Graduate student's research focuses on solar energy

Sunshine. For most, it’s what makes a beautiful day. But for Jeff Rayl, the sun is the key to our energy future. Rayl, a second-year graduate student in the John and Willie Leone Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State, is fueling his passion for solar energy with studies on solar resource analysis.

"The easiest way to describe my research is the study of the source of fuel for solar energy devices. People who look for coal are studying the fuel source for coal-fired power plants. I study the sun and the solar resource, which is the fuel for photovoltaics, solar thermal devices and building integrated systems. The amount of sunlight we get changes every day, with patterns emerging through the years. So it’s looking at the variability of the solar energy resource and how that impacts energy production,” he said.

Short-term variations of the time scale illuminate the change of the intensity of the solar radiation. Long-term variations allow Rayl to examine possible correlations between the solar radiation and any other variables, including temperature, humidity, and cloud coverage.

“The planet’s a very dynamic system. There are a lot of things that go into how much sunlight will actually reach the surface,” Rayl said. “We have a pretty good idea of how much sun we have outside of the atmosphere, so the main focus of solar resource analysis is what happens within the atmosphere.”

The 24-year-old earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Penn State, specializing in power systems and semi-conductors.

“I knew my whole life that I wanted to be an engineer. My grandpa’s an engineer, my uncle’s and engineer, so engineering was an obvious choice,” said Rayl, who plans to work in the photovoltaic industry and possibly start his own solar company.

As an undergraduate, Rayl was president of Engineers for Sustainable World. But his “great challenge” as an undergraduate was his work on the 2009 solar decathlon house, Natural Fusion -- Penn State’s entry in the Department of Energy-sponsored Solar Decathlon. Quickly after he became involved, Rayl became the electric and photovoltaic project manager, and was with the project almost all the way from conception to completion.

"That was one of the craziest experiences of my life to date, because it was real," Rayl said. “It was an opportunity to design and build a house, bring that house to Washington, D.C., and host an open house for two weeks with hundreds of thousands of people attending.”

Natural Fusion won third place in the engineering competition, with the help of Rayl’s personally designed solar awning and photovoltaic modules, with their own product number, SPI-L010-12. He worked with Bayer Materials Science, Solar Power Industries, and Construction Specialties to design and fabricate it.

The awning is an operable shading device, which tracks the sun throughout the day and utilizes louvers to place the awning accordingly.

“One of the features of the house was the incorporation of technology and nature, so if you have an awning to block the sun, why not generate energy from it, too,” Rayl said.

His passion for solar energy also extends beyond the classroom. He works with other organizations to promote solar energy on campus in the community.

Rayl is part of the team who recently started a student chapter of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) at Penn State. One of the chapter’s first initiatives is Solar On State, a project working with the Office of Physical Plant to install a photovoltaic systems on campus.

Consulting with the nonprofit organizations Solar Advisors and the Solar College Initiative, and local utility companies, the group is scouting possible locations and funding opportunities for the installation.

Rayl also develops learning applications for online courses offered through the online Bachelor of Arts degree Energy and Sustainability Policy, or ESP. “It’s a fun acronym,” said Rayl. He is currently working on a digital student lounge for ESP, where students can access information and communicate with other students.

Jeffrey Brownson, assistant professor of energy and mineral engineering, is Rayl’s advisor. He was the faculty director for Natural Fusion and serves as an adviser for ESP.

“I started doing some research while I was an undergrad with him on solar resource analysis, and I did a lot of computer programming and data analysis,” Rayl said. “So the computer programming background is why I’m working with ESP and the solar energy background is why I’m working with Dr. Brownson on my thesis.”

So next time there’s a beautiful day, enjoy the sun. But know that Jeff Rayl is probably enjoying it even more.

Last Updated November 07, 2011