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Waste heat from UBC physics lab could warm campus houses

A particle accelerator facility at UBC could get the go-ahead to harness its waste heat to warm nearby homes early…

By Matt Meuse , in Environment , on October 19, 2012 Tags: , , , ,

The cooling tower at TRIUMF currently exhausts heat to the atmosphere as steam.

A particle accelerator facility at UBC could get the go-ahead to harness its waste heat to warm nearby homes early next year — a project that would be the first of its kind in the world.

TRIUMF — a 12-acre nuclear physics lab that accounts for about a quarter of UBC’s total electricity consumption — currently exhausts its waste heat to the atmosphere, but a preliminary engineering study found that the facility could potentially capture enough thermal energy to heat 10 million square feet of housing.

“It would be some real leadership by UBC … to reuse the energy from the research functions of the university,” said Tim Meyer, head of strategic planning and communications at TRIUMF. “If we do this, it’ll really start to change how people think about doing research.”

The system’s designers hope the project will convince industrial and scientific communities worldwide of the viability of waste-energy-recovery systems and other “green” technologies.

“If you don’t have somebody that takes a little bit of risk at the beginning, like UBC and TRIUMF, then nobody else will start,” said TRIUMF engineer Franco Mammarella. “We feel that by being the leader, we may prove increasingly that this is not just good for the environment, it’s also good business.”

Convincing the Board

TRIUMF engineer Franco Mammarella hopes to change the way people think about district energy.

The idea is sound and the technology exists, but that doesn’t make it a slam-dunk — it still needs to be approved by the UBC Board of Governors, a decision that will likely happen early next year.

The proposal cost is likely to be in the same range as UBC’s current $85-million project to convert its current heating system — steam piped throughout the campus — to hot-water technology, according to Orion Henderson, UBC’s director of operational sustainability.

It would take about 25 years for the cost savings to translate into lower utility bills, Henderson said. Future customers would be billed at rates similar to what they currently pay until the capital investment in the system is paid off. The flip side, however, is that these utility bills would be relatively insulated from market fluctuations in standard heating and electricity costs.

“The cost of the waste heat is not going to increase, because it’s free,” Henderson said. “There would be less impact of energy costs on your energy bill.”

A leap forward

Despite the hefty up-front cost, those behind the project are optimistic about getting the green light, because the system makes common sense. Only about 10 per cent of the electrical energy consumed by TRIUMF goes into doing useful work — making medical isotopes, treating cancer, researching the nature of subatomic particles — and the rest is lost as heat.

The waste heat is handled by TRIUMF’s cooling system. Cold water conducts heat away from the equipment, exhausts that heat out of a cooling tower as steam, and is returned to the system as cold water. The plan is to replace the cooling tower with a series of heat pumps and heat exchangers that concentrate that thermal energy and transport it to nearby homes via hot water.

A cross-section of a TRIUMF beam line shows the electromagnets that focus the particle stream, and the water hoses used for cooling.

This type of system, called a district energy system, is meant to provide small areas with locally produced energy. There have been several successful examples in the Lower Mainland in recent years. North Vancouver and the Olympic Village/False Creek area both have systems that capture waste heat from residential water use — showering, dishwashing, laundry — and reuse that thermal energy to heat buildings.

The TRIUMF project is novel because it involves capturing industrial waste heat, something far less commonplace. The project’s backers hope to spur interest in capturing waste heat from a variety of sources.

“There’s lots of places around here that just exhaust heat — the ice rink, the swimming pool, all these places,” said Brent Sauder, UBC’s director of strategic initiatives. “If we can capture that heat that’s being currently just exhausted off into the atmosphere trying to heat Point Grey, and actually capture that, use that to put energy back into the district energy system, that’s going to be a good deal.”

The project fits within a mandate UBC has taken on in recent years of treating its campus as a “living lab” for testing new, unproven technology.

“We’ve realized that UBC can actually use its own physical characteristics as a small municipality to be an early adopter of technology,” Sauder said. “This is the kind of stuff we’re doing — the kind of stuff that nobody’s ever done before.”