Smart Charging Network for EVs Installed at Caltech

In an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in our environment and begin a campuswide shift to the use of renewable resources, a research group led by Steven Low, professor of computer science and electrical engineering in the engineering and applied science division, has installed 54 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations for use by all Caltech and JPL personnel and visitors. The stations, four of which are handicapped-accessible, were first installed in the California Parking Structure in February and are currently free to use.

Depending on a car's charger, the stations will fully charge an EV in about five hours. Users can monitor the stations—whether they are occupied or available, as well as whether the occupied stations are currently charging or done charging—via the Caltech Adaptive Charging Network (ACN) site at http://ev.caltech.edu/.

"Electrification of our transportation system will be important because today vehicles consume more than a quarter of our energy and emit more than a quarter of our energy-related carbon dioxide [CO2]," says Low, who was awarded a Caltech Innovation Initiative (CI2) grant last year to fund the design, building, and installation of the EV charging system, as well as its power-distribution infrastructure. "Electrification will not only greatly reduce CO2 emission, but EVs can also be critical resources to help integrate renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, into our electric grid. One of the key enablers to mass EV adoption is the availability of smart charging networks."

Because there are now so many stations on campus and charging EVs can require a substantial amount of electricity (most EVs charge at 7 kilowatts, the equivalent of simultaneously running 70 desktop computers), Low developed Caltech's adaptive charging network, which uses a smart algorithm to coordinate the charging schedule with the Institute's existing electrical infrastructure. This program helps minimize energy usage; as of now, the stations are consuming about 200 kilowatt-hours per day, only a fraction (0.00006 percent) of Caltech's total electrical usage. And, according to John Onderdonk, director of sustainability programs at Caltech, about 30 percent of the electricity at each charging station is from carbon-free renewable sources.

The ACN project is helping the Institute prepare for the vehicle of the future, Onderdonk notes. "Caltech's Facilities Management department is also benefiting from the project by learning about EV use patterns so that we can identify the opportunities and challenges that may come with integrating large numbers of EVs into the campus electrical infrastructure," he says.

Implementation of publicly available EV charging programs like Caltech's pilot ACN also can be beneficial for limiting energy usage in the long term. "Compared with charging these EVs at homes individually, ACN requires a smaller total power distribution capacity and can better use renewable electricity," says Low.

"We believe having ample charging stations available is the key to widespread EV adoption," says George Lee (MS '10), who is volunteering in Low's lab to continue contributing to this project. "Most installations outside Caltech only have a few EV charging stations, due to the high cost of upgrading electrical infrastructure and construction. Our technique allows a large number of stations to be installed at a reasonable cost."

Low's CI2 funding will allow the charging stations to be free to use until the end of the academic year. After that—and depending on renewal of the CI2 grant for phase 2 of the project, which would be focused on further developing the software based on data collected from the newly installed chargers—there will be a potential cost of less than $0.20 per kilowatt-hour. (Private residences purchasing energy from Pasadena Water and Power spend between $0.13 and $0.38 per kilowatt-hour delivered, depending on the specific plan and time of day.) While charging at home at night is the cheapest option, says Lee, charging during the day is cheaper at Caltech, where the rate is the same at all times, than at a private residence. "This financial structure helps maximize EV adoption because it allows for people who cannot install chargers at home to own an EV at reasonable electricity costs," Lee says.

When the research project concludes in April 2017, the chargers will become the property of Caltech's facilities department, at which point their fee structure will need to be reassessed. In addition to the current installation, Low foresees the need for additional charging stations in the future as EV use increases.

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A research group led by professor Steven Low has installed 54 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations for use by all Caltech and JPL personnel and visitors.

Resnick Sustainability Institute Boosts Caltech's Earth Day Celebration

The Resnick Sustainability Institute—Caltech's hub for projects aimed at tackling some of the toughest sustainability-focused problems our society faces—played a key role in Caltech's Earth Week celebration, during which various events were held to show support for environmental protection and achieving a sustainable future.

For example, on April 19, Resnick fellow Bryan Hunter gave a talk on "The 21st Century Solar Army," which focused on his volunteer work with Caltech's NSF Center for Chemical Innovation in Solar Fuels. Among CCI Solar's volunteers are Resnick postdoctoral scholars Bradley Brennan and Sonja Francis, whose efforts have included working with school teachers to show them how to build and test simple and cheap solar cells; the teachers then take these activities back to their classrooms.

