Author Archives: Charles Xie

Energy3D turns the globe into a powerful engineering design lab for everyone

Fig. 1: Dots represent regions supported in Energy3D.
Many of the readers of my blog may not know Energy3D is, in fact, also a Google Maps application. Energy3D allows users to import a satellite image of a site through the Google Maps API as the "ground image" in its 3D coordinate system, on top of which users can draw 3D structures such as buildings or power plants. Built-in simulation engines can then be used to test and analyze these structures without having to switch to another tool and leave the scene (something known as "concurrent analysis" in the CAD industry). These engines use large geographical and weather datasets for the site as inputs for simulations to accurately take environmental factors such as air temperature and solar radiation into account. As the climate is probably the single most important factor that drives the energy usage in buildings where we live and work, it is important to use weather data from a typical meteorological year (TMY) in a simulation. If no weather data is available for the site, Energy3D will automatically select the nearest location from a network of more than 525 supported worldwide regions (Figure 1) when you import the satellite image from Google Maps. The following table lists the numbers of regions in 176 countries that are currently supported in Energy3D. The United States is covered by a network of 164 nodes. So if you are in the United States, you will have a better chance to find a location that may represent the climate of your area.

Afghanistan 1 Albania 1 Algeria 6
Angola 1 Argentina 3 Armenia 1
Australia 11 Austria 1 Azerbaijan 1
Bahamas 1 Bahrain 1 Bangladesh 1
Belarus 1 Belgium 1 Belize 1
Bolivia 1 Bosnia & Herzegovina 1 Botswana 1
Brazil 8 Brunei 1 Bulgaria 1
Burkina Faso 1 Burundi 1 Cambodia 1
Cameroon 1 Canada 10 Cape Verde 1
Central African Republic 1 Chad 1 Chile 12
China 42 Colombia 2 Comoros 1
Congo 1 Costa Rica 1 Croatia 1
Cuba 1 Cyprus 2 Czech 1
DR Congo 1 Denmark 1 Djibouti 1
Dominica 1 Dominican Republic 1 East Timor 1
Ecuador 1 Egypt 1 El Salvador 1
Equatorial Guinea 1 Eritrea 1 Estonia 1
Ethiopia 1 Fiji 2 Finland 1
France 8 Gabon 1 Gambia 1
Georgia 1 Germany 12 Ghana 1
Greece 2 Guatemala 1 Guinea 1
Guinea-Bissau 1 Guyana 1 Haiti 1
Honduras 1 Hungary 1 Iceland 1
India 11 Indonesia 4 Iran 3
Iraq 1 Ireland 1 Israel 1
Italy 5 Ivory Coast 1 Jamaica 1
Japan 6 Jerusalem 1 Jordan 1
Kazakhstan 1 Kenya 1 Kosovo 1
Kuwait 1 Kyrgyzstan 1 Laos 1
Latvia 1 Lebanon 1 Lesotho 1
Liberia 1 Libya 2 Liechtenstein 1
Lithuania 1 Luxembourg 1 Macedonia 1
Madagascar 1 Malawi 1 Malaysia 2
Maldives 1 Mali 1 Malta 1
Marshall Islands 1 Mauritania 1 Mauritius 1
Mexico 4 Moldova 1 Monaco 1
Mongolia 1 Montenegro 1 Morocco 3
Mozambique 1 Myanmar 2 Namibia 1
Nepal 1 Netherlands 1 New Zealand 2
Nicaragua 1 Niger 1 Nigeria 1
North Korea 1 Norway 1 Oman 1
Pakistan 4 Panama 1 Papua New Guinea 1
Paraguay 1 Peru 2 Philippines 1
Poland 7 Portugal 2 Qatar 1
Republic of China 2 Romania 1 Russia 7
Rwanda 1 Saudi Arabia 2 Senegal 1
Serbia 2 Sierra Leone 1 Singapore 1
Slovakia 1 Slovenia 1 Solomon Islands 1
Somalia 1 South Africa 8 South Korea 2
South Pole 1 South Sudan 1 Spain 8
Sri Lanka 1 Sudan 1 Sweden 1
Switzerland 3 Syria 2 Tajikistan 1
Tanzania 2 Thailand 2 Togo 1
Trinidad & Tobago 1 Tunisia 1 Turkey 3
Turkmenistan 1 Uganda 1 Ukraine 2
United Arab Emirates 2 United Kingdom 6 United States 164
Uruguay 1 Uzbekistan 1 Venezuela 1
Vietnam 2 Western Sahara 1 Yemen 1
Zambia 1 Zimbabwe 1

