James Madison University

LOGO: School of engineeringAbout this series: This is the third installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

Standardizing Solar Hydrogen Research Would Have Watershed Effect

What if your class had no textbook, no outline, no rules? And a big problem to solve? A group of James Madison University engineering students is doing just this—and helping to bring viable solar-hydrogen energy production one step closer to reality..

Hydrogen produced from sunlight is one of the most promising sources of energy because it is a clean energy carrier that can be produced in multiple ways, says Brandon Journell, a senior from Salem, Va. The challenge of solar-produced hydrogen, which first began in the 1970s during the first oil crisis, is finding the most effective process through which solar energy can be converted into hydrogen for use as an energy source.

Journell is part of a four-member team of engineering students who will graduate in May as the inaugural class from JMU's new Department of Engineering. The innovative engineering program, which enrolled its first students in 2008, emphasizes hands-on design and four pillars of sustainability: technical, environmental, social and economic.

The solar hydrogen team is developing a device to enable scientists to test, measure and evaluate the production of hydrogen energy from solar energy. Their device is the result of a two-year capstone project that, if successful, will change the way hydrogen research is done.

"What we hope to do with this project is to find a more sustainable way to produce hydrogen, a more environmentally friendly process," says Brad Wenzel, a senior from Wallingford, Pa.

PHOTO: JMU students discussing researchJohn Murdock (left), Brad Wenzel, Patrick Nutbrown and Brandon Journell discuss their project.Producing hydrogen from sunlight requires an intermediate photo-electro-chemical (PEC) process. The technical term is "photo electro chemical hydrogen production," Patrick Nutbrown, a senior from Springfield, Va., explains: "You're taking a clean energy source — light energy — and creating another clean energy source, hydrogen."

"We're trying to develop a process and a system—an actual physical device—to test the material used to create hydrogen gas from sunlight," explains John Murdock, a senior who is also from Springfield.

The challenge is to correctly measure and evaluate the efficacy of each medium used in the photo-electro-chemical process.  At present, there is no standardization in evaluating the efficiency of the process or, for that matter, any standardized device, which scientists can employ to produce comparable results. That process is what the engineering students are focusing on. Their device and an associated testing procedure they are developing will create a standard for evaluating and comparing materials used to convert solar energy into hydrogen energy.

If the JMU students are successful, scientists in the future will be able to compare results, and the process of creating a viable system of hydrogen energy production will come faster because this will allow scientists to use and analyze data more effectively.

PHOTO: JMU Student using computer"Other universities have done research with this as well but not in any way that's comparable. With this testing apparatus, we hope to make a universal system so that scientists from all over the world can compare their results and find different efficiencies," Wenzel says.

Production of the device has required students to test their design skills, learned in six required engineering design courses. Few other engineering schools put as much emphasis on design and hands-on engineering.

"There was no outline, no textbook.  We had to go through the design process, step by step," Murdock says.

Along with a strong emphasis on design, JMU's general engineering program is built around four pillars of sustainability. While students attack problems from a technical engineering standpoint, they also consider the environmental, economic and social impacts.

"We ask: Is the design going to perform the function? What is the economic impact? Will it be marketable, viable? And what effect on people will it have and what is the environmental impact?" Nutbrown says.

As a team, the four engineering students have worked for more than a year on the project, which has required extensive research, experimentation and collaboration. The nature of the problem has also allowed them to employ multiple areas of engineering including mechanical, electrical, computer and chemical, Nutbrown says. "There are a lot of different components. Everyone has his little niche," he says.

"In any engineering design problem, you're going to have multiple types of engineering. That's why people work in interdisciplinary teams when they're actually in the industry," Nutbrown adds. That's also how JMU's new engineering program was designed: to look at problems holistically.

The team members collaborate closely with advisers, says Journell. "Because the program is small, we have the ability to talk to professors on a daily basis."

The engineering students are on schedule to produce a prototype of their device during the spring 2012 semester. Their hope is that future JMU engineering students will continue to refine and expand on their work to streamline solar hydrogen production.

"We know the future changes," Journell says. "It's ever changing. We have to have the ability to design and prepare for the future now, because if it's later, it's too late."

Series At A Glance