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EPA P3 grant helps researchers at Appalachian explore affordable alternative energy options

BOONE—Making a living as the owner of a small farm can be a hit or miss proposition. Farm owners must battle the weather, pests and rising energy costs as they bring their crops to market.

View larger imageView larger imageA biofuel research facility at the former Watauga County landfill is the site of research being conducted by students and professors at Appalachian State University. Through awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, faculty in the Department of Technology and Environmental Design are exploring economic, alternative energy heat sources that could help farmers in cold, mountainous regions extend the growing season through their winter. (Photo submitted)

A group of Appalachian State University faculty and students is working on ways to help local farmers by providing economical alternative energy heat sources for greenhouses that could help farmers in cold, mountainous regions extend the growing season through the winter.

Drs. Ok-Youn Yu, Jim Houser and David Domermuth from the Department of Technology and Environmental Design have received an EPA P3 phase I grant totaling $15,000 for their project titled “Greenhouse heating with biomass.”

The award follows a series of projects and previous EPA P3 grants that have supported construction of the department’s 20-by-30-foot greenhouse located at the former Watauga County landfill. This is the site for incorporating appropriate technologies such as bio-volatilization (BV), biogas, anaerobic digester (AD) and composting systems into heat energy sources for the greenhouse.

The latest EPA P3 funding will enable the professors to collect data related to the heat energy value derived from methane produced from farm manure that has been processed with an anaerobic digester, and heat energy generated through a composting process.

Yu is an assistant professor in building science and civil engineer, principal investigator of the grant and oversees its administration. His graduate students and he are developing a monitoring and data acquisition system for the greenhouse that will provide the researchers important data regarding the various systems’ energy production and use. Graduate students in physics are writing a program for a micro controller that will integrate the various heat energy sources.

“We want to integrate and optimize these different systems to enable local farmers, especially those in western North Carolina, to extend their crop growing season,” Yu said. “Sometimes, the greenhouse might use heat energy produced from the BV system and other times might use heat energy from the composting system. Our challenge is to develop a system that is simple to operate, economical and efficient so that farmers will be willing to use it.”

Yu and Domermuth have already developed an economical, small-scale BV method to convert biomass, such as woodchips, agricultural and forest waste to biofuel and useful biochar. Waste energy created from the BV process can heat the greenhouse and the fuel created can be used to run a generator to produce electricity for lighting. This work was funded by a $45,000 grant the professors received in 2013 from the N.C. Agricultural Foundation.

Domermuth, a professor who focuses on industrial design, said the department’s demonstration greenhouse is called Nexus because it integrates several heating systems – bio-volatilization (BV), aerobic digester (AD) and compost heating systems – along with the expertise of faculty from different academic areas on campus, such as chemistry, biology and physics.

A prototype of their work will be part of the Annual National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington. D.C., in spring 2015, where the students and professors will compete for a $75,000 phase II award to take their design to real-world application.

Houser, an assistant professor in appropriate technology, said ease of use and affordability are key as researchers explore the various heat energy sources. “We don’t want these systems to be too complicated. That’s part of the aspect of appropriate technology. They cannot be real high maintenance or real expensive,” he said.

“There have been a lot of issues in the past where this type of technology transfer has fallen into disuse because the systems are too hard to keep up,” Houser said. “That’s what we would like to avoid, but I can’t say we are there yet because we are just starting this process. We will learn. That’s what research is all about.”