Fig. 2: Solar sites in Fitchburg, MA.
Energy3D's capability of turning Google Maps into a gigantic virtual engineering design lab has tremendous potential in STEM education and energy revolution. It allows students to pick and choose sites for designing renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions that are most relevant to their lives, such as their home and school buildings (Figure 2). It gives students an authentic tool that supports them to scientifically investigate all sorts of possibilities to design a more sustainable world and effectively communicate their ideas to the public. And, most importantly, with Energy3D being a free tool that anyone can use at zero cost, this can happen at the global scale to engage every student in the world to act now and make a difference!

This global vision is not new. Back in 1995, the National Science Foundation funded my colleagues Boris Berenfeld, Bob Tinker, and Dan Barstow, who were at TERC at that time, a grant to develop a curriculum that they touted as the Globe Lab. The Global Lab Curriculum meant to provide an interdisciplinary, one-year course at the secondary level that supports science standards and school reform through intercultural, scientifically meaningful, and collaborative student investigations in environmental studies. Students were given the opportunity to experience all aspects of genuine scientific research: problem identification, background study, project design, collaboration, data analysis, and communication.

Fig. 3: Solar power plants around the world.
More than 20 years later, technology has advanced so much that we now have many more resources and tools to rethink about this idea. With Google Maps and weather data for countless regions in the world, Energy3D is poised to become a true example of Globe Lab for science and engineering. The integration of the software and our Solarize Your World Curriculum with the current, unstoppable waves of renewable energy innovation and movement worldwide will create numerous exciting possibilities for youth to become truly involved and engaged in shaping their world and their future (Figure 3). While we undertake this grand challenge, it is utterly important to keep in mind that renewable energy does not just stand for some kind of green ideology related only to potential tax hikes -- it also represents trillions of dollars worth of business opportunities and investment in the coming decades committed by almost all governments on the planet to revamp the world's energy infrastructure to provide cleaner air and healthier environment for their citizens. Given this level of global significance, our work will only become more essential and the implications will only become more profound.

As we are mourning the loss of Bob Tinker, one of the architects of the Global Lab Curriculum, carrying on this line of work will be the best way to remember his visions, honor his contributions, and celebrate his life.

Modeling parabolic troughs in Energy3D

Fig. 1. The absorber tube of a parabolic trough
A parabolic trough is a type of concentrated solar collector that is straight in one dimension and curved as a parabola in the other two, lined with mirrors. Sunlight that enters the trough is focused on an absorber tube aligned along the focal line of the parabola, heating up the fluid in the tube (Figures 1 and 2). If the parabolic trough is for generating electricity, the heated fluid is then used to vaporize water and drive a turbine engine. A power plant usually consists of many rows of parabolic troughs.

Fig. 2. A view from the absorber tube.
Parabolic troughs are another common form of concentrated solar power (CSP), in addition to solar power towers that Energy3D has already supported (there are two other types of CSP technologies: Dish Stirling and Fresnel reflectors, but they are not very common). According to Wikipedia, there are currently more parabolic trough-based CSP plants than tower-based ones.

In the latest version of Energy3D (V7.0.6), users can now add any number of parabolic troughs of any shape and size to design a solar thermal power plant.

Fig. 3: Parabolic troughs at different times of the day

Parabolic troughs are most commonly aligned in the north-south axis so that they can rotate to track the sun from east to west during the day. This kind of trackers for parabolic troughs works in a way similar to the horizontal single-axis tracker (HSAT) for driving photovoltaic solar panel arrays. You can observe their motions when you change the time or date or animate the movement of the sun in Energy3D. Figure 3 illustrates this.

Like photovoltaic solar panel arrays, parabolic troughs have the inter-row shadowing problem as well. So the distance between adjacent rows of parabolic troughs cannot be too small, either. But unlike solar power towers, parabolic troughs do not have reflection blocking issues among mirrors. Figure 4 shows this.

