US (PA): Bucknell students build geodesic dome greenhouse

At the highest point on Bucknell's campus, students, faculty and staff are building a beacon to guide the way toward a more sustainable future.

The spot, which Bucknell's Center for Sustainability & the Environment (BCSE) has dubbed "Energy Hill," already contains a 900 watt wind turbine and a 9 kilowatt array of solar panels, a gift of the Class of 2014. Now, an interdisciplinary team of students, professors and university staff is at work on a new addition: a greenhouse built in line with the most stringent standards for sustainable construction.

The structure — a geodesic dome 26 feet in diameter and 13 feet high at center — is inspired by the Living Building Challenge, a certification metric for green construction that demands, among other requirements, that all water and energy consumed by the building be collected and generated on site, without the use of combustion. The drivers of the greenhouse project hope it will not only provide an example of what is possible in sustainable design and construction, but will also offer opportunities for students to interact with those technologies through research and design projects.

The geodesic dome greenhouse stands out against the red-brick, collegiate Georgian architecture that defines the Bucknell campus. Photo by Brett Simpson

Some of that work took place in spring 2016 — before the greenhouse was even erected — when Professor Nate Siegel, mechanical engineering, asked students in his Heat Transfer course to design a compost-based heating system, which harnesses the heat generated as microbes break down organic matter.

"I had them split into teams of two or three, and they came up with 20 different solutions," Siegel said. "There were really interesting elements in some of the projects, which combined could result in a really great system."

Next semester, Siegel plans to involve students in his Solar Energy Technologies course in creating power solutions for the greenhouse. They will join students designing a rainwater collection system under the guidance of Professor Mike Toole '83, civil & environmental engineering, and a group of senior design students advised by Professor Tom DiStefano, civil & environmental engineering. DiStefano's students are at work on an anaerobic digester, a device that uses food waste to produce methane fuel, for the site. Siegel also foresees research into low-cost energy storage solutions for the developing world — an initiative funded by alumnus Herb Wilcox '50 — taking place at the greenhouse.

Much of the greenhouse construction has been done by student and faculty volunteers, including Ben Conser ’18. Photo by Brett Simpson

The greenhouse began as a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort led by Bucknell's Renewable Energy Scholars, a project team of the BCSE's Sustainable Design Program. Renewable Energy Scholars Claire Rodgers '16, Dan Muccio '16 and Daniel Dudt '17 met weekly with faculty and Bucknell Facilities staff to select a greenhouse design, identify an appropriate site to build it and navigate the complicated construction permitting process. Construction of the greenhouse has been undertaken by faculty and student volunteers, including students in the Institute for Leadership in Sustainability Technology led by Professor Peter Jansson, electrical & computer engineering, and Professor Neil Boyd, management.

When complete, organizers foresee the greenhouse providing further opportunities for student and faculty research, following a path blazed by the green roof of the Dana Engineering Building and the garden at the BCSE.

Professor Peter Jansson and Daniel Dudt ’17 prepare a ventilation fan for installation in the greenhouse. Photo by Brett Simpson

"Our hope is that this becomes a focus for research of different kinds, and that we're able to accommodate those very different research interests together inside a very self-sustaining, green structure," said Dina El-Mogazi, director of the Sustainable Design Program.

El-Mogazi and others also hope the greenhouse will inspire curiosity and student interest in sustainability initiatives at Bucknell.

"One of the advantages of the unique geodesic dome architecture is that it will stand out against the red-brick campus as being noticeably different from the traditional buildings," said Dudt. "My hope is that this greenhouse becomes a symbol of the sustainable design work going on at Bucknell, and that it encourages new students to join the effort."

That impact is already being felt: El-Mogazi said more than 20 students have expressed interest in joining the Renewable Energy Scholars group this year.

Source: Bucknell University

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