What Could Be Key to The Future of Renewable Energy | Dr. Xingwu Wang

From 2010 to 2020, renewable energy in the United States rose 42%, making it the fastest-growing energy source in the country. With ever-rising climate change distresses tied to natural gas and coal, many experts like Dr. Xingwu Wang are looking towards renewables — such as wind power and hydropower — as the future. 

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In order to preserve energy as humanity grows, advancement on renewables is a top priority. One such scientist paving the way in renewable research and advocacy is Dr. Xingwu Wang, a professor of electrical engineering at Alfred University. Dr. Wang has engaged in testing within several related fields that could have substantial impacts in the way electric power is produced and consumed.

While the mention of bodily waste typically generates disgust, Dr. Wang and his students thought otherwise and spent time working on converting biomass — plant or animal matter — into viable sources of power. “Initially, we generated electricity from fuel cells. We converted methane or natural gas into hydrogen for fuel cells.” Some research was partially supported by Air Force, DOE (Department of Energy) and EPA. 

“Then, we looked at the biogas, which can be associated with the unpleasant smell in a bathroom from human waste. So that has energy content. If you can harvest that energy content, you can use it. Alfred is in Alleghany County of Western New York. The county only has approximately 46,000 residents.  We certainly have more animals here. So, we look at converting the cow and horse manure into the fuel.” 

“Essentially, the way you think about research is how to utilize what you learned from other projects. During my Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, I had to use costly reaction processes to fabricated superfluid and superconductor thin films in vacuum.  Here, biogas is produced from solid and liquid.  It is a management of the three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Purely from a physics point of view, one can manage or manipulate the three states.”

“Currently, students are looking at the tiny house and putting solar panels on the tiny house trying to see if the energy received on the rooftop can be providing the sustainable energy usage for the people inside of the tiny house.”

Dr. Wang – a former electrical engineer and native of China — has also focused on solar energy, an area that has seen sizable jumps in growth and efficiency across the country. “We are looking at a solar PV based microgrid with battery energy storage to provide electricity for our engineering buildings.  What we’re trying to do is to form an energy base, a power base.”

“The microgrid here initially started with a project called Solar House.  So, we did all the calculations with the students to see how much use for light, stove, microwave oven, washer and dryer,” Dr. Wang explained, noting the students eventually went to the competitions in China and California, both named Solar Decathlon.

Dr. Wang also covered the idea of connecting power grids to electrical vehicles. “Think about an electrical bus. The bus essentially takes the students from one place to the other. But then it parks there for a very long period of time. The bus essentially has a huge battery storage inside. So, if you have an electric car or bus, it can be plugged into the wall plug, connected to the electrical grid and the entire electrical network. Then, the battery becomes part of the network.”

So, when demands in your local communities are high, an automatic battery management system can take the electricity out from your battery. When the demands in your local community are low, then it can bring the electricity to charge the car battery assuming at that moment the electricity is cheaper than before. So, there is a new model for business.”

“The last 100 meter is very important for renewables, because wind turbines generators are all the way up in the sky. If you want to get more signals out of the wind generator or try to send more commands to the generator after it’s been built, you should use the last 100 meter technology, like 5G technology, to get the signals in and out of the wind generator.”

Dr. Wang’s work extends to 5G technology — also known as information communication technology (ICT) — as well. While commonly associated with providing superior data speeds and network range to devices, 5G is also being viewed as a player in the renewable landscape due to factors such as bandwidth and energy usage.

“What’s unique about 5G is that 5G can go to millimeter waves. Right now, your cell phone or my cell phone is possibly only four gigahertz. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength. It’s almost like a very short radio to form a network. So, this starts with an early wireless experiment my student did. I had a student from Sri Lanka, her name is Chatu Gunaratne. I said, ‘Chatu, what’s your passion? Why do you want to do engineering research with wireless?’ She said, ‘I really want to help elephants in my country.’” While the university didn’t have any elephants to spare, Chatu was able to use mammals in her work. “We had her do the experiment in the equestrian center, and she actually put that into her Master’s thesis.”

