Tag Archives: Engineering design

Simulating concentrated solar power plants using Energy3D

Concentrated solar power (CSP) systems generate electricity using arrays of mirrors to concentrate sunlight shed on a large area onto a small area. The concentrated light is converted into thermal energy, which then drives a heat engine connected to an electrical power generator. Put it simply, a CSP power station operates like a solar cooker that you might have made in a high school science project. You can think of it as a gigantic solar cooker.


But a small science idea like this could turn into big money. For example, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the California Mojave Desert, which drew $2.2 billion of investment, generates 392 megawatts (MW) -- enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes. As of 2016, the largest CSP project in the world is the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station in Morocco, which is expected to output 580 MW at peak and cost about $9 billion. Globally, CSP power stations will generate 4,705 MW this year.


CSP stations do not need to be only large-scale. Small-scale CSP stations (below 1 MW, on-grid or off-grid) may provide more flexible and affordable solutions to communities, especially those in rural areas. They provide attractive alternatives to photovoltaic power stations. Reflecting mirrors would probably cost less and last longer than solar panels and there is no concern of outdated or degraded efficiency. The latter is an issue for solar panels if you consider that, in just six years, the latest 24.1% of solar cell efficiency of commercial panels in 2016 almost render those 12%-efficiency panels installed in 2010 obsolete and more breakthroughs forecast down the road will only make the old ones look less pretty.

To support the exploration of all kinds of solar energy exploitation, we have added the initial capacity to model CSP power stations in our Energy3D software, which is intended to be a "one-stop-shop" for solar energy modeling and design. This includes the capability of adding mirrors, heliostats, and power towers and analyzing the outputs as a function of time, location, and weather. This article shows some of the graphic effects of solar power towers (with more than 500 reflectors, each of which has the size of 2 by 3 meters, amounting to a total reflecting area of more than 3,000 square meters). The last figure demonstrates how heliostats change the orientations of the reflectors at different times of the day (the selected date is June 22 and the selected location is Phoenix, AZ).

In the months to come, we plan to enhance Energy3D's ability to model various kinds of heliostats and various configurations of solar thermal power (e.g., parabolic trough and Fresnel reflectors). Currently, only the alt-azimuth tracking mechanism and flat mirrors are implemented.

I have blogged about Energy3D's capacity to simulate large-scale photovoltaic power stations. This new capacity of simulating CSP stations has enabled Energy3D to model and design two of the three main types of solar power plants.

Simulating photovoltaic power plants with Energy3D

Modeling 1,000 PV panels in a desert
Solar radiation simulation
We have just added new modeling capacities to our Energy3D software for simulating photovoltaic (PV) power stations. With these additions, the latest version of the software can now simulate rooftop solar panels, solar parks, and solar power plants. Our plan is to develop Energy3D into a "one stop shop" for solar simulations. The goal is to provide students an accessible (yet powerful) tool to learn science and engineering in the context of renewable energy and professionals an easy-to-use (yet accurate) tool to design, predict, and optimize renewable energy generation.

Users can easily copy and paste solar panels to create an array and then duplicate arrays to create more arrays. In this way, users can rapidly add many solar panels. Each solar panel can be rotated around three different axes (normal, zenith, and azimuth). With this flexibility, users can create a PV array in any direction and orientation. At any time, they can adjust the direction and orientation of any or all solar panels.
PV arrays that are oriented differently


What is in the design of a solar power plant? While the orientation is a no-brainer, the layout may need some thinking and planning, especially for a site that has a limited area. Another factor that affects the layout is the design of the solar tracking system used to maximize the output. Also, considering that many utility companies offer peak and off-peak prices for electricity, users may explore strategies of orienting some PV arrays towards the west or southwest for the solar power plant to produce more energy in the afternoon when the demand is high in the summer, especially in the south.

Rooftop PV arrays
In addition to designing PV arrays on the ground, users can do the same thing for flat rooftops as well. Unlike solar panels on pitched roofs of residential buildings, those on flat roofs of large buildings are usually tilted.

We are currently implementing solar trackers so that users can design solar power plants that maximize their outputs based on tracking the sun. Meanwhile, mirror reflector arrays will be added to support the design of concentrated solar power plants. These features should be available soon. Stay tuned!

Energy3D makes designing realistic buildings easy

The annual yield and cost benefit analyses of rooftop solar panels based on sound scientific and engineering principles are critical steps to the financial success of building solarization. Google's Project Sunroof provides a way for millions of property owners to get recommendations for the right solar solutions.



