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PSU prof looks to harvest energy from unlikely sources

April 17, 2010|By JENNIFER FITCH
  • Linghao Zhong
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MONT ALTO, Pa. -- Like many people, Linghao Zhong worries when he takes his car to the pump and pays almost $3 per gallon for gas.

Zhong is working with two federal programs to do something to change that.

"We don't have an unlimited amount of oil," he said.

What we do have in unlimited quantities are wind and plant byproducts, which are the focuses of Zhong's research. Zhong, a professor at Penn State Mont Alto, has a strong interest in all types of renewable energy.

Students are assisting Zhong in his study of wind collection along highways through an Environmental Protection Agency project. They are trying to determine whether wind can be collected from passing vehicles and converted into electricity.

"It's otherwise wasted," Zhong said.

Penn State sophomores Rochak R. Dahal and Bradley Lloyd have been working with Zhong for a year.

"When something interesting like this comes up, you make time for it," Dahal said.

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Other groups have the same idea, but they've run into red tape, Zhong said. Penn State University's attorneys are working with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to draft an agreement to allow wind speed meters to be clamped on their guardrails, he said.

Letterkenny Army Depot officials said some testing could occur on their property, Lloyd said.

Researchers want to determine whether they can collect more energy from numerous passenger vehicles or fewer tractor-trailers. They also want to identify the best time of day for collection.

Dahal and Lloyd, who are engineering majors, worked with the school's engineering department to build an instrument on poles to measure wind at different heights. The students said the project provided an opportunity for them to practice skills such as precision measurement.

"We expect the wind would be much bigger if a big truck passes by," Zhong said. "We want to see what is optimal."

Zhong also developed partnerships with other researchers through a program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

"We are all working together to determine how the cellulose in the plant ... can be decomposed in cellulosic ethanol," he said.

The ethanol would not be generated from corn, but from agricultural waste such as grass clippings, Zhong said. Like corn ethanol, the fuel could be used in vehicles, he said.

"If you can collect them and use them to make ethanol, you don't compete with the food and you can still make fuel ethanol," he said.

The process requires energy to break down the plants, but researchers believe they can be genetically modified to break down easier. Zhong said it's impossible to estimate when this could be a viable method of getting fuel.

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