This new addition greatly enhances Energy3D's capability of modeling CSP plants, moving the software closer to the goal of being a one-stop shop for exploring all sorts of solar solutions. In the coming weeks, we will start to build 3D models for parabolic troughs in the real world.
Fig. 4: Inter-row shadowing in parabolic trough arrays

Robert F. Tinker (1941-2017)

Concord Consortium Senior Scientist Charles Xie remembers our founder Bob Tinker who passed away on June 21st. For more personal stories about Bob and his impact, and to share your own, visit rememberingbob.concord.org

It is in deep sadness that we mourned the passing of Dr. Robert Tinker on June 21, 2017. Bob was the founder of the Concord Consortium and the Virtual High School. For 18 years, he had been my mentor, friend, and supporter. It is hard to accept the fact that he is no longer with us.

My collaboration with Bob began in 1999, when I was doing a term of postdoc in the field of computational biophysics at the newly-established University of Cyprus. My job was to write computer code to simulate molecular motion and quantum transport in proteins. As it is difficult to imagine these nanoscopic processes from raw data generated in simulations, I had to resort to developing real-time, interactive visualizations of simulations so that I could make sense of the results. It was at this point that our trajectories merged. Around that time, Bob and colleague Dr. Boris Berenfeld just got a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a tool that can visualize the motions of molecules and allow students to mess with them, hoping to create a powerful virtual "microscope" that can bring the obscure molecular dynamics to life on the computer screen for everyone. While Boris was surfing the then-barren Internet to find who had done what in this tiny niche, he came across my Java Molecular Dynamics applet that I created for the purpose of teaching myself Java while experimenting with interactive molecular dynamics. Boris, Bob, and Barbara (Bob's wife) immediately realized that the applet was exactly what they were looking for. After a few rounds of email exchanges, they hired me as a consultant for the project.

While we made progress on the development of what became the Molecular Workbench software later, the plan to employ me as a staff scientist at the Concord Consortium didn't go so well. For some reason, I couldn't come to the U.S. for a job interview (there was no video conference software at that time and it costed more than $3 per minute to make an international call). So Bob decided to stop by Cyprus on his way to an international conference in Israel to make sure that I wasn't just a cat that happened to know how to hit the keyboard in the right places. Even though I didn't know much about the American culture back then, the language of science needed no translation. So we hit it off at the meeting (except that it was kind of weird that the interviewee was actually the host and the interviewer was actually the guest). I made sure that he had enough authentic Mediterranean meze platters and got a chance to submerge himself in the pristine water of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea before he headed back to the States.

I arrived in the U.S. at the end of 2000, basically having nothing but a suitcase. Bob and Barbara welcomed me with an open house and gave me a room to stay for a while until I could find a place of my own. In the next eight years until he "retired," I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to him almost every workday as our offices were right next to each other. As we all remember, he was always optimistic, even in dark times such as September 11, 2001. As the years went by, funding at the Concord Consortium went up and down, but he was such a gifted grant writer that he could always manage to grab some money to keep me focused on the Molecular Workbench project until I became fully independent and found my own path and passion. After he and Barbara retreated to their retirement home in Amherst, they continued to invest their time and energy in the future of the organization. Bob went on to pen many proposals and secured a series of large grants to fund important work at the organization. Unlike many people who think programming and tinkering are "low level" jobs that the Principal Investigators should not have to do, Bob had always been creating his own prototypes and conducting his own experiments all the time to get firsthand experiences. This is probably the reason why he was so insightful with his ideas -- one cannot possibly have a deep understanding about the world if one does not bother to explore in it. He just loved science, programming, and teaching so much that he never stopped learning, thinking, and working until his final days. It is very hard for me to hold back my tears while writing about his last request to me just a few weeks ago, asking me to carry on some work on electronics that he couldn't complete because of illness. With that, he had completely dedicated his entire life to STEM.