Another way to conduct accurate scientific analysis of solar panel outputs based on their layout on the rooftop is to use a computer-aided engineering (CAE) tool to do a three-dimensional, full-year analysis based on ab initio scientific simulation. Under the support of the National Science Foundation since 2010, we have been developing Energy3D, a piece of CAE software that has the goal of bringing the power of sophisticated scientific and engineering simulations to children and laypersons. To achieve this goal, a key step is to support users to rapidly sketch up their own buildings and the surrounding objects that may affect their solar potentials. We feel that most CAD tools out there are probably too difficult for average users to create realistic models of their own houses. This forces us to invent new solutions.

We have recently added countless new features to Energy3D to progress towards this goal. The latest version allows many common architectural styles found in most parts of the US to be created and their solar potential to be studied. The screenshots embedded in this article demonstrate this capability. With the current version, each of these designs took myself approximately an hour to create from scratch. But we will continue to push the limit.

The 3D construction user interface has been developed based on the tenet of supporting users to create any structure using a minimum set of building blocks and operations. Once users master a relatively small set of rules, they are empowered to create almost any shape of building as they wish.

Solar yield analysis of the first house
The actual time-consuming part is to get the right dimension and orientation of a real building and the surrounding tall objects such as trees.
Google's 3D map may provide a way to extract these data. Once the approximate geometry of a building is determined, users can easily put solar panels anywhere on the roof to check out their energy yield. They can then try as many different layouts as they wish to compare the yields and select an optimal layout. This is especially important for buildings that may have partial shades and sub-optimal orientations. CAE tools such as Energy3D can be used to do spatial and temporal analysis and report daily outputs of each panel in the array, allowing users to obtain fine-grained, detailed results and thus providing a good simulation of solar panels in day-to-day operation.

The engineering principles behind this solar design, assessment, and optimization process based on science is exactly what the Next Generation Science Standards require K-12 students in the US to learn and practice. So why not ask children for help to solarize their own homes, schools, and communities, at least virtually? The time for doing this can never be better. And we have paved the road for this vision by creating one of easiest 3D interfaces with compelling scientific visualizations that can potentially entice and engage a lot of students. It is time for us to test the idea.

To see more designs, visit this page.

Listen to the data with the Visual Process Analytics


Visual analytics provides a powerful way for people to see patterns and trends in data by visualizing them. In real life, we use both our eyes and ears. So can we hear patterns and trends if we listen to the data?

I spent a few days studying the JavaScript Sound API and adding simple data sonification to our Visual Process Analytics (VPA) to explore this question. I don't know where including the auditory sense to the analytics toolkit may lead us, but you never know. It is always good to experiment with various ideas.


Note that the data sonification capabilities of VPA is very experimental at this point. To make the matter worse, I am not a musician by any stretch of the imagination. So the generated sounds in the latest version of VPA may sound horrible to you. But this represents a step forward to better interactions with complex learner data. As my knowledge about music improves, the data should sound less terrifying.

The first test feature added to VPA is very simple: It just converts a time series into a sequence of notes and rests. To adjust the sound, you can change a number of parameters such as pitch, duration, attack, decay, and oscillator types (sine, square, triangle, sawtooth, etc.). All these options are available through the context menu of a time series graph.

At the same time as the sound plays, you can also see a synchronized animation of VPA (as demonstrated by the embedded videos). This means that from now on VPA is a multimodal analytic tool. But I have no plan to rename it as data visualization is still and will remain dominant for the data mining platform.

The next step is to figure out how to synthesize better sounds from multiple types of actions as multiple sources or instruments (much like the Song from Pi). I will start with sonifying the scatter plot in VPA. Stay tuned.

What’s new in Visual Process Analytics Version 0.3


Visual Process Analytics (VPA) is a data mining platform that supports research on student learning through using complex tools to solve complex problems. The complexity of this kind of learning activities of students entails complex process data (e.g., event log) that cannot be easily analyzed. This difficulty calls for data visualization that can at least give researchers a glimpse of the data before they can actually conduct in-depth analyses. To this end, the VPA platform provides many different types of visualization that represent many different aspects of complex processes. These graphic representations should help researchers develop some sort of intuition. We believe VPA is an essential tool for data-intensive research, which will only grow more important in the future as data mining, machine learning, and artificial intelligence play critical roles in effective, personalized education.

Several new features were added to Version 0.3, described as follows:

1) Interactions are provided through context menus. Context menus can be invoked by right-clicking on a visualization. Depending on where the user clicks, a context menu provides the available actions applicable to the selected objects. This allows a complex tool such as VPA to still have a simple, pleasant user interface.