“She had a horse rider, a student, carrying a wireless radio signal emitter, and she could use her handheld laptop to communicate. So, 5G is a much shorter wavelength. It can be more direct. It is much easier to use because that frequency spectrum has not been used very widely. You’re not going to interfere with signals far away, because millimeter waves travel within a few hundred meters.”

“In the forum, I also talked about why nature teaches us about multilayer thin film for the energy harvesting for solar. I talked about the need of deregulation, and I talked about a need for solving energy issues. I cited the years when Jimmy Carter was President, when gasoline was very scarce and people had to line up in gas stations to get fuel.”

Dr. Wang isn’t simply one to stand in the background, however – he’s given multiple speeches on his focuses. “I went to the congressional clean forum in 2018 and gave a speech on the future of clean energy, along with other DOE and Washington think tank people.” Additionally, he discussed the energy policy issues with the scientific advisor of the local congressman while visiting the Capitol Hill. 

Deregulation is a particular aspect that could see changes with renewable energy. “There are only a few major players in the electrical market for a region. But with the renewable energy, with solar, wind and biomass, there’ll be lots more local vendors. So, when they come into play, then they will challenge the establishment. It’s very similar to the telephone business.”

“Deregulation essentially says the technology has to be in place, in addition to the business. If you give the business opportunities to be a local producer for solar, wind and biomass energy, you also need to give the technology opportunity. So, that’s the reason we believe — and we are working on — 5G wireless communication for renewable energy, because 5G can give you quicker transmission and very short latency,” Dr. Wang stated, additionally noting 5G tech gives much more control over the distribution of electricity.

“It’s a continuous reinventing of yourself. A common problem in the profession is, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, then you lose the motivation. What I try to do is different. Namely, I have about several notebooks. Not every notebook is used this minute. But I write down my thoughts and I try to use that problem to bother me. So, when I walk, when I talk, when I just do anything else, my brain is still very actively seeking for the answers. So, that’s how you get motivation.”

When it comes to motivation, Dr. Wang explained that there needs to be an issue persistent enough to give you a desire to fix it. “You have to make life interesting to you. Namely, something must be bothering you forever. You have to say, ‘I am going to solve this issue. I will find a solution.’ When I did my research on laser theory, I just got stuck. One day I was riding a University of Buffalo school bus from the old campus to the new campus. The bus suddenly went through a bump, and all of a sudden, I came up with a solution. It’s the same thing with nanomaterials.  After having difficulties for a nano magnetic problem, I had a dream about how to solve it.  So, I came up with a solution.”

“I always ask my students about the reason you come to engineering.  Did your friends tell you that you’re smart?  Did your parents tell you that you’re good with mathematics?  Did you come to engineering to make big money?  Not necessarily!  The reason you came to engineering is because something bothered you very, very early on. You think you can solve the problem to be better.”

One of the greatest benefits of Dr. Wang’s job is that he gets to witness his younger self every day in the form of his students, who have as much passion and innovation as himself. “I’m inspired by my students. The pure reason for me to go to other places and come back so many times is because of the students,” the professor explained. “They came to here and they all have passion. But what I found was a disconnection. Namely, somewhere in the high school preparation, they always have one chunk of mathematics which was not covered in their curriculum. My job essentially is to utilize their best part, to make sure they are seeing the entire picture in terms of the science and mathematics.”

“I published a paper with my colleagues and a former student, Jim Royston, who actually grew up in Alfred New York.  He is the president of L2 Aerospace, Melbourne, FL.  The paper is 2018 August American Ceramic Society Bulletin cover story called, ‘To infinity and beyond,’ where we talk about 3D printed ceramics. That’s the connection you want to create. You want to continuously educate your future. Because our life is limited, our reach is limited. But anytime in the classroom where you can affect these students and they can affect you, it’s mutually beneficial.”