Students Publish Energy Research in First Issue of Duke’s Visible Thinking Journal

March 13, 2019

Senior Emilia Chojkiewicz reflects on her experience researching energy retrofit solutions for a dormitory on Duke’s East Campus

By Emilia Chojkiewicz ’19 (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science)

Emilia ChojkiewiczI first learned about Bass Connections the spring before my freshman year, at Blue Devil Days. I met Professor Emily Klein, the co-leader of the Energy and the Environment: Design and Innovation project team, and I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it during my time at Duke. It fit my interests in energy and the environment perfectly, so I decided to apply as early as I could and joined the team as a sophomore.

Our team was brought together through a shared disdain for waste. Initially, we toyed with various ideas, such as retrieving energy from footsteps on the ground or waste-to-energy trashcans. However, we also wanted to have a local, real-world impact on campus.

Eventually, we decided to explore the idea of waste energy from campus buildings, a project that made sense to us because Duke has many older, aging structures. We obtained electricity and heat consumption data on Duke dormitories, to make observations and analyze seasonal trends. We wanted to compare an older dorm on East Campus – 60-year-old Gilbert-Addoms – with a new dorm on West Campus – 10-year-old Keohane, which notably has a LEED certification. We wanted to know: Where are the largest sources of heat loss or gain in the building during each season? And how can we reduce or offset this energy loss in a sustainable, cost-effective way?

Our team was very interdisciplinary. As a mechanical engineer, I often approach challenges through a technical, problem-solving perspective. But we also had students majoring in environmental engineering, chemistry, and physics, so I had an opportunity to interact with and learn from people of different backgrounds that I normally would not get to talk with in my major classes.

As a sophomore, I found working with a predominantly senior group in such an interdisciplinary setting to be a great opportunity. This was my first experience with “research,” and having upper-class mentors whom I could learn from helped me overcome my preconceived notions of what research was all about. Indeed, our project actually involved many different types of research. First, we utilized and analyzed historical data. Then, we used pre-defined thermodynamic principles to theoretically model a physical scenario. Lastly, we searched for retrofit solutions that made both economic and environmental sense. Altogether, our project was driven by design and innovation rather than microscopes or ground-breaking discoveries, which is what I had initially imagined research to be.

Though I was only a second-year student at the time, I was the only mechanical engineer on the team, so I had the chance to utilize my unique skills – especially in modeling. As part of our project, we wanted to construct a small-scale model of Gilbert-Addoms, and I was able to lead the modeling effort in Solidworks and later 3D print the building in Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab.

Gilbert-Addoms model.
Model of Gilbert-Addoms

Our project did face a few hurdles, however. To make Gilbert-Addoms more efficient, we proposed retrofits on two fronts: fenestration, by applying a thin film to the windows and a sealant to gaps in the frames; and solar photovoltaic panels, to generate sustainable electricity for the building and offset consumption from the grid.

However, the results of the proposed retrofits were both a challenge and surprise to us. With a cost of return of 20+ years on the solar panels, the solution was far from economical. The fenestration retrofits, on the other hand, would actually reach return on investment within a couple years, according to our calculations. We therefore learned that though solar solutions are exciting and have lots of potential, and the technology has rapidly developed and improved over the past decade, the fact of the matter is that it does not make sense to apply solar panels to a building that is very inefficient due to its age and materials. Therefore, I believe there is vast potential for improvement with building insulation and energy efficiency, which may yield massive energy and financial savings.

Emilia at the 2017 State Energy Conference of North Carolina.
Chojkiewicz at the 2017 State Energy Conference of North Carolina in Raleigh

One of the most rewarding parts of my Bass Connections experience was giving a poster presentation at the 2017 State Energy Conference of North Carolina in Raleigh. Although I was the only one from my team who could attend, I agreed to do it because I thought it would be a great experience to showcase what we had been working on all year. I met many people from all over the state, in both the public and private sectors, who were interested in our dorm efficiency research. For sophomore me, this was a big step in my research presentation and networking skills, one that I would build upon during subsequent research at Duke during my junior and senior years.

Reflecting on my experience now, two years later and as a senior at Duke, has been a really fantastic opportunity. The editors of the new Visible Thinking journal approached our team at the end of August expressing interest in publishing our work. Though most of us in our group had gone our separate ways – with the seniors having graduated and off working or in graduate school – and me about to start my senior year, the journal granted us the opportunity to come back together.

This experience allowed me to reflect back on my Bass Connections work from a different perspective – as one of many experiences I have had over my years at Duke, and I began to see how my Bass Connections research fit into my sustainability-oriented educational pathway.

When working on the group reflection for the journal and coordinating the publishing process, it was like nothing had changed in terms of our dedication to the project and to each other as a team. Though we hadn’t worked together for a year and a half, we were all in regular communication, eager to help and volunteer when needed, and I know this is an experience that I will continue to draw from and value as I move forward.

Visible Thinking

Visible Thinking is a new multimedia publication that showcases faculty-mentored research by Duke undergraduates across a range of disciplines and contexts. With the release of its inaugural issue on March 4, which includes Chojkiewicz’s team’s report, the journal seeks to become an ecosystem of signature undergraduate research that includes scholarly articles, research posters, visual, embodied and aural expressions from the arts, commentary on critical issues and more.

Visible Thinking is an initiative of the Office of Academic Affairs in Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and is supported by the Office of the Provost, Bass Connections and the Pratt School of Engineering.

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Photos courtesy of Emilia Chojkiewicz