Bob's vision about STEM education always put innovation first. He had transcribed the DNA of innovation into the Concord Consortium. His spirit had translated into a culture of innovation that is driving our research and development. With many new emerging technologies, the future ahead of us is full of exciting opportunities. With the combined power and promise of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and mixed reality (VR/AR/MR), the next decade will undoubtedly bring a new wave of innovation to propel STEM education to a higher level. As a pioneer of probeware for science education who completely understood the pivotal importance of sensors in IoT systems and embedded intelligence, Bob would have been thrilled to set out to explore these new territories with us.

Khi Solar One

Khi Solar One (KSO) is a 50 MW solar power tower plant located in Upington, South Africa, which was commissioned in February, 2016. KSO has 4,120 heliostats on 346 acres of land. Each heliostat is as large as 140 square meters, reflecting sunlight to a tower as tall as 205 meters. KSO has two hours of thermal storage. The power plant is expected to generate a total of 180 GWh per year.

A low-resolution simulation of Energy3D predicts that on February 28 (close to when the Google Maps image was most likely taken) and June 28 (a winter day in the southern hemisphere), the total daily input to the solar tower (not the output of electricity generated by the turbines) is about 2.6 MWh and 1.9 MWh, respectively, as is shown in the graphs below.

The Energy3D model of the KSO can be downloaded from this web page, along with other solar power plants.



Creating computer models for all solar thermal power plants in the world

Fig. 1: Energy3D models for six solar power towers
Fig. 2: The Gemasolar Plant
One of the unique features of Energy3D is its ability to model, design, and simulate solar power towers. Figure 1 shows the Energy3D models for six solar power towers: Gemosolar (Spain), PS10 (Spain), PS20 (Spain), Greenway (Turkey), Themis (France), and Badaling (China). To support the research and development on concentrated solar power (CSP) -- a solar power solution alternative to photovoltaic (PV) arrays that may be able to provide some baseload capacity, I have been working on creating a library of 3D models for all the existing and planned solar thermal power plants in the world. The ultimate goal is to develop Energy3D into a versatile CAD tool for all forms of CSP (and PV), based on accurate simulation of existing plants first. The acquisition of the capability of reliably modeling both CSP and PV will enable Energy3D to truly support our Solarize Your World Initiative.

Fig. 3: The Gemasolar Plant
Fig. 4: The Gemasolar plant (June 30)
This article shows a bit of progress towards that goal. I have recently added in Energy3D weather data for scores of sites that already have CSP plants or are planning to build CSP plants. Many of these new sites are in Africa, China, Europe, and South America (some of them were requested by our users in Algeria and Chile). These newly added locations bring the total number of sites supported in Energy3D to more than 250. This growing network should provide you weather data that are approximately applicable to your site (but let me know if your site is not currently covered by Energy3D to your satisfaction). When you import your Earth view in Energy3D, the software will automatically choose the supported location that is closest to your site. If there is already a power tower, you can use the length and direction of its shadow in the picture to estimate the date and time when the picture was taken -- this can be done by turning on the shadow and adjusting the date and time spinner of Energy3D until the calculated shadow approximately aligns with the real shadow. After this is done, the heliostats that you add to the scene will approximately point to the same direction as in the image.

In this article, I picked the impressive Gemosolar Thermosolar Plant near the city of Seville, Spain as a showcase. The plant has 2,650 heliostats on 520 acres of land, each of which is as large as 120 square meters. The tower is 140 meters tall. The annual output is approximately 110 GWh. With molten salt tanks, it can store up to 15 hours of energy. Using a low-resolution setting, it takes Energy3D 5-10 minutes to complete a daily simulation and up to a couple of hours to complete an annual simulation. If you can afford to wait longer, you can always increase the simulation resolution and improve the accuracy of results (e.g., more points on the reflectors better account for blocking and shadowing losses).

A Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm

Fig. 1: An aerial view of the Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm
Fig. 2: An Energy3D model of the Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm
If I didn't tell you that this is an actual solar farm near the Epcot Theme Park in the Disney World in Orlando, Florida, you probably would think this is some kind of school project done by kids. But no, this 22-acre 5 MW project was designed and installed by Duke Energy and it has been powering Disney World's facilities since 2016 (Figure 1 is an image from Disney.com). So this is some kind of serious business and has drawn a lot of media attention. The solar farm is so new that even the latest version of Google Maps in May 2017 still does not show it (it is available through Google Maps API that we are using, though).