2) Result collectors allow users to gather analysis results and export them in the CSV format. VPA is a data browser that allows users to navigate in the ocean of data from the repositories it connects to. Each step of navigation invokes some calculations behind the scenes. To collect the results of these calculations in a mining session, VPA now has a simple result collector that automatically keeps track of the user's work. A more sophisticated result manager is also being conceptualized and developed to make it possible for users to manage their data mining results in a more flexible way. These results can be exported if needed to be analyzed further using other software tools.

3) Cumulative data graphs are available to render a more dramatic view of time series. It is sometimes easier to spot patterns and trends in cumulative graphs. This cumulative analysis applies to all levels of granularity of data supported by VPA (currently, the three granular levels are Top, Medium, and Fine, corresponding to three different ways to categorize action data). VPA also provides a way for users to select variables from a list to be highlighted in cumulative graphs.

Many other new features were also added in this version. For example, additional information about classes and students are provided to contextualize each data set. In the coming weeks, the repository will incorporate data from more than 1,200 students in Indiana who have undertaken engineering design projects using our Energy3D software. This unprecedented large-scale database will potentially provide a goldmine of research data in the area of engineering design study.

For more information about VPA, see my AERA 2016 presentation.

Daily energy analysis in Energy3D

Fig. 1: The analyzed house.
Energy3D already provides a set of powerful analysis tools that users can use to analyze the annual energy performance of their designs. For experts, the annual analysis tools are convenient as they can quickly evaluate their designs based on the results. For novices who are trying to understand how the energy graphs are calculated (or skeptics who are not sure whether they should trust the results), the annual analysis is sometimes a bit like a black box. This is because if there are too many variables (which, in this case, are seasonal changes of solar radiation and weather) to deal with at once, we will be overwhelmed. The total energy data are the results of two astronomic cycles: the daily cycle (caused by the spin of the Earth itself) and the annual cycle (caused by the rotation of the Earth around the Sun). This is why novices have a hard time reasoning with the results.

Fig. 2: Daily light sensor data in four seasons.
To help users reduce one layer of complexity and make sense of the energy data calculated in Energy3D simulations, a new class of daily analysis tools has been added to Energy3D. These tools allow users to pick a day to do the energy analyses, limiting the graphs to the daily cycle.

For example, we can place three sensors on the east, south, and west sides of the house shown in Figure 1. Then we can pick four days -- January 1st, April 1st, July 1st, and October 1st -- to represent the four seasons. Then we run a simulation for each day to collect the corresponding sensor data. The results are shown in Figure 2. These show that in the winter, the south-facing side receives the highest intensity of solar radiation, compared with the east and west-facing sides. In the summer, however, it is the east and west-facing sides that receive the highest intensity of solar radiation. In the spring and fall, the peak intensities of the three sides are comparable but they peak at different times.

Fig. 3: Daily energy use and production in four seasons.
If you take a more careful look at Figure 2, you will notice that, while the radiation intensity on the south-facing side always peaks at noon, those on the east and west-facing sides generally go through a seasonal shift. In the summer, the peak of radiation intensity occurs around 8 am on the east-facing side and around 4 pm on the west-facing side, respectively. In the winter, these peaks occur around 9 am and 2 pm, respectively. This difference is due to the shorter day in the winter and the lower position of the Sun in the sky.

Energy3D also provides a heliodon to visualize the solar path on any given day, which you can use to examine the angle of the sun and the length of the day. If you want to visually evaluate solar radiation on a site, it is best to combine the sensor and the heliodon.

You can also analyze the daily energy use and production. Figure 3 shows the results. Since this house has a lot of south-facing windows that have a Solar Heat Gain Coefficient of 80%, the solar energy is actually enough to keep the house warm (you may notice that your heater runs less frequently in the middle of a sunny winter day if you have a large south-facing window). But the downside is that it also requires a lot of energy to cool the house in the summer. Also note the interesting energy pattern for July 1st -- there are two smaller peaks of solar radiation in the morning and afternoon. Why? I will leave that answer to you.

Energy3D in Colombia

Camilo Vieira Mejia, a PhD student of Purdue University, recently brought our Energy3D software to a workshop, which is a part of Clubes de Ciencia -- an initiative where graduate students go to Colombia and share science and engineering concepts with high school students from small towns around Antioquia (a state of Colombia).

Students designed houses with Energy3D, printed them out, assemble them, and put them under the Sun to test their solar gains. They probably have also run the solar and thermal analyses for their virtual houses.

We are glad that our free software is reaching out to students in these rural areas and helping them to become interested in science and engineering. This is one of the many examples that a project funded by the National Science Foundation also turns out to benefit people in other countries and impact the world in many positive ways. In this sense, the National Science Foundation is not just a federal agency -- it is a global agency.

