A tour of the Valpo Solar Energy Research Facility

Markiewicz Solar Research Facility

The James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility puts Valparaiso University on the cutting edge of solar energy research – research conducted by both Valpo faculty and undergraduates.

At the heart of the research facility is a solar furnace. Only 5 research facilities in the United States have a solar furnace, and Valpo is the only undergraduate institute in the United States with one. The Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility provides Valpo undergraduates with extraordinary engineering and research experiences and exposes College of Engineering students to solar energy engineering.

This facility will enable research of critical importance to the world – using solar energy as a viable alternative energy source. Students will also learn about what is likely to be an important energy resource deep into the 21st Century: concentrated sunlight.

The research facility is named after James S. Markiewicz ’72, whose generosity made the Solar Energy Research Facility possible, along with funding from the United States Department of Energy. James founded Capital Engineering in 1984 and was the company’s president until it was sold in 2007. James favorite quote (paraphrasing Confucius) is appreciated by Valpo’s engineering students: “Choose something you love to do and you will never have to work another day in your life.”

The James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility is used to investigate processes capable of using sunlight to produce solar fuels and valuable industrial commodities. The 2,000-square-foot facility is adjacent to the Gellersen Center, home to the College of Engineering. The solar facility brings faculty and undergraduate students together to develop solutions to the pressing international problem of developing viable renewable energy sources. The Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility links quality teaching to quality research. Of special note, students worked on the design and building process of the James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility.

The solar furnace consists of six main parts, which are depicted below. solar_facility_howitworksThe 20-foot-by-20-foot flat mirror, called the heliostat, sits in front of the furnace building and tracks the sun, directing the light into the concentrator. The concentrator at the Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility is composed of 306 curved mirrors. A set of louvers stands between the heliostat and the concentrator, regulating how much light reaches the concentrator. The concentrator focuses the light as does a magnifying glass. A solar thermal reactor is located at the focal point of the concentrated light. The solar furnace is capable of generating temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit within the reactor.

The extremely high temperatures in the reactor enable a wide range of chemical reactions and therefore opens the door to a wide range of research. Valpo faculty and students will become active participants in the international effort of developing the science and engineering technology required to produce solar fuels from sunlight. Two areas that Valparaiso students and faculty are researching: Converting water into the fuel hydrogen – solar thermal decoupled water electrolysis project being conducted in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratory. Splitting zinc oxide into zinc and oxygen, without producing any waste. Zinc can be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity or as a commodity.