By shaping the beloved Mickey Mouse character with tens of thousands of solar panels, Disney World has delivered a strong message to the world that the company is committed to a sustainable future.

Fig. 3: A solar radiation heat map representation (June 22).
But who says that kids should not do this? Perhaps they couldn't do it because of the lack of appropriate support and tool. Not any more. Thanks to the support from the National Science Foundation, our powerful Energy3D software and our Solarize Your World curriculum can probably turn every wild imagination in solar power into virtual reality, particularly for children who may need more inquiry- and design-based activities that connect so deeply to their world and their future. Figure 2 shows a model of the Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm in Energy3D and Figure 3 shows a heat map representation of the solar radiation onto the solar panel arrays.

Designing ground-mounted solar panel arrays: Part III

Fig. 1: Rows of solar panels on racks in a solar farm
The most common configuration of solar farms is perhaps arrays consisting of rows of solar panel racks such as shown in Figure 1. But have you ever thought about why? Can we challenge this conventional wisdom?

Fig.2: Cover the field with horizontally-placed solar panels
Obviously, some inter-row spacing allows for easier cleaning and maintenance and, perhaps, even integration with agricultural farming (e.g., growing mushrooms that prefer shaded areas). But let's put those benefits aside for now and just consider the energy part of the problem. Let me point out a fact: If we completely cover the entire field with solar panels with zero tilt angle and zero gap (Figure 2), we are guaranteed to capture almost every single photon that strikes the area regardless of time and location. Such a simple-minded "design" will produce the maximal output of any given field at any location and time and there is absolutely no such problem as inter-row shading. So what solar design?
Fig. 3: Comparing two hypothetical fields.

It turns out that, although the simple-minded design can surely generate maximum electricity, each individual solar panel in it does not necessarily generate a maximum amount of electricity over the course of a year, compared with other designs. In other words, it may just use more solar panels to generate more electricity. As engineering design must consider cost effectiveness and even put it as a top priority, an engineer's job is then to look for a better solution that maximizes the production of each solar panel.

Fig. 4: Compare outputs of single panels in two fields (Boston).
A great advantage of Energy3D is that it allows one to experiment with ideas rapidly. So let's create a field with tilted rows of solar panels and leave some gap between them and then use the Group Analysis Tools to compare the daily and annual outputs of individual solar panels in the two hypothetical fields (Figure 3). And let's assume the fields are in Boston.

Fig. 5: Compare outputs of single panels in two fields (Phoenix).
Figure 4 shows that the total annual output of a single solar panel in the field of tilted rows is nearly 20% higher than that of a single solar panel in the field of flat cover in Boston (42° N). In this simulation, the tilt angle was set to be equal to the latitude. This cost effectiveness is one of the main reasons why we choose tilted rows of solar panels in high-latitude areas (aside from the fact that tilted angles allow rain to wash panels more efficiently and snow to slide from them more quickly).

Caveat for low-latitude locations


Fig. 6: Compare outputs of single panels in two fields (Mexico).
Note that this result applies only to high-latitude areas such as Boston. If we are designing solar farms for tropical areas such as Singapore, the story may be completely different. In low-latitude areas, small or even zero tilt angles make sense. Therefore, the design principle may be to cover the field with as many solar panels as possible or to use trackers to increase individual outputs (whichever is more economic depends on the relative prices of solar panels and solar trackers that change all the time). You can experiment with Energy3D to find out at which latitude this principle starts to become dominant. Figure 5 shows that the results in cities with a lower latitude such as Phoenix (33° N) and Mexico City (19° N) in North America. In the case of Phoenix, AZ, the gain from the tilted rows drops to about 10%. In the case of Mexico City, it drops to 5%. So designing a ground-mounted solar array for Mexico may be very different from designing a ground-mounted solar array for Canada.

National Science Foundation funds research and development of an IoT platform for smart schools

Fig. 1: A schematic illustration of IoT as a STEM learning integrator
Future sustainable and resilient infrastructure is expected to be powered by renewable energy, be able to respond intelligently to changes in the environment, and support smart and connected communities. We are pleased to announce that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded our team a $2.9 million, four-year grant to explore the STEM education and workforce development challenges and opportunities in the coming transformation of our nation's infrastructure.