The Resnick Sustainability Institute's 17 graduate student fellows and 10 postdoctoral scholars are actively engaged in research involving everything from solar fuels and photovoltaics to improved catalysts for greener industrial processes, carbon capture and storage, greenhouse gas assessment, wastewater treatment, and more.

Recently, postdoctoral scholar Christopher Prier and his colleagues in Frances Arnold's laboratory described a method for the synthesis of valuable amines using engineered variants of cytochrome P450, a common iron-containing enzyme, in the journal Angewandte Chemie. Because enzymatic processes are typically environmentally benign, Prier notes, his work contributes to the greening of chemical synthesis.

Francis and colleagues described in the journal ACS Catalysis a new catalyst made of two metals, nickel and gallium, which can be used for converting carbon dioxide and water into hydrocarbons like methane, ethane, and ethylene. Currently, no electro-catalyst exists that can convert carbon dioxide with both high efficiency and selectivity to hydrocarbons or even alcohols, Francis notes.

Additionally, in an upcoming issue, the Journal of the American Chemical Society will spotlight an improved catalyst for sustainable fertilizer production developed by Resnick fellow Niklas Thompson and others from Resnick Institute director Jonas Peters' research group. This same research also won the 2016 Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award at Caltech.

Learn more about the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech at http://resnick.caltech.edu.

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The Resnick Sustainability Institute played a key role in Caltech's Earth Week celebration.

New Chen Professorship Supports Research in Sustainability and Energy

Caltech trustee John S. Chen (MS '79) and his wife, Sherry, have pledged $1.5 million to support Institute scholars who are searching for solutions to the major environmental challenges facing our planet.

The endowed John S. and Sherry Chen Professorship will generate funds to support a faculty member pursuing energy science and sustainability research. The selected professor also could draw upon resources and collaborations through the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech, which brings together multidisciplinary teams of engineers and scientists to address a wide range of problems related to sustainability.

"For generations to come, some of the most important and difficult questions facing humanity are likely to relate to understanding the science behind climate change and how our civilization can mitigate the effects of potentially rapid environmental change," says Caltech Provost Edward M. Stolper, the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology. "The Chens' gift will help Caltech to continue to play the role that all institutions of higher learning must play in addressing such questions."

Read the full story on the Caltech Giving website.

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Caltech trustee John S. Chen and his wife, Sherry, have pledged $1.5 million to support scholars who are searching for solutions to environmental challenges.

Even Before the Drought, Caltech Set Sights on Water Conservation

The California drought has become increasingly dire since its onset in 2012, recently prompting state officials to implement mandatory water use reductions of 25 percent. Various municipalities, including Pasadena, have urged even greater conservation.

At Caltech that call to action has been more of an affirmation of efforts already under way for more than a decade. Since 2006, Caltech has targeted energy- and water-wasting activities campus-wide, slashing water use by 38 percent.

John Onderdonk, Caltech's director of sustainability programs, says he scores the campus's conservation efforts thus far "in the A-minus range. We've certainly done more than a lot of our peer institutions in the state and city, but we have more to do."

Ironically, he notes, the Institute's proactive focus on maximizing water efficiency over the long-term has made it harder to meet the state's recent mandate to reduce water from 2014 levels. Even so, Caltech did manage to wring out an additional 15 percent in water savings from 2014 to 2015.

Water conversation began in 2006 with simple improvements, based on a building-by-building assessment by the conservation team. For example, the urinals in Ramo Auditorium had been programmed to flush every 15 minutes, which wasted water. "That was an immediate retrofit," says Onderdonk.   

At the same time, the team conducted an extensive survey of "where and for what our water was being used," he explains.

The answer surprised Onderdonk, who expected that tending to the landscaping across Caltech's 126-acre campus would easily rank number 1. Instead, the data showed that the central and satellite utility plants consume half the Institute's water in order to generate electricity and produce water needed in research, as well as in the heating and cooling of the campus. Most of the remaining supply was allocated to domestic uses (34 percent) followed by irrigation (16 percent).

Given the impracticality of slashing the allocation of research water at a premier research institute, Onderdonk and his team looked instead at reducing the water needed for energy generation, recommending the introduction of new technologies including fuel cells and solar photovoltaics to convert solar energy into direct-current electricity. The adoption of these new technologies produced water savings by obviating the need for the water-based cooling required by traditional generators.

