Tivo-ing Heat and Cold Engineering professor Kent Udell works with the elements to seek energy innovations.

Under the lawn behind the University of Utah’s Sterling Sill Center, mechanical engineering professor Kent Udell MS’78 PhD’80 has buried a 35-foot-wide by 40-foot-deep “ice ball” about 10 feet below the surface. On a spring afternoon, he stops to sit on a patch of grass marked by a web of shallow trenches as he checks the tubing covered by green valve boxes that provide the only evidence above ground of his experiment in testing how heat and cold can be stored for later use.

Like much of Udell’s current research, the ice-ball experiment focuses on various aspects of what he calls “Tivo-ing” energy. His initial idea for the ice ball was for it to be a collector that would absorb some of the many days of deep cold that northern Utah gets in the winter for later use as building air conditioning in the summer. But with the “aha!” addition to the experiment’s equipment of a simple compressor from a standard air-conditioning unit, he says, the project developed the potential to be used for both cooling and heating. “It opened up the possibility that even in the worst climate, you could still save a lot of money and a lot of carbon dioxide being produced.”

Udell’s deep belief in the importance of environmental sustainability permeates his research and his life. With decades of groundbreaking work in environmental mitigation under his belt, he now directs the U’s Sustainability Research Center, conducting research and fostering the work of others on campus to help modern civilization become more green.

In casual interactions, Udell exudes a mellow grooviness. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khakis, and Merrells, he refers to his wife, Cherise (a onetime ecotourism guide in Ecuador who later went on to graduate school at Yale), as “my Amazon jungle lady.” His office shelves are dotted with small brass Buddhist figures. (“I enjoy contemplating Buddha. Concerns disappear. If there was a mudstorm, everybody would be muddy but Buddha. It would just run off.”) Ethics for the New Millennium by His Holiness the Dalai Lama sits on a shelf right alongside Fundamentals of Heat and Mass Transfer.

When Udell starts talking about the latter, it’s evident that he’s really smart as well as groovy. He spent more than 25 years as a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and is now professor emeritus there, having been lured back to the University of Utah in 2005.

Udell’s path to the U began in the quiet little town of Lehi, Utah. But when he was 4, his father, “a bit of an adventurer” who worked in a midlevel job with the U.S. State Department, took a position in Afghanistan and relocated the household to Kabul. The youngest of seven, Kent and his three next-youngest siblings (the others were already out of the house and married) attended an international school there for the next few years, meeting other young students from around the world and learning a smattering of French and Farsi and Arabic. Udell points to the experience as one that opened his eyes to the world’s possibilities.

Transplanted back in Utah, Udell says he was always “into building stuff, making things, taking stuff apart and putting it back together.” He recalls taking a skills test in about ninth grade that concluded that he “seemed to have an aptitude for a Ph.D. in engineering mathematics. I had no idea what that meant. But when the time came, I looked for a major that was something related to my background in hands-on, mechanical construction, and mechanical engineering just seemed like it fit me.” He headed to Utah State University for a bachelor’s in the field, then to the U for master’s and doctoral degrees in the same. Udell’s doctoral thesis at the U was on oil shale, which continues to resurface as a hot new thing in energy about every 10 years. Yet Udell’s conclusion then, more than 30 years ago, remains the major concern of today, with no workaround yet found: It creates a huge amount of waste product, at great environmental cost. “It’s probably the most carbon-intensive form of energy possible,” he notes.

Kent Udell, left, a University of Utah mechanical engineering professor, talks with graduate student Michael Beeman BS’10 MS’10, who has been helping with work on Udell’s ice-ball experiment at the Sill Center.

As he was completing his doctorate, Udell in 1979 took his first position at Berkeley, where he taught petroleum engineering for about five years. After achieving tenure, he decided he wanted to branch out and began exploring more in environmental engineering. At the time, California was just beginning to tackle cleaning up its Superfund sites, where hazardous liquids such as dry-cleaning solvents had been dumped into the subsurface. Udell says he and his colleagues “applied stuff from petroleum engineering to removing those contaminants and developed technologies that are still the gold standard today in terms of their effectiveness.” With the new technologies, Udell says, they found they could “take something super-polluted to drinking water standards in less than a year.”

In 2004, Udell was approached by University of Utah College of Engineering Dean Richard Brown, who was looking to bring in a new chair for the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Brown had asked for the names of some potential candidates from K.L. “Larry” DeVries BS’59 PhD’62, now a Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering at the U, who has taught here for more than 50 years. Brown was looking for promising candidates with a U connection who were at “name universities,” DeVries recalls, and Udell’s was one of two names that DeVries put forward. “I remembered [Udell] from when he was here, of course,” DeVries says. “And I had talked to him a time or two when I was down to California for NSF [the National Science Foundation], evaluating programs for potential grants. He had talked about his work down there in cleaning up oil spills and things of that sort, and those are things, of course, of considerable interest nationally and to Utah.”

In considering Brown’s invitation, Udell realized that though he’d loved his time at Berkeley, he wasn’t sure it was where he necessarily wanted to spend the rest of his career, and he found the prospects at the U—and back in Utah in general—intriguing. He had also recently started a new family, and having already raised a daughter in Berkeley, he knew it was expensive and difficult to find good, safe neighborhoods and schools. Between extended family and recreation, Udell had regularly returned to Utah during his time in California, and after visiting the U with an eye for a new home base and new professional challenges, he returned as professor and chair of mechanical engineering.

