Jon Knowles and Chris Bull lead the Solar Pavilion project

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Brown University are working together to demonstrate the capture, storage, and delivery of thermally generated electricity, harnessed by means of the Stirling Engine. The Stirling Engine operates by the cyclic compression and expansion of air or other gas at different temperature levels for a net conversion of heat energy into mechanical energy. Working with industry partner Viessmann Manufacturing Company, Principal Investigator Jonathan Knowles (Department of Architecture, RISD) and Co-Principal Investigator Christopher Bull (Division of Engineering, Brown University) are currently building a small demonstration structure powered by a thermal electric system. The Brown/RISD project will demonstrate that a Stirling Engine incorporated into a Passive House, an airtight structure with high-performance insulation and windows, can capture enough heat from the skin of the building to deliver electricity for a comfortable space for human occupation that consumes no fossil fuels or uses expensive photovoltaic technology.

Employing solar energy as the heat source, the Stirling Engine has zero emissions, making it one of the most sustainable options available for the generation of electricity.  The project–a stepping-stone toward the goal of a sustainable building industry–holds great potential for future investment and commercialization. The project’s innovative use of the Stirling Engine has the capacity to change the way that buildings operate. Integrated solar thermal design liberates a building from nonrenewable resources and eliminates the use of toxic and inefficient batteries. Developing the Stirling engine’s capacity has the potential to make the State of Rhode Island more competitive for research funding and addresses one of the world’s most pressing concerns–the need for alternative energy and reduced energy needs. The Stirling Engine is part of the rapidly growing micro-power market, which aims to provide power for homes and smaller communities and reduce reliance on the conventional utility grid.

Interdisciplinary collaboration and industry partnership are central to the success of this project. RISD and Brown University have strong track records of research collaboration with a broad array of industry, government, and institutional partners which positions the project well for industry support and opportunities for a wide array of applications in the commercial and domestic building sector. RISD is contributing architectural design, Brown University contributes systems engineering, and Viessmann brings material support. Knowles and Bull have worked for over two years to advance this applied research to the final stage for testing. The project received seed funding from the RISD Research Foundation and both RISD and Brown have already committed significant resources to the project. The project will be accomplished in two stages. Stage I includes engineering, designing, and prefabrication of the proof-of-concept structure, which is ongoing. Stage II includes deploying the structure on-site at Roger Williams Park and post-construction testing and monitoring of the engine performance. Knowles has taught two advanced design studios related to the proposed project and directed the construction of the passive house. During Spring 2010 students at Brown University began to study the capacity of the Stirling Engine and fabricated a small working model. Deployment in the public sphere will ensure the relevance, precision and applicability of the research.

The Solar Pavilion is currently situated on South Water Street, within sight of Providence’s historic power station, “Dynamo House”.

Brown/RISD, Division of Architecture + Design, Faculty, Jonathan Knowles, Sustainability + the Environment

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