Students become experts in energy efficiency

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a new five-year grant totaling $1.1 million to the School of Engineering for continuation of its Industrial Assessment Center (IAC). For nearly two decades, the Center has provided students with training to improve the energy efficiency of manufacturing plants -- and skills that give the students a solid footing in the job market. SF State is one of only 24 universities in the nation to receive an award in this round of funding.

A photo of five students and Professor Ganji

An SF State IAC team at the site of one of their energy audits. From left: Nima Sepehr, Steven Wiry, Professor Ahmad Ganji, Curtis Lee, Alex Trueblood and Daniel Lake.

Each semester six to eight students selected for the program plan and conduct energy audits for manufacturing plants, ranging from northern California food processors to Hawaiian dairies and candy factories. Under the direction of Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ahmad Ganji and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ed Cheng, students conduct one- or two-day assessments of the plants, then prepare and present a detailed evaluation containing their observations, calculations for energy conservation and recommendations for savings. Clients get a free assessment and students receive extensive, hands-on experience in industrial processes, energy assessment procedures and energy management principles.

"It’s first-rate training," Ganji said. "With so much emphasis on lowering carbon footprints, conserving energy and cutting costs, there is a great demand for the kinds of skills and knowledge that the students absorb in the program." He added that students who have participated in the IAC program have had no trouble securing good engineering jobs after graduation, even in a sluggish economy.

The director of engineering at a flooring plant in San Jose said that SF State students did a great job both times they inspected his plant in 2001 and 2010. "They made recommendations on several small changes that could make a big difference," he said. “One suggestion was to insulate a remote 8,500-gallon heated oil tank used to supply process oil … the students estimated that it could save us about $24,000 in energy costs per year."

The director of environmental management with a vegetable seasonings and processing company said a spring 2011 audit bolstered her company’s commitment to its sustainability development program. "Professor Ganji and his student leader, Alexander Trueblood, presented a host of recommendations that reflected a breadth of understanding of our industry," she said. "We were so impressed that we are arranging audits at two more of our plants."

Trueblood, a senior in mechanical engineering, said that he finds the program personally satisfying. “We’re helping their bottom line,” he said. Trueblood also likes the fact that the program gave him many opportunities to observe sophisticated manufacturing equipment. In a plastics factory, his team analyzed the mechanics of an extruder that formed and cooled molten plastic. "We saw it produce a giant cylinder of thin plastic as tall as a three-story building." 

The U.S. Department of Energy initiated the IAC program in 1976 to produce the energy efficiency experts of tomorrow.  SF State’s program has earned continuous funding averaging $200,000 per year since Ganji began the program in 1992. The IAC has enhanced the education and careers for approximately 100 SF State engineering students to date.

-- Denize Springer