Over the past few years, as drought conditions worsened, Caltech has taken new measures to cut back on the amount of water dedicated to landscape irrigation. Where practical, the Institute has replaced high-use turf, which annually requires 20 gallons of water per square foot, with low-use turf, which requires 15 gallons of water per square foot.

"It's a steady, consistent effort," says Onderdonk. Nearly 75 percent of the turf on campus is now low-water use.

Caltech also switched to a weather-based irrigation system, which automatically shuts down during days when nature provides sufficient moisture to plants, grass, and trees.

This past June, workers drained water from many of the fountains located across campus. For other water features, Caltech has introduced air-conditioning condensate capture as a water-saving measure; this is currently benefitting the Beckman Institute "Gene Pool," Watson lab fountain, and Linde + Robinson Perception fountain.

Typically, the water that condenses off an air conditioning unit would otherwise be dumped into a drain, where it disappears. But, last summer, the Institute reworked some capture systems to feed condensate into the three fountains, making up for losses from evaporation and reducing the need to use potable water in those areas.

"I am excited by the progress we've collectively made to date," notes Onderdonk, referring to the water conservation program as a whole, "and I think we are on the cusp of establishing Caltech as a leader in the responsible use of water by demonstrating that large-scale water reuse is a viable solution to future water volatility in Southern California." 

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Aliso Canyon, Methane, and Global Climate: A Conversation with Paul Wennberg

On October 23, 2015, the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility for natural gas in the San Fernando Valley—the fourth largest of its kind in the United States—had one of its wells blow out, leading to a large release of methane. The leak was not fully under control until February 11, 2016. In the interim, residents of nearby neighborhoods were sickened by the odorants added to the gas, thousands of households were displaced, and California's governor declared a state of emergency for the area. The story made international headlines; the BBC's headline, for example, read, "California methane leak 'largest in US history.'"

The leak was indeed large and undoubtedly difficult for the residents of the area. However, Caltech's Paul Wennberg says there is also a bigger picture to keep in mind: enormous methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions occur all the time, with troubling implications for global climate. Wennberg is Caltech's R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering, executive officer for Environmental Science and Engineering, and director of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science.

We recently sat down with him to talk about methane emissions and how to put the Aliso Canyon event into perspective.

What was your involvement with the Aliso Canyon event?

We have a greenhouse gas remote sensing system here at Caltech that is part of TCCON—the Total Carbon Column Observing Network. The day after the Aliso Canyon leak started, we observed something really weird in the air above Pasadena. There was a large, big plume of methane and ethane gas that came over. We now know that it was from the Aliso Canyon facility. We are providing data for the final analyses of the leak.

In the past you have suggested that the methane emissions from Los Angeles are much larger than was previously included in models.

Right. Thankfully, models are now catching up as we learn more from the data.

What does the Aliso Canyon event suggest about Los Angeles's methane emissions in general?

Aliso Canyon was a very dramatic event. Everyone heard about it worldwide. The leak continued for about 100 days, and yet it only doubled the amount of methane being emitted by LA during that period. This was a tragedy for the people living next to it, who had to deal with horrible nausea and other side effects of the chemicals associated with the natural gas. But from a climate point of view, the methane leak was actually quite trivial.

There are enormous amounts of methane being released into the atmosphere globally as a result of human activity. That is certainly true of LA, but as far as climate goes, it doesn't matter whether it's released in LA or New Zealand. On the timescale that methane sticks around in the atmosphere, it gets well mixed and affects the entire planet.

How much methane is emitted per year?

About three hundred teragrams [Tg; one teragram is equivalent to one billion kilograms] of methane are emitted every year by people and the activities of people, like agriculture and energy. Los Angeles emits about 0.4 Tg. That means that of the human methane emissions, LA as a total is one part in a thousand—not nothing, but a pretty small amount.

For perspective, Aliso Canyon emitted around 0.1 Tg. It was a big event, but what it really illustrates is how big a challenge we truly face. There are many sources emitting methane into the atmosphere and they are very diffuse. Reducing them will require hard work on many, many fronts. So it's not just, "If we solve this one problem, everything will be beautiful in the world."

You could imagine the response to the Aliso Canyon leak might be that we would all of a sudden focus all of our efforts trying to prevent leaks in natural gas storage facilities. That would not be the right answer from a climate perspective.

How should people go about eliminating methane emissions?

There is not "one" fix. Each source requires a different strategy for mitigation.

