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Western could become a hub of solar research

Several green energy projects are in the works

Story by John Thompson

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The luminescent solar concentrator research at the Applied Materials Science and Engineering Center (AMSEC) is just one of the projects at Western focusing on sustainable energy and green technology.

Also see: Capturing the Sun

Tougher, more flexible solar panels could harness the sun's energy at less than half the cost.

Others include the Vehicle Research Institute’s biomethane project, which turns cow manure into usable natural gas for its Honda-powered hybrid. The VRI is also at work with Kitsap Transit on a new lightweight, ultra-fuel-efficient transit bus.

And more research into sustainable energy could be on the way, says Brad Johnson, the chair of Western’s Physics Department and a research member of AMSEC. It all depends on funding, as always, but future plans include:

• Building a traditional solar array of flat silicon-based photovoltaic cells atop the Technology Development Center (TDC), a waterfront-area facility leased from the Port of Bellingham, to provide baseline data in all weather conditions.

• Building a hybrid solar and wind system atop the TDC using the new luminescent solar collectors in conjunction with a traditional wind-collection system. “Typically in the Pacific Northwest it’s either sunny or breezy, rarely both – or neither – at the same time,” Johnson says. “This system would gather electricity from whatever source was available.”

• Collaborating with the University of California system to place a sensor array atop the TDC that will be used to forecast climate data and solar availability in an effort to find stopgaps in the peaks and lulls common to solar collection due to weather patterns and the day/night cycle. This last phase of the project may actually be the first in place because it requires no outside funding.

“Given all the work we see coming on the horizon, to say we’re pretty excited about the future is an understatement,” Johnson says.