turbine in action—as of last year there were more than 58,000 of them dotting plains and hillsides across the country, with another 3,000 being installed each year. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the amount of wind energy generated in the United States has more than tripled over the last decade, becoming the largest source of renewable energy in the nation. What you may not realize is how instrumental UMass has been in the development of this technology.

Archival photo shows the WF-1 at UMass, a historically significant wind turbine of its era.

Archival photo of the WF-1

In 1967 Captain William Heronemus, recently retired from the U.S. Navy, came to UMass to head up the establishment of a new ocean engineering program. But he also had a more expansive vision: to completely replace both fossil-fuel-based and nuclear energy. Despite those power sources being cheap and plentiful at the time, he predicted an immediate future in which peak energy loads would not be met and the environment would continue to deteriorate. In an effort to keep this from becoming a reality, he and a group of other faculty members established the energy alternatives program at UMass, designed to educate the next generation of engineers who would fulfill his ambitious goal.

One of the primary energy sources Heronemus had in mind was wind power. Few wind energy converters existed at that point, so he built a turbine that would both generate power and serve as a basis for ongoing experimentation. Originally, this turbine was intended as a “wind furnace”—a source of power for water heaters that could heat a small home—and was paired with a building known as the Solar Habitat on campus. Although the concept of wind heating never caught on, Wind Furnace-1 (WF-1), as this turbine was called, was one of the most historically significant wind turbines of its era.


Jessica Nguyen ’19PhD uses a drill to open a wooden crate with new lab equipment

Jessica Nguyen ’19PhD

Although the WF-1 was small compared to today’s turbines, when it was completed in 1976 it was the largest operating wind turbine in the U.S. It also introduced many new elements that are standard on wind turbines today: three fiberglass blades, near-optimal blade shape, blade pitch regulation, variable speed operation, and computer control. Considered by many to be the first modern turbine produced in the United States, the WF-1 now resides at the Smithsonian Institution.

Today, UMass continues its legacy of educating students to become innovators and leaders in the field of wind energy. The university’s Wind Energy Center (WEC) has become a national leader in wind energy education, academic research, and service to government and industry. In addition, the WEC’s interdisciplinary educational program includes undergraduate and graduate classes that educate students in engineering, environmental science, and social science, and prepares them for careers in the booming wind energy industry.

illustration of a cloud and wind on a blue background

Offshore innovation

Heronemus may have drawn upon his experiences at sea when he listed offshore wind among the avenues he wanted to pursue. And now, his detailed planning work on floating turbines and far-offshore wind farms is coming to fruition. In 2016, Massachusetts became the first state to set offshore wind goals, and at least seven other eastern seaboard states have since followed suit. Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm, currently the only offshore wind farm in the nation, will soon be joined by other offshore operations, including one 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that on- and offshore wind energy will create 600,000 jobs by 2050.

One of the challenges faced by offshore wind researchers is creating systems that can be placed farther out to sea in order to avoid negatively impacting shipping lanes, recreational boating, the fishing and shellfish industries, wildlife migratory paths, and ocean-bottom ecosystems—all of which would be affected by turbines closer to the coast. But locating offshore systems farther from the coast poses a challenge too, as fixed-bottom turbines are not a viable choice for deep waters. Matthew Lackner ’08PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the WEC, is working on a solution. “In the U.S., about 60 percent of the available waters for developing wind energy are deep-water sites, so it would require floating turbines,” he says.

Our success lies in our ability to find solutions that can’t be solved by a single person, but that require people from different disciplines working together.

—Matthew Lackner ’08PhD

Unlike a fixed-bottom turbine with a foundation that’s attached to the ocean floor, a floating turbine sits atop a platform that is anchored to the sea bottom. It has the benefits of being less costly to install, less disruptive to wildlife, and more accepted by the public (out of view for coastal residents). But the dynamic system of a floating turbine presents its own challenges. “Instead of a fixed platform, you have a platform that can move in three dimensions and rotate in three dimensions,” says Lackner. “It has six additional degrees of freedom. It’s harder to model, and it could impact reliability.”

By bringing in multiple disciplines to study floating turbines, the WEC is helping advance the development of this growing renewable technology that will be present in our oceans in the coming years. “We’re one of the few programs in the country that has such a broad and diverse set of experts all interested in wind,” says Lackner. “I think our success lies in our ability to find solutions that can’t be solved by a single person, but that require people from different disciplines working together.”

Making waves

One of the biggest challenges with offshore turbines is how they interact with water. Another group on campus is building a new lab to address the water side of wind power. Professor and Endowed Chair in Renewable Energy Krish Thiagarajan Sharman joined the College of Engineering in 2018, and one of the first things he did was to start building a lab for renewable energy.