First, there is fixing leaks in the pipelines and storage facilities.

Then, it turns out that ruminants like cows and sheep produce a lot of methane—probably a third, if not more, of the human emissions. A paper about this, recently in Science, suggests that an important part of the recent increases in methane is coming from agriculture. Depending on what you feed these ruminants, they produce less methane. They eat grass, but they can't metabolize it: they have a fermenter going in their bellies—a whole microbiome that breaks the grass down into smaller things like acetate that they can metabolize. Depending on the microbiome of their guts, the cows and sheep make more or less methane. And it turns out that you can manage this.

Then there are the wetlands used for rice agriculture. Methane is produced anaerobically—in places with no oxygen—by Archaea. If you have a flooded rice paddy, the methane is produced at the roots and is transpired through the rice plants into the atmosphere. Quite a few studies now show that if you can change your rice agricultural practices to allow the fields to dry periodically, the methane emissions drop hugely.

If you were able to fix all of these things what would the impact be in terms of climate change?

If we could really knock the methane emissions back to what they were before people started emitting methane, it would be a large change. It would be a half a watt per meter squared. The total global warming would drop by around 25 percent.

How does the importance of reducing methane emissions compare to the importance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions?

Globally, methane is important. It's maybe a third of the climate forcing of CO2—that is, the increase in methane has contributed about one third of the total change in Earth's climate over the last 100 years. In terms of climate impact, however, the methane emissions from people in Los Angeles are absolutely dwarfed by their CO2 emissions—all of our driving, going on airplanes, and everything else that we do. Still, if we are to reduce our global warming potential and the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit to the atmosphere, methane has to be part of the equation.

We like to think that we can solve these problems by fixing singular events, but climate doesn't work that way. We're talking about the emissions of 7 billion people. If it were that this was produced by 100 events like Aliso Canyon, this would be a simple problem: we solve the 100 problems, and we're done. But it's all of us, and it's all of what we eat, it's all of the energy that we use, it's all of the miles that we drive. It's a much more complex problem.

What work is your group currently doing in terms of methane?

One of the things we've been doing is long-term monitoring. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4) but there's also ethane (C2H6) in it and this provides a way of separating the signature of methane emitted from agriculture, which has no ethane, and emissions from natural gas, which does.

Over the last five years or so, the production of oil in the United States has increased hugely, and associated with that oil production is natural gas, and therefore methane and ethane. Traditionally, most of the ethane produced at a wellhead was pulled off and sent to the plastic industry. With the changing oil production, the market has become flooded in ethane: there's simply not enough plastic to be made. When the industry can't sell the ethane to the plastic industry, they simply leave it in the natural gas. We see this in the natural gas delivered to Los Angeles. Five years ago natural gas had about 2 percent ethane. Now it's 5 percent—it's more than doubled. What we've seen—and this has nothing to do with Aliso Canyon—is that over the last five years, the amount of ethane in the air over Pasadena has increased.

That's important because it tells us that a significant fraction of the methane that's being released in LA is coming from natural gas brought into Los Angeles. This has been a topic of a lot of debate. Is the big methane emitter the oil production down in the Long Beach area? Is it waste treatment plants? Is it garbage dumps? What we find is that about half of all the methane emitted in this part of LA is gas that originally came in on a pipeline.

How do you know that?

We actually know from the gas company how much ethane is in the natural gas. They report this publically from one of their storage fields and this matches the ethane in samples of the natural gas coming into our buildings.

Are there other projects under way at Caltech to study methane emissions?

Christian Frankenberg [associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech and a JPL research scientist] has been leading an effort to build remote sensing instruments that allow imaging of methane plumes. Using small spectrometers on airplanes, he has flown over areas where you might have a lot of methane emissions and identified individual sources. Last year they were able to find individual pipelines that were leaking in Colorado and in New Mexico. They found several big leaks from pipelines and were able to tell the pipeline operators, who shut them down and fixed them.

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We recently sat down with Paul Wennberg to talk about methane emissions and how to put the Aliso Canyon event into perspective.

Will Orbiting Flying Carpets Light the World?

Imagine a rocket emerging from Earth's atmosphere. Its nose cone opens and out comes a flying carpet.

It had been folded and rolled into a cylinder just 3 feet in diameter and 5 feet long. But freed from the launch vehicle, it unfurls to its full expanse: two-thirds the size of a football field and 1 inch thick.

