National Science Foundation Grant for Villanova Thermal Team

A team of faculty in Villanova University’s College of Engineering has received a three-year grant of $325,843 from the National Science Foundation to explore a more efficient means of energy storage and release. The research will develop a potentially transformational technology that has application in large and small electronic systems, from cell phones to solar energy plants.

The research team consists of Amy Fleischer, PhD, Acting Department Chair and Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Gang Feng, PhD, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering; and Aaron Wemhoff, PhD, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Many sustainable or “alternative” energy systems such as large scale solar energy plants provide a surplus of energy at certain times (when the sun is shining) but much less at other times (such as at night). If the plants can be designed to store the surplus energy for use during times of decreased supply, the plant will operate more economically and efficiently. This will be even more beneficial if the plants can respond to rapid changes in energy requirements by using stored energy to meet this demand. This research project focuses on the use of phase change materials for large scale energy storage. Phase change materials store energy inside the material itself as it melts. As the material melts, energy is needed to release the bonds as the material transitions from solid to liquid. This energy is absorbed from the surroundings and is stored. When the material later solidifies, this stored energy is released from the material and can be used. The only down side to phase change material energy storage is that most existing phase change materials have characteristics that prevent a quick energy transfer response. Thus this project is focused on designing and creating improved phase change energy storage materials by improving the characteristics of the material to allow rapid storage of energy, and rapid release again upon demand. This will be done by embedding graphite nanofibers in the material and then controlling the motion of the nanofibers to provide a continuous path for the energy to penetrate into the material. The first layer of nanoparticles will be anchored at the surface and the remaining nanofibers will create a matrix of energy paths connected to these initial anchor points. The researcher will then extend this development such that the materials can be tailored for specific applications by creating controlled nanofibers networks with electrical and magnetic field control. The ability to control and manipulate nanofiber motion to tailor thermal properties has the potential to be truly transformational in the field.

Energy storage though solid-liquid phase change is a wide-reaching technology that can be utilized in many applications. These applications include a wide range of sustainable technologies not just including solar energy systems, but also high efficiency heating and air conditioning systems, domestic hot water, and advanced building materials. Phase change materials can also be used to absorb heat and provide thermal control for portable electronics and communication systems. This study addresses a key weakness in phase change material technologies, and the successful execution of this project will enable greater implementation of sustainable technologies. The research undertaken in this project will provide educational opportunities for several graduate students and the researchers will use the solar energy system designs to enhance an existing engineering outreach project used to introduce middle school girls, particularly those from underrepresented minorities to engineering. This outreach project is executed through a partnership with Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania.

Dr. Fleischer is internationally recognized for her research in heat transfer in electronics. Most recently, she represented the College of Engineering at the U.S.-Egypt Joint Workshop on Solar Energy Systems and Materials and presented a talk on “Energy Storage Using Phase Change Materials with Applications in Solar Energy Systems.”

Dr. Amy Fleischer
Dr. Amy Fleischer