If you are also using Energy3D in your country, please consider contacting us and sharing your stories or thoughts.

Energy3D is intended to be global -- It currently includes weather data from 220 locations in all the continents. Please let us know you would like to include locations in your country in the software so that you can design energy solutions for your own area. As a matter of fact, this was exactly what Camilo asked me to do before he headed for Colombia. I would have had no clue which towns in Colombia should be added and where I could retrieve their weather data (which is often in a foreign language).

[With the kind permission of these participating students, we are able to release the photos in this blog post.]

Time series analysis tools in Visual Process Analytics: Cross correlation

Two time series and their cross-correlation functions
In a previous post, I showed you what autocorrelation function (ACF) is and how it can be used to detect temporal patterns in student data. The ACF is the correlation of a signal with itself. We are certainly interested in exploring the correlations among different signals.

The cross-correlation function (CCF) is a measure of similarity of two time series as a function of the lag of one relative to the other. The CCF can be imagined as a procedure of overlaying two series printed on transparency films and sliding them horizontally to find possible correlations. For this reason, it is also known as a "sliding dot product."

The upper graph in the figure to the right shows two time series from a student's engineering design process, representing about 45 minutes of her construction (white line) and analysis (green line) activities while trying to design an energy-efficient house with the goal to cut down the net energy consumption to zero. At first glance, you probably have no clue about what these lines represent and how they may be related.

But their CCFs reveal something that appears to be more outstanding. The lower graph shows two curves that peak at some points. I know you have a lot of questions at this point. Let me try to see if I can provide more explanations below.

Why are there two curves for depicting the correlation of two time series, say, A and B? This is because there is a difference between "A relative to B" and "B relative to A." Imagine that you print the series on two transparency films and slide one on top of the other. Which one is on the top matters. If you are looking for cause-effect relationships using the CCF, you can treat the antecedent time series as the cause and the subsequent time series as the effect.

What does a peak in the CCF mean, anyways? It guides you to where more interesting things may lie. In the figure of this post, the construction activities of this particular student were significantly followed by analysis activities about four times (two of them are within 10 minutes), but the analysis activities were significantly followed by construction activities only once (after 10 minutes).

Time series analysis tools in Visual Process Analytics: Autocorrelation

Autocorrelation reveals a three-minute periodicity
Digital learning tools such as computer games and CAD software emit a lot of temporal data about what students do when they are deeply engaged in the learning tools. Analyzing these data may shed light on whether students learned, what they learned, and how they learned. In many cases, however, these data look so messy that many people are skeptical about their meaning. As optimists, we believe that there are likely learning signals buried in these noisy data. We just need to use or invent some mathematical tricks to figure them out.

In Version 0.2 of our Visual Process Analytics (VPA), I added a few techniques that can be used to do time series analysis so that researchers can find ways to characterize a learning process from different perspectives. Before I show you these visual analysis tools, be aware that the purpose of these tools is to reveal the temporal trends of a given process so that we can better describe the behavior of the student at that time. Whether these traits are "good" or "bad" for learning likely depends on the context, which often necessitates the analysis of other co-variables.

Correlograms reveal similarity of two time series.
The first tool for time series analysis added to VPA is the autocorrelation function (ACF), a mathematical tool for finding repeating patterns obscured by noise in the data. The shape of the ACF graph, called the correlogram, is often more revealing than just looking at the shape of the raw time series graph. In the extreme case when the process is completely random (i.e., white noise), the ACF will be a Dirac delta function that peaks at zero time lag. In the extreme case when the process is completely sinusoidal, the ACF will be similar to a damped oscillatory cosine wave with a vanishing tail.

An interesting question relevant to learning science is whether the process is autoregressive (or under what conditions the process can be autoregressive). The quality of being autoregressive means that the current value of a variable is influenced by its previous values. This could be used to evaluate whether the student learned from the past experience -- in the case of engineering design, whether the student's design action was informed by previous actions. Learning becomes more predictable if the process is autoregressive (just to be careful, note that I am not saying that more predictable learning is necessarily better learning). Different autoregression models, denoted as AR(n) with n indicating the memory length, may be characterized by their ACFs. For example, the ACF of AR(2) decays more slowly than that of AR(1), as AR(2) depends on more previous points. (In practice, partial autocorrelation function, or PACF, is often used to detect the order of an AR model.)

The two figures in this post show that the ACF in action within VPA, revealing temporal periodicity and similarity in students' action data that are otherwise obscure. The upper graphs of the figures plot the original time series for comparison.