Testing for Our Future

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

Students and faculty in the Physics and Astronomy Department and the Mathematics and Computer Science Department have been given an unusual opportunity.

They will investigate energy monitoring, energy conservation, and sustainable housing in a grant-based project on campus. Pensmore Foundation, chaired by Steven Huff '73, who is also chairman of TF Concrete Forming Systems, has given the College $150,000 to build the Energy Research Laboratory, a 26'x45' structure that will feature advanced building materials and technologies. Students are tasked with developing new software, hardware, and temperature and power monitoring devices in an effort to test the functionality of the building and their own equipment.

The laboratory is built with methods and materials similar to those of Pensmore, or “think more,” a 72,000-square-foot château in Highlandville, Missouri, which Huff is erecting as an exhibition of the company’s technology. Its strength lies primarily in its walls: 1-foot-thick insulated molds are filled with concrete mixed with twisted, 1-inch-long steel “helixes,” which provide strength and flexibility to the concrete and uphold structural integrity in tornados and earthquakes. The walls also exhibit excellent thermal mass—they can hold fairly constant temperatures over extended periods of time. A geo-thermal heat pump delivers heated or cooled water through tubing inside the walls, which then keeps the interior of the structure at comfortable temperatures. 

The ultimate objective of the H-SC project is to test the wall’s thermal mass by maintaining proper temperatures inside the building with minimal energy-input using sustainable resources, in this case solar power and local ground water.

Energy Research LaboratoryFive students are working on the project so far: Caleb Bowyer ’15, Zach Carter ’17, Peter Clark ’14, David Foulke ’16, and Jim Woodward ’15. Professors Stan Cheyne, Paul Hemler, Walter “Mike” McDermott, and Hugh “Trey” Thurman are helping the students. During the academic year and over the summer, they developed software and hardware for measuring and recording power levels and temperatures. They also built a website that automatically receives, stores, and displays information transmitted from the temperature and power sensors at the building site.

Bowyer designed and built a solar panel water heater, which uses sunlight to heat the water that flows through the tubing inside the walls. He incorporated a water pump to create a closed-circuit system monitored by thermocouples, or temperature gauges. He overcame a number of temperature-regulation problems in the system, as well as difficulties in water flow rates and pressure.

Carter and Clark worked primarily with power and temperature sensors, building circuit boards and configuring the WiFi to transmit the information to the server. In his online journal, Carter posted weekly updates on his progress, describing in more detail the work needed for his system to operate properly. For example, he reprogrammed the WiFi shield and separated temperature and power codes to run on different circuit boards.

Foulke was the front-end website developer, creating “the things you see and click on,” he said. Because of the nature of the website and its requirement to interact with the server to display the information, Foulke had to learn four different computer languages, none of which are covered in the standard curriculum at Hampden-Sydney.

Woodward worked on the back-end of the website, setting up the server’s infrastructure to receive and process information sent from the temperature and power sensors. The data were transmitted via WiFi. He had to connect the server to the circuit boards that Carter built and configured, and he had to work with Foulke to get the website functioning properly.  

As Huff said at the groundbreaking ceremony, “It’s the kind of project that depends on an interdisciplinary team, a small team of creative thinkers to have a significant impact.” Experiments will continue for many months. With record-cold temperatures across the country and government restrictions on traditional energy sources, the need to find cost-effective and energy-efficient technologies for both homes and commercial buildings is helping to drive the evolution of building technologies.

“Forty percent of energy consumption in the United States is used by buildings,” Huff said, and “half of that is used for heating and cooling.” By having a hand in shaping these emerging sciences, students are gaining insight and experience that will help their future careers and help power our future. 

To view the students’ work and progress on the project, visit: http://cslabfs.hsc.edu/erg/homepage.html.