An expert on marine renewable energy and energy-producing offshore structures, Sharman focuses his studies on harvesting energy from waves in marine environments. The new lab will allow him to create waves and currents in a controlled environment, which will help offshore wind researchers test new equipment designs in more realistic conditions. Bucking the trend toward computer simulations, this physical lab will feature a combined wave-current flume consisting of a 6,000-gallon water tank and a commercial-grade marine thruster. This type of thruster—a two-propeller assembly driven by a powerful 75-horsepower motor—is typically used to run boats, and this one, custom built by Seattle-based Western Marine Electronics (WESMAR), is the first one that the company has sold to a lab. The tank and conduit assembly are currently being designed and built with the support of Alden Research Labs, a coastal engineering consulting company based in Holden, Massachusetts.

Researchers will be able to generate waves from either end of the facility through a modular wave maker and beach absorber system that has been designed and built in-house. “This facility is unique in that it can simulate tidal environments with waves and currents in line or opposing each other,” says Sharman. “We can do this by moving the wave maker from one end of the tank to the other.” Sensors, high-speed photography, and laser illumination capabilities will allow researchers to gather many types of data. To date, there are no commercial wave energy converters providing power to the U.S. electricity grid. But the new lab, currently under construction in Gunness Hall, will allow a model to be tested as part of Sharman’s work with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

illustration of a cloud and wind on a blue background

The lab offers exciting possibilities for a variety of different kinds of experiments, including those done by undergraduates and postdoctoral researchers who, Sharman notes, have been instrumental in helping to create this lab. In addition to testing offshore wind energy systems, wave energy devices, and tidal systems, researchers will be able to test coastal systems and aquaculture hypotheses. They will also be able to test fish cages, ropes, and marine systems for equipment failure in realistic scenarios and examine the potential impacts of climate change. Kinesiology researchers could put a swimmer in the tank. Students could test robotic fish or other projects. The only limits are those of researchers’ imaginations.

Out of thin air

A recent collaboration between researchers in the electrical and computer engineering and microbiology departments seems like science fiction—but it’s real. The laboratories of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air, a new technology they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change, and medicine.

We are literally making electricity out of thin air.

—Jun Yao

They call the device an “Air-gen”—or air-powered generator—with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere. “We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” says Yao.

The new technology developed in Yao’s lab is nonpolluting, renewable, and low cost. It can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity, like a desert. Unlike other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and “it even works indoors,” says Lovley.

The device consists of a thin film of protein nanowires that rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top. The film adsorbs water vapor from the atmosphere (a thin layer of water molecules clings to the surface of the film), and a combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.

illustration of a cloud and wind on a blue background

The Air-gen discovery reflects an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration. Lovley discovered the Geobacter microbe in the mud of the Potomac River more than 30 years ago. His lab later discovered its ability to produce electrically conductive protein nanowires. Before coming to UMass, Yao engineered electronic devices with silicon nanowires. They joined forces to see if useful electronic devices could be made with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.

The researchers say that the current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics, and they expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon. They hope to develop Air-gens that can be applied to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging. Yao says, “The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production.”

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year, the UMass community can look back with pride over its last half century of contributions to the renewable energy field. The work begun in 1967 by the late Heronemus (who passed away in 2002) continues in the present and into the future—a greener and more sustainable future, thanks to decades of UMass research and the hundreds of alumni who continue to push the industry forward, reshaping our energy supply for generations to come.

Dylan Masi
Brock Taute

Catching up with wind energy engineer Dylan Masi '17

How did you find your way to this field?

The field of renewable energy always excited me, so I sought out related opportunities while at UMass. I studied mechanical engineering and was able to take a graduate-level course on wind energy. I also joined the integrated concentration in science (iCons) program, a four-course track dedicated specifically to solving renewable energy challenges. This furthered my inspiration to find a job where I could make a positive, quantifiable impact on the environment. These experiences helped me stand out as a candidate when I was applying to clean energy jobs, and now I love the work I do knowing that I am playing a role in the transition to clean energy.

What are you working on now?

I currently work for Invenergy, a privately owned sustainable energy development company. My role involves designing utility-scale wind farms around the country. I use data analysis to create wind flow models to estimate energy potential at project sites. I also work to ensure that our wind farm designs are in compliance with county, state, and federal siting regulations, and to minimize their impact on the environment, airspace, and telecommunications.

Why does this kind of research matter?

As someone working in the renewable energy industry, I am able to see the real-world impact of research on the design and operation of wind farms. Innovation and research continue to advance wind turbine technology, which gives companies like mine the ability to find a cost-effective turbine solution to fit the vastly different wind regimes and topographical conditions across our project sites. A few other examples include research on bat-deterrent technology, more accurate wind speed measurement technology, and smart-control systems for the flashing aviation lights on the towers. Research in the field of renewable energy will continue to make it more and more cost competitive with less sustainable energy sources, will help mitigate environmental impacts, and will help the overall aesthetics for those who live near wind farms.