Grad students market renewable energy overseas, across the nation

The water-heating system could be marketed as early as 2005.

Jason Juno

Graduate students at the University are looking to help out the environment – nationally and internationally.

A water-heating system graduate students helped design could be marketed as early as 2005. The product, which is called “low-cost polymer solar water-heating systems,” will be marketed in tropical regions of the world and the southern part of the United States.

Though the system is somewhat expensive, some said that it is environmentally friendly because it reduces carbon dioxide emissions – a major pollutant and cause of global warming.

The students’ product will heat water using solar energy. It is different from similar products because it uses plastics instead of metal, which reduces weight and cost, mechanical engineering professor Sue Mantell said.

The system uses the sun to heat up a tank of water on the roof. It then goes through a heat exchanger and the hot water goes into the building’s water heater, where it is available to use, Mantell said. The insulation of the water heater keeps it warm for a while, she said. The system only works when the sun is out.

Davis Energy Group, a California-based company, was in charge of research and development for the system, and SunEarth, also of California, is the manufacturer, Richard Bourne, principal at Davis Energy Group, said.

The University received $1.2 million from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for work on the polymer solar collectors since 2000, University professor of mechanical engineering Jane Davidson wrote in an e-mail. She is currently working for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

The Initiative for Renewable Energy helped fund the project. 

“The cost share Ö gives us a competitive edge, but most importantly, allows us to tackle some fundamental science issues that might not have been supported by the sponsor,” Davidson said.

Bourne said the University helped choose the correct plastics and determined its strengths and temperature limits.

“There should be a very large market for it,” Bourne said. “It was a large help, really, and that we were able to rely on their expertise.”

The plastic creates a lighter water heating system, which is cheaper. The price of the installed system is expected to be half that of similar systems, Bourne said.

Davis Energy Group is aiming the product at people who use electricity to heat their water.

Thirty-five percent of people in the areas where it will be marketed – in the southern United States and tropical areas – use electricity to heat their water.

The group believes the product saves consumers money on heating water, he said. However, the money to buy the product is “definitely an added cost,” he said.

FAFCO, a company that produces solar pool heating panels, is also looking into marketing the system, Mantell said.