Now imagine that this is one of 2,500 spaceborne magic carpets flying side-by-side in tight formation, covering an area of 3.5 square miles (9 square kilometers) in Earth orbit. That's 1,670 football fields, still only an inch thick.

What are they doing up there? Capturing the sun's energy and beaming it down to Earth to make electricity.

"What we're proposing, somewhat audaciously, is to develop the technology that would enable one to build the largest-ever-built space structures," said Harry Atwater, one of three Caltech professors leading the Space Solar Power Initiative, or SSPI. The other two are Ali Hajimiri and Sergio Pellegrino, who is also a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The work I do at Caltech benefits enormously from the things I do at JPL," Pellegrino said, "and from the people at JPL."

Read the full story from JPL News

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For much of the Earth’s population that lacks access to reliable electricity, orbiting solar panels could be a solution.
Monday, May 23, 2016
Brown Gymnasium – Scott Brown Gymnasium

Animal magnetism

Monday, February 29, 2016
Brown Gymnasium – Scott Brown Gymnasium

Animal magnetism

Toward a Sustainable Society

The Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) at Caltech honors students and scientists who have made significant contributions to finding sustainable solutions to the world's most pressing social, economic, and environmental problems. The award was established in 2009 by the Dow Chemical Company with the goal of promoting "forward thinking in social and environmental responsibility," according to the SISCA website. This year, graduate students Trevor Del Castillo and Niklas Thompson shared the $10,000 grand prize for their research developing a sustainable catalyst for nitrogen fixation.

Nitrogen is an abundant element crucial to many fertilizers and other chemicals produced on a large scale, but it must first be "fixed" from its inert gaseous state (N2) into usable reactive forms such as ammonia (NH3). The current leading process for synthesizing ammonia, the Haber-Bosch process, is expensive and energy-intense, requiring extreme temperatures and pressures (about 700 degrees Fahrenheit and 200 bars of pressure).

"From a human health perspective, fertilizer production is arguably the most important industrial chemical process that we practice," says Del Castillo. "We currently conduct this chemistry on a tremendous scale in order to feed approximately half of the global population. However, the current technology for fertilizer production is underpinned by high inputs and is hence typically practiced where fossil fuel sources are readily available and inexpensive. In addition to these energy constraints, current modes of agricultural fertilizer use are environmentally harmful and can be impractical in the developing world, where the demand for fertilizer will continue to increase moving forward."

New catalyst technologies have the potential to address this challenge. Del Castillo and Thompson—both graduate students in the laboratory of Jonas Peters, the Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute—have studied a recently discovered catalyst system to drive nitrogen fixation, resulting in improved performance and furnishing mechanistic insights. Inspired by a family of enzymes that performs biological nitrogen fixation at room temperatures and pressures, the Peters lab has demonstrated that a simple iron compound can catalyze the fixation of nitrogen gas into ammonia at very low temperature and atmospheric pressure.

"This is a field where new technology and innovation has the potential to impact global social equity and sustainable food security while reducing environmental impact," Thompson says. "Our team's work is a small step in this context, but we ultimately hope our fundamental science discoveries will inspire more practical, sustainable technologies. In principle, nitrogen fixing catalysts can be coupled to artificial photosynthesis technologies, potentially opening the door to modular, accessible, and carbon-neutral fertilizer production."

The runners-up for the SISCA prize are Cody Finke, a graduate student, and Justin Jasper, a Resnick Sustainability Institute Prize Postdoctoral Scholar. Both work in the research group of Michael Hoffmann, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science, and together they have improved upon a design for a solar-powered wastewater treatment system created for toilets in the developing and developed world. Their process combines ultraviolet (UV) irradiation and electrochemical treatment to produce water suitable for reuse in agriculture and ecosystem services.

"We proposed a hybrid electrochemical-UV system that could be used to provide efficient wastewater treatment in places where water and sewer infrastructure are not available, such as parts of the developing world," Jasper says. "We were particularly excited about our research since it suggested that adding a UV step to the process significantly accelerated treatment and limited formation of disinfection byproducts that can be detrimental to human health.  Therefore, with further work, our system may be able to provide not only wastewater treatment, but also a water source for applications such as irrigation or household cleaning."

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Where Is Solar Energy Headed?

In a new paper in ScienceNate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, reviews recent developments in solar-energy utilization and looks at some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the research and development of solar-electricity, solar-thermal, and solar-fuels technologies. Read the full paper.

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