Solar Flair

Students, Alumnus, Professors Come Together to Build Research Facility by Tom Wyatt ‘94


Reflecting Light
Jim Markiewicz

 (from left) Megan Wilken, Ben Olejniczak,
James Markiewicz '72, and Tyler Heagney

James Markiewicz '72: Valpo
Mechanical Engineering Alumni

In the late 1940s, students who were determined to help revitalize Valparaiso University’s College of Engineering worked together to construct a building that would accommodate a four-year engineering program.

The student motto for the construction of the facility was “Initiated by students, planned by students, built by students.” The effort inspired a 1951 movie called “Venture of Faith.”

The building still stands on the west end of campus, though the College of Engineering has since moved into its current facility at Gellersen Center.

That spirit of resourcefulness lives on in Valpo engineering students. Their connection to that spirit is evident in the James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility, now under construction adjacent to Gellersen Center.

Valpo engineering students have taken an active role in the construction of the solar furnace, a key component of the research facility, helping to build and design the concentrator and heliostat.

“The whole project shows what the University and, specifically, the College of Engineering are doing with the race for green energy,” said Tyler Heagney, a senior mechanical engineering major from Avondale, Ariz. “Being a part of radical new research ideas that may very well help change how the world views and consumes energy is a cool idea to be a part of. Though I am not doing the research myself, I can at least say that I played a small role in something that could change our futures down the road.”

Valpo’s will be the fourth research facility in the United States to boast a solar furnace, and the only undergraduate institution in the country. The facility will enable students and faculty members to work  together on the research centered on using solar energy as a viable alternative energy source.

“Solar energy is one of many important renewable energy paths for the future,” said Robert Palumbo ’80, professor of mechanical engineering and an expert in solar energy. “Our research facility enables Valpo students and faculty to perform research in the promising area of solar thermal chemistry, where concentrated sunlight is used for the production of solar fuels.”
The facility is near and dear to Jim Markiewicz ’72, for whom the facility is named. Markiewicz, a mechanical engineering major at Valpo who founded Capital Engineering in Hammond, Ind., provided the lead gift for the facility.

“It’s an opportunity to help inspire the young engineers and scientists of the future,” Markiewicz said.  “The Solar Energy Research Facility is a high-tech and futuristic iconic facility that represents the exciting and innovative work engineers and scientists do.”

Markiewicz sees remarkable possibilities from the research that will be conducted at the facility. Just as important is the fact it connects students with faculty and alumni. 

“This could revolutionize how homes are powered, much like personal computers revolutionized how we access information,” Markiewicz said. “The College of Engineering is unique in that it was initially built by engineering students attending the University, and over the years it has grown in part because of the support provided by individuals such as Mr. [William A.] Gellersen and Mr. [Donald V.] Fites and many, many other graduates of the program."

“If not for their efforts, the program would not be what it is today. I feel very fortunate to be able to help with the building of this facility, and follow their example and to continue on the tradition.”

Students continue to work on the facility, which is scheduled for a fall 2012 completion. 

“It’s a really great opportunity to come to a small undergraduate school and be able to take part in a project as big and influential as this one,” said Megan Wilken, a senior mechanical engineering major from Brookfield, Wis. “It’s an honor.”
Solar Research Team

Lisa Erickson, Ben Olejniczak, Robert Palumbo,
Scott Duncan, Melissa Meyer, and Andrew Schiller

For Scott Duncan, professor of mechanical engineering, it’s been a joy to watch students take ownership in helping to build the facility. 

“It is wonderful to see Valpo engineering students apply the fundamental engineering skills that they are learning in the classroom and laboratory to the real-world engineering challenge of designing, manufacturing, and building a solar furnace,” Duncan said. “The students are developing engineering skills that will serve them well throughout their careers.”