Project brings together past
and future of energy generation © Aug. 3, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Electrical and computer engineering student Adam Kocienski tests a small gasoline engine he has modified to run on steam. His plan is to run the system from a boiler heated by focused sunlight, below.

photos by Jordan Silverman, staffElectrical and computer engineering student Adam Kocienski tests a small gasoline engine he has modified to run on steam. His plan is to run the system from a boiler heated by focused sunlight.

With a burst of steam and steady thrum of a small motor, Norwich University student Adam Kocienski was a step further in a project that melds the past and future of energy in a practical way.

Kocienski, an electrical and computer engineering major, was in Norwich’s fluids laboratory, where he had attached a modified motor from a string-type brush trimmer to the heating system. Clad in a welding mask, he made minute adjustments to the motor as it thumped along, dripping water and leaking steam. Today was the first day he had hooked the motor to the steam source and allowed it to run for half an hour.

“[I’m] trying to take a household gasoline engine and run it off of steam,” said Kocienski, a rising junior from Schaghticoke, N.Y.

Kocienski, who was awarded a grant to research his project during the summer, had come up with the idea of running a steam engine with solar energy, and to study how efficient he could make the system. Things became more complicated, however, when he realized there weren’t many working steam engines in existence, especially one small enough to meet his needs. A self-described tinkerer, Kocienski began adapting football-sized motors scavenged from old trimmers to run on steam.

“You can go to a junkyard and get these really cheap,” he said.

There were challenges. The two-cycle engines he was using were made to run on a mixture of gasoline and oil, leaving him no easy way to introduce lubrication into the system. After having some success running oil-free engines on compressed air, he’s beginning to experiment with more sophisticated four-cycle engines. These circulate oil from a reservoir.

Kocienski also had trouble finding modern texts that contained the mathematical models and information he needed on steam engines, forcing him to research back to the age of locomotives and spend time converting old units of measurement to modern terminology.

“The books I’m running my stuff off of were over 100 years old,” he said.

Sun power

As he refined and tested his motors, Kocienski also developed the solar elements of the project. Using a large lens as a magnifying glass, his plan is to focus sunlight on a small boiling chamber to create steam. The boiler could be adapted to a wood stove or other heat source, he said, but sunlight is clean, free, readily available and powerful.

Photo of a lens used to focus sunlight.

Kocienski sets fire to a piece of wood to demonstrate the power of a simple focusing lens.

To demonstrate, Kocienski took the lens outside and, with help, focused sunlight on a piece of wood. In a second or two, flames appeared and the wood was instantly charred black.

“It’s quite impressive how much power comes from the sun that is just wasted,” he said.

Prof. Michael Prairie, the project advisor, said he thought Kocienski took on a really interesting task, and one that will really show him the benefits of a controlled, methodical approach to research.

“There’s some really hands-on thermodynamics issues that he has to work on,” said Prairie.

Kocienski would probably be happy just tinkering with engines in the shop, Prairie said. It was his job to make sure the student was keeping records, making careful mathematical calculations and paying attention to all relevant variables.

“He’s seeing how the engineering process works,” said Prairie, adding that Kocienski came to appreciate the benefits of a scientific approach to research during the 10 weeks allotted to work on the project.

Kocienski expects to continue working on solar-powered steam engines through the rest of his college career, with the vague idea that it may result in a consumer product. His hope is that a steam engine would provide a useful addition to solar photovoltaic generation, as other sources of heat can be used to create energy when sunlight is not available.

There are many issues to work on, however. A big problem is making the system something that would be comparable with photovoltaics, which generate electricity directly from solar radiation, in terms of cost, efficiency and ease of use.

“Even if you have the same efficiency, there’s the noise factor,” he said.

Kocienski said he has always enjoyed building and creating new things, which was the reason he decided to pursue engineering at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college.

“It’s really a degree in problem solving,” he said.