One of the core innovations will be a cyber-physical engineering platform for designing Internet of Things (IoT) systems that manage the resources, space, and processes of a community based on real-time analysis of data collected by various sensors. This innovation is potentially transformative as it can turn the entire building of a home, the entire campus of a school, or the entire area of a town into an engineering laboratory with virtually unlimited opportunities for learning, research, and exploration.

Fig. 2: A possible IoT system for managing a parking lot
Designing an IoT system provides plenty of opportunities to learn math, science, engineering, and computation practices in an integrated fashion, rather than in isolation. Working with sensors allows students to learn the science behind them through inquiry. For example, to calibrate an IoT system, students must understand what specific variables the sensor data represent scientifically. They must analyze the data to explore in what ranges the variables are supposed to vary in different scenarios in order to determine which type of response should be triggered, to what, and when. The acquired knowledge is then applied to the design of an IoT system, which requires engineering design thinking to make trade-off decisions, optimize system performance, and achieve cost effectiveness. Finally, the control, response, and integration of the entire system are realized through computer programming that deals with all foreseeable complexities. The overlaps among three basic skills—scientific reasoning, design thinking, and computational thinking—supported by the IoT platform provide researchers an opportunity to study their integration, as illustrated in Figure 1. (In fact, mathematical thinking is also involved, but let's just leave that out for now.)

This project is unique to engineering and computer science education because IoT is not only a crucial part of electrical engineering and information technology, but it is also one of the few ways through which computer programming can be directly linked to scientific inquiry and engineering design in the material world. Figure 2 provides an example.

This work is supported by the NSF under grant number 1721054. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper, however, are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

A complete 3D model of the PS20 solar power plant

According to Wikipedia, the 20 MW PS20 Solar Power Plant in Seville, Spain consists of a solar field of 1,255 heliostats. Each heliostat, with a surface area of 120 square meters(!), automatically tracks the sun on two axes and reflects the solar radiation it receives onto the central receiver, located at the top of a tower that is as tall as 165 meters. The concentrated heat vaporizes water and produces steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. The Wikipedia page mentions that PS20 uses a thermal storage system, but it is not clear whether it is a molten salt tank or not.

PS20 generates about 48,000 MWh per year, or roughly 132 MWh per day on average without considering seasonal variations.

The full 3D model of the PS20 plant is now available in Energy3D and can be downloaded from http://energy.concord.org/energy3d/designs/ps20-solar-tower.ng3. While it generally costs hundreds of millions of dollars to design and build such a futuristic power plant, it costs absolutely nothing to do so in the virtual space of Energy3D. In a way, Energy3D gives everyone, especially those in developing nations, a powerful tool to explore the solar potential of their regions. Whether you live in a desert or on the coast, near or far away from the equator, in cities or rural areas, you can imagine all sorts of possibilities with it.

I am working on heat transfer, energy conversion, and thermal storage models that can predict the electricity generation accurately. Right now, Energy3D estimates the raw solar radiation input to the receiver on June 22 to be about 656 MWh, considering all the shadowing and blocking losses. If the system efficiency of heat transfer and energy conversion is in the range of 30-50%, then Energy3D's prediction will fall into a reasonable range.

Artificial intelligence research for engineering design

Have you ever thought about what a pity it is when a senior engineer with 40 years of problem-solving experience retires? Have you ever thought about what a loss it is when a senior teacher with 40 years of teaching experience retires? Imagine what we could do for humanity if we find a way to somehow preserve their experience, expertise, and intelligence automatically before these incredible treasures are taken to the graveyard...

Heat map visualizations of different patterns of design task transition
Funded by the National Science Foundation, I have been working on the research and development of artificial intelligence (AI) for engineering design for a number of years and have been developing the Visual Process Analytics for visualizing and analyzing engineering design process data. This exciting intersection among AI (basically everything about how intelligence can be realized), engineering (basically a generative and creative discipline), and cognitive science (basically everything about how humans acquire intelligence) is full of tremendous challenges, but it also creates unprecedented opportunities that constantly entice and enlighten me.

I have recently written a short article to explain my research to the lay people (mostly educators, but the implications are not limited only to education). Check it out at http://energy.concord.org/~xie/papers/aired.pdf