Udell notes that his focus had long been shifting toward examining the ramifications of human-caused global climate change. “As an engineer and as someone who teaches ethical engineering, I realized I had abilities that I could bring to that problem, and that my best use in serving people and serving society would be to look for ways that I could make a contribution to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. So, it was something I’d been wanting to do for a long time, and coming to Utah gave me the opportunity.”

While Udell was resettling at the U and refocusing his efforts toward sustainability-related research here, the U’s Craig Forster was helping work on two related proposals, one for what eventually became the Office of Sustainability and another for a “Sustainability Research Center.” After Forster’s death in late 2008, Dean Brown and then Senior Vice President David W. Pershing approached Udell about taking a look at Forster’s nearly complete proposal for the research center.

Kent Udell, who directs the University of Utah’s Sustainability Research Center, talks to some of his engineering students about his ice-ball experiment in storing heat and cold.

Udell eagerly took up the cause, and the center became a reality in 2010. Based in a small corner office adjoining his on the second floor of the College of Engineering’s Kennecott Building, the center is a bit of a living demonstration lab in sustainability, with cork flooring, a conference table made from recycled milk cartons, and an abundance of plants to optimize the air quality in the room. But the center’s primary purpose is to attract and disperse sustainability-related research funding.

“As engineers, we always need to be thinking about the larger implications of what we do,” says Udell. “We always should be thinking about the ‘if’ and ‘why.’ I’m lucky that being an academic I have the opportunity to be able to shift my focus, to say, ‘This is what I believe, and these are the kinds of technologies that need to be developed,’ and then with a little bit of an understanding about how to get technologies out there and into the marketplace, to be able to make a contribution. So, given that I can and I should, it’s obvious that I will.”

That technological exploration is the significant difference between the Sustainability Research Center and the Office of Sustainability. “What we’re worried about is the creation of new knowledge and funding research and understanding all of the interactions between the various forces that determine whether we’re moving in a sustainable direction,” explains Udell. “What they deal with is looking at the sustainable attributes of the U itself.”

Udell emphasizes that he is looking to create marketable, real-world solutions, so he is at least as much concerned with the economics as the gee-whiz of inventing. With his ice ball experiment, for example, he notes: “Everywhere we look, every thing that we’re examining, the cost becomes a big issue. How can we make this cheaper? How can we produce it with fewer materials? How can we install it using less energy, as well as less destructive technology? We’re always looking at ways to make it as efficient as possible, because ultimately, it’s the economics that will determine whether this thing will really run.”

Through his connections with a dean at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Udell is also working on a giant ice ball project there to provide inexpensive air conditioning for some commercial buildings. “And yes, really, they have air conditioning needs in Fairbanks, Alaska,” he notes. With long days of sunshine during parts of the year, plus high energy prices, air conditioning can be very expensive. Udell helped come up with an experiment that will essentially freeze a good portion of a lake. “If the data can show some good economics from that, great—then that idea can migrate down to the south,” Udell says. “Same thing with the heating technology: If we can show that it’s a great idea in Southern Utah and down in Arizona, then the idea will migrate north.”

This concept of energy storage has so far been neglected in most work on renewable energy, Udell says, including solar energy. “You’ve got to figure out some way of storing energy so you can get past those cloudy, dark winter days.” Energy storage is a key to being able to make the transition to renewable energy, and thermal energy storage is just as important as electrical energy storage, he says. “There’s been a lot of money put into electric batteries, but not as much put into the idea of storing energy as heat.”

Udell’s most recent project is examining how to build thermal batteries for an electric car. An electric car can use 40 percent of the energy from its electrical battery just to heat or cool the car, he says. “So, in Minnesota on a cold day, if you think you’re going to get 100 miles out of your car and you’re using your heater, in 60 miles, you’re dead. In Arizona, if you think you’re going to get that 100 miles out of your car and you’ve got your AC on, 60 miles and you’re dead.” Udell and his team want to develop batteries that would be used for thermal storage, so that the air conditioning and heating systems would run independently from the battery driving the car down the road. The researchers won a grant for the project from a Department of Energy program focused on “transformational energy ideas,” and Udell is collaborating with colleagues from metallurgical engineering who have been working with various metal hydrides that store hydrogen at high and low temperatures, trying to create separate batteries to provide heating and air-conditioning. Further, the technology is not limited to cars and could be put into a building, Udell says. “You could have a big concentrated solar collector, with one system that you’re recharging one day while you’re operating the other, and the next day switch. So you could get all the heating and air conditioning for a building from solar.”

Next year, Udell is taking a year’s sabbatical from the U to go back to Berkeley, do some writing, spend time with his grown daughter there, attend lectures and seminars by longtime colleagues, and work with some of those colleagues to explore additional projects. His enthusiasm and curiosity are boundless as he plunges into still more possibilities: “Another area I’m really interested in pursuing is compressed air energy storage, and the injection of fluids for energy storage—using geologic material for storage. I think compressed air is a really interesting technology and will be really valuable for Utah.”

— Marcia Dibble is associate editor of Continuum.


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3 thoughts on “Tivo-ing Heat and Cold

  • Great article! It effectively mixes a good bio of Dr. Udell and describes some tantalizing research in a very important area: sustainability. I am very glad the University of Utah is supporting this.

  • This is a great article on energy innovations. I’m interested on his research into compressed air. I’ve heard of this idea being used in India for compressed air to run cars. It seems this would be a better green technology than electric cars since they rely on a large array of batteries, and the rare earth mineral lithium. Besides, a compressed air tank can be recharged in minutes, compared to hours